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An interview with Jake Beattie about the 2016 Race to Alaska

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 14 Apr 2016
Jake Beattie, the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center and the Race to Alaska Race to Alaska
Jake Beattie, the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, Washington, and a few friends were sitting around at the 2014 Wooden Boat Festival, enjoying a few brews, when a bold idea of a human-powered race to Ketchikan, Alaska, took flight. Beattie and company decided that their race would start in Port Townsend, with a 40-nautical mile shakedown leg to Victoria, British Columbia, before the massive 710-mile leg from Victoria to Ketchikan, by way of the inside passage between Vancouver Island and British Columbia.

Racers would be free to race any vessel they like, so long as it does not carry an engine (even for charging batteries), and they would be free to sail, row or paddle. Also, they would be free to stop as much or as little as they chose, and they would be welcome re-provision, so long as the resources they used were available to all racers (read: no private support vehicles).

While Beattie and company initially thought that their race would have limited appeal, the idea spread like wildfire across the Pacific Northwest and the entire U.S. sailing and adventuring communities. Interest proved strong and the Race to Alaska (R2AK) was born, with Beattie’s steady hand on the race’s metaphoric helm.

2015 was the R2AK’s first year and while 35 teams started, less than half arrived in Ketchikan. Some boats capsized or swamped, while others lost their rigs or their will to continue north, but all racers had one thing in common: A love for adventure and for racing other than the polished and professional variety.

I recently caught up with Jake Beattie to learn more about the 2016 R2AK, and to see if Larry Ellison and the Oracle Team USA squad had accepted the personal invitation that Beattie sent to their team after a 25-foot trimaran won the $10K in the 2015 race.

Last year’s R2AK was a huge success. I’m wondering what changes, if any you have in store for the 2016 event?
You know, we the only thing we changed about the rules was the dates, so there was a lot of people who thought that we were going to make a lot of classes or change the structure, or change the route, and we said there was enough challenge in the race already. A big, big unknown in any year is going to be the weather.

What we never wanted to do was to become formulaic…that all you need to do is get a certain type of boat and you’ll win. And so this year it’s a different time of year, but also one year does not a trend make. So, I still think there’s enough uncertainty in the race, at least for this year that we can leave it pretty much unmolested.

Will the first place prize still be ten thousand bucks nailed to a tree in Ketchikan?
Still ten thousand dollars, yeah.

And who puts that up that money?
It’s I wish I could say there’s some rich person somewhere that gives us ten thousand dollars, but it’s just part of the business model, part of what the sponsors and the race fees go to.

So do you have any idea of how many boats you’re expecting to enter in 2016, and do you think most of them will be trimarans?
Right now we have about forty-three teams that are in the application process for the full race. Last year we had thirty-five that started… I’m guessing we’ll be somewhere in the mid-fifties.
[Editor’s Note: Entry into the R2AK ended on April 15, 2016.]

And they’re not all Trimarans. You know, there’s definitely the go-fast, multi-hull set that are in it to try to win [it]. [That said,] there’s still a lot of people that are in [the race] because they want to do the race for the experience of doing something really hard; almost sort of a vision-quest moment for them. So we definitely feel like people that are doing it for reasons other than the ten thousand dollars, and that was really good to see.

That’s the key to the race in my opinion, keeping the culture of what it is at least.
I totally agree. You know, and that’s part of what we want to evaluate every year…if this just turns into another big fancy yacht race, I’m not sure that we’d be that interested in doing it.

Are you seeing a difference in the type of people who entered this race versus last year? And would you still say it’s still an adventurous race, or is there any danger of this becoming a sort of a polished yacht race?
I think that danger exists…I think last year we had definitely people in it to win it, and we had people [who were] very qualified to win it, we had people that were maybe thought they could win it, but kind of by their own bootstrap campaign. And then we had people who were just doing it to do it.

And I think what I’m seeing [this year] is the people that are showing up to win look like they’re getting more serious, and they’re getting faster. So the boats are getting faster, the crews are getting [better]…more world championships and former Olympians and stuff like that. But we’re also getting a lot more people who just want to do the race, so I think we’re getting both ends of that talent, skill, seriousness spectrum, and less people who think they’re going to win just because they showed up.

Are there any rowing only teams that have entered, or is it all mixed propulsions?
So far it’s only mixed-propulsions teams. I take that back, there is a stand-up paddleboard that’s in the race this year. That has no wind power.

Was he in the race last year?
There was another stand-up paddleboard that wanted to be in the race last year, but he had to pull out last minute because he got hit by a tree.

I’ve heard through the grapevine that you had some interest from some teams that are planning on using considerably bigger boats than the ones we saw last year. Isn’t there supposed to be a 40-foot, carbon-fiber sloop that’s entered?
Yeah, and they’ve got a championship team too, so it’s a 44-foot custom sloop, a Schooner Creek [Boat Works]… And so they’ve got a stack there of nine crew on this 44-foot boat with a 68-foot rig… Jungle Kitty is the name they’ve landed on.

Do they have any sort of human-powered propulsion?
I think they’ve decided to go with rowing. But I think that’s the really interesting [thing], we tried to design a race that had enough natural intricacies or difficulties that it would be somewhat level-setting for [both the] big boats and smaller boats. The fact that these big boats have to get in and out of Victoria Harbor without sailing, it’s going to be interesting to watch.

Can you talk to anything about the biggest lessons that you learned as an event organizer last year?
I think the biggest one honestly is that the world has a much bigger appetite for this sort of human triumph, adventure-racing story than I really ever anticipated. I was continually blown away by how many people got wrapped-up in rapidly following the story. When we launched the idea, I thought it was mostly going to be a thing for ten of my friends. And you know, from the thousands of people who showed up the day before the race, to the thousands of people that showed up at the race start at five in the morning, to the hundreds of articles that were written about it—yours included.

For some reason [the R2AK] seems like it’s an idea that the world is right for, I think that’s something to meditate on, not just for us but for the rest of sailing, that maybe it’s a little more about the human story.

So did Larry Ellis ever respond to his personal invitation to join the fleet?
Here’s my favorite way to answer that question, ‘I’m not sure if he’s scared or what, but no, he never answered.’ [Laughs.]

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