By Thomas Nielsen
ASC Microplastics Adventurer
By mid afternoon, light southerlies were filling in. The sea surface became rippled and our sail was starting to pull. Free speed.
Up from behind, the bigger boats were pouring on the canvas, and soon they grew from pinpricks on the horizon to distinguishable teams gaining on us. After three days, the Race to Alaska fleet was now at the southern end of the Gulf Islands, between Victoria Island and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Here the fleet split up, some headed for the Strait of Georgia, others the channels between Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. This decision would spell an end to some teams. Scott and I turned toward the Strait of Georgia, the southerly winds lifting our 20-square-meter yellow sail.
We’d built our boat out of construction grade 2.7 mm door skin, recycled bike parts, a cool pedal power specific propeller system from the mind of an Australian engineer, with a tarp for a sail. We’d planned for 24/7 progress, with both Scott and I awake at night to spot ships and ocean debris, sleeping in short shifts during the day. We tested it, it worked, and we were going to race around the clock. The only problem was, the wind wasn’t cooperating.
The six hours of southerlies out of Victoria were our last, and as the sun rose the next morning, the winds swung to the north and started cranking. By noon, the swells were over six feet, with winds gusting to 40 knots. Stuff started to break.
Brainchild of Jake Beattie, executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center Executive Director, the inaugural 750-mile R2AK had only one rule: no motors. Pretty much anything else was fair game, as long as the maritime center didn't have to consult its lawyers. (If so, it meant instant disqualification.) With only wind or human power propulsion allowed, no race classes or handicaps, and a bare-bones application process, the race fleet was an eclectic menagerie of wood, carbon fiber and roto-molded polyethylene of varying size and shape.
The goal: Be the first from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. The prize: $10k nailed to a tree, a set of steak knives for second place, and bragging rights to the rest.
Watch Team Sea Runners in action:
Every crew had a SPOT tracker uploading its position, and we watched as teams went from yellow—actively racing—to gray—retired. Meanwhile, we were desperately looking for a place to beach. We were getting beat up. What we didn’t realize was that we didn’t have it that bad. For others, the headwinds had caused dismastings, sail shreddings, rigging failures and other pandemonium. One vessel had sunk. Amazingly one boat avoided it all—a F-25C crewed by a team of three. By day five, Team Elsie Piddock had rocketed far into the lead.
We, on the other hand, were pinned down in Nanaimo fixing and then re-breaking parts as we waited out the winds. After a little rest, we took our second water sample for the ASC Microplastics Project.
Just north of Nanaimo is a beach renowned for its winds. The beach, the town and the winds are all known as Qualicum. We needed to get past this point if we wanted to get back in the race. But after almost five days, we were still stuck in the lee of Protection Island at the entrance to Nanaimo Harbour. Elsie Piddock was less than a day from Ketchikan.
After finally escaping Nanaimo and now sailing with Teams Boatyard Boys and Puffin, we began making progress. Soon we were catching up with others. Then we started passing retired teams headed south, but we had a new problem—time. We had negotiated 14 days leave plus an extra week with to complete the race. We’d already been out 17 days, had covered 375 miles and had 400 left to go.
Totally exhausted and grumpy to boot, we took a lay day in Tribune Bay on Hornby Island. A friend delivered a pie to cheer us up. Team Searunners and Team Puffin went into cruise racing mode. Ketchikan was a long ways north. The leaders had finished. In Campbell River, we met up with Team Coastal Express. They had come to a similar conclusion after a day of hard sailing just north of Seymour Narrows with no northerly progress.
The next morning looked good for heading north. Up, fueled with coffee and a healthy trepidation of what the Narrows would throw at us, we headed out into a rushing flood current then into a blind turn that puts you in what can only be described as an awesome mind boggling maelstrom of current.
Captain George Vancouver called it “one of the vilest stretches of water in the world.” Until 1958, big commercial vessel traffic had no choice other than go through Seymour Narrows and past Ripple Rock, and 119 vessels had sunk trying to transit here. Today Ripple Rock is no more, having been annihilated with 1,375 tons of explosives. Today the current runs like a tongue of fire right up the middle of the narrows. Hit it right, stick to the middle, avoid the whirlpools and you’re on your way. Hit it wrong and it will suck you under or bounce you off the cliffs.
Just north of here is a large bay where you can wait out weather or a foul tide. Now closing on late afternoon, we eddied out, had a celebratory drink, a meal and a nap. Here we gathered our third water sample.
Reality now caught up with us. We were out of time. The next harbor, Telegraph Cove, had a road. We could stash the boat and head south back to Seattle. Scott had a plane to catch in 36 hours. We pushed on into the evening.
As the light dimmed under a drizzly sky, a pod of seven orcas swam past, headed north. Within minutes, the water ahead of us exploded when the orcas came upon their prey: a pod of 100 Pacific white-sided dolphins. Orcas lunged clear out of the water, hung in midair and then crashed back down as they attacked. Then, as quick as it had started, it was over.
We sat for a while discussing what we had just witnessed, and then pedaled on in the dying wind to the narrow entrance of Telegraph Cove. For Team Searunners, the 2015 R2AK was over.
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