August 26, 2014

A race for the toughest boaters

THE LONGEST AND TOUGHEST small-boat race in North America is being organized by the Northwest Maritime Center, a non-profit with a mission to engage people in adventure and discovery. The 750-mile race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska, is open to boats of any size as long as they have no engine. Entrants may row, paddle, sail, or all three.  First prize is $10,000.

Simplicity is the hallmark of the race, which starts on June 4, 2015. There are almost no rules and only three marks of the course, starting with a 40-mile sprint from Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia, which serves as a qualifier for the full race. From Victoria, competitors will follow the Inside Passage to Alaska with only two obligatory waypoints at Seymour Narrows, B.C.  and Bella Bella, B.C.

Entrants will be expected to be fully self-sufficient along the whole course, much of which is wilderness territory beset with strong currents, cold water, fog, rain, and stormy weather.

“Most people won’t have done a race that is this epic,” say the organizers. They advise prospective entrants to consider their physical fitness, tolerance for hardship, and their ability to operate and repair their boats safely with no support and a variety of adverse conditions — including the possibility of confronting wild bears along the way.

It’s estimated that the winner will cross the line in Ketchikan about three weeks after the start.  At that time, an official “sweep boat” will start off from Port Townsend. She will cover about 75 miles a day northward, and any entrant overtaken by the sweep boat will be marked as a non-finisher. Overtaken entrants will be offered any assistance they need, including a tow to the nearest spot of civilization.

Officials at the NW Maritime Center say they have no idea what kind of boat will do best. “There is an ongoing debate on whether the optimal boat will favor sail, oars, or paddles,” they say. “From the conversations we’ve had, usually sailors are scared of the rowers, rowers are scared of the sailors, and kayakers don’t seem to be scared of anything.”

Navigation, especially at night, will call for the utmost skill and experience, but the choice of boat is paramount. The debate is fascinating. The fastest boat will likely be small enough to be both sailed, and rowed or paddled. But it should also be big enough to carry a crew that can be split into watches, one watch on duty while the other rests. It should be small enough to take advantage of counter-currents really close to the shore, but big enough to provide shelter and cooking facilities for the watch below. It should be heavy enough to carry water and provisions for three weeks, but light enough to plane, if it’s a sailboat.

A First-Nations war canoe that can travel non-stop at 3 to 4 knots would be a strong contender, but much depends on the direction of the winds, which tend to blow from the northwest in summer — right on the nose. If a series of depressions spins down from the Gulf of Alaska, however, and cold, strong, rainy southeasters prevail, a planing sailboat could walk off with the prize.

No boat that I can think of would be perfect for this race, though a 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy with some kind of sleeping and cooking accommodation comes to mind. I don’t think I’d want to try it on a stand-up paddle board, although I have to admit there was one attempting to circumnavigate Vancouver Island last time I was up there. A multi-hull might stand a chance, depending on how many calms she encounters, and bigger sailboats might do well by going out into the Pacific Ocean after clocking in at Bella Bella.

No doubt we shall have a better idea of the perfect boat after the first competitors cross the line. All I can say at the moment is that this is going to be one helluva race, and I wish everybody the best of luck with Seymour Narrows and Johnstone Strait.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for Small Craft Advisor magazine about a Bellingham couple who sailed a 15-foot racing dinghy to Alaska on this very same course on their honeymoon. I’ll repeat it here in my next column because it contains some good hints and tips for anyone entering this race, though I should warn you that it’s long, 2,000 words or so. (But utterly fascinating, naturally.)

Incidentally, $10,000 sounds like a prize large enough to encourage cheating. Perhaps a more appropriate prize would be a perpetual trophy in the form of a small silver chamber pot or something similar.

Meanwhile, you might want to check out details of the race to Alaska. (Don’t neglect the FAQs.)

Today’s Thought
Design has taken the place of what sailing used to be.
— Dennis Conner, Time, 9 Feb 87

“Hey I just realized why I keep winning at poker and losing on the horses.”
“So why is it?”
“They won’t let me shuffle the horses.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Jack said...

Thanks for the link to the race. I can't see me entering it, but I will for sure will follow it from cyber-land.
Having lived at one time near the narrows, I will be especially interested in the "tactics" of getting through there!
Cheers Jack

57 degrees North said...

Sounds interesting. I hope the entrants will actually take the time to look around once in a while.

In my experience, it's generally either dead calm or blowing 25 gusting to 35, so a boat that handles well under oars would be as critical (and likely more so) than a fast boat under sail.

Speaking only for myself, Iain Oughtred's Arctic Tern seems like the ideal craft. Though to be frank, I have a feeling that a tandem sea kayak crewed with fit and motivated paddlers is going to take home the money...