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An interview with Jake Beattie about the 2018 Race to Alaska

by David Schmidt 10 Jan 08:00 PST June 14, 2018
Stage 2 Pure and Wild and Pear Shaped Racing leaving Victoria © Race to Alaska/Ashlyn Brown

In late 2014, word of an exciting new sailing event began percolating east and south from Port Townsend, Washington, where Jake Beattie, the Executive Director of the Northwest Maritime Center, and his friends concocted a wild idea over a few microbrews at the recently concluded Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival: Sail, row or peddle 750 miles from Port Townsend to Ketchikan, Alaska, by way of Victoria, British Columbia, using any vessel you like, so long as it doesn’t carry an engine. This bold, human-powered race would take participants through the inland passage separating Vancouver Island from British Columbia before punching north through Alaskan waters.

The Race to Alaska's (R2AK) rules were minimal and the honor system strong: racers were welcome to stop en route for resupplies or to fix their boats, but they were limited to resources such as stores that are available to all teams (read: no support vans). First team to cross the finishing line in Ketchikan would receive $10,000 in purse monies, while the second team would win a steely set of R2AK steak knives; all other participants would earn bragging rights involving tales of cold water, big winds, small boats and type-two fun.

Plenty of speculation and dock talk in Seattle and points abroad focused on the best horse for the course that first year, a riddle that was solved by a team sailing aboard an F-25c trimaran. While this revelation helped some future teams to best select their steed, it did nothing to warm the bitter cold waters and winds that separate Port Townsend from Ketchikan, nor did it soften the R2AK’s clear mandate that all teams be self-sufficient and capable of tackling hundreds of miles of wilderness sailing.

The fourth R2AK is set to begin just off of Port Townsend, Washington, on June 14, 2018, so I caught up with Jake Beattie, via email, to learn more about the event and the kinds of people that it attracts.

When the inaugural R2AK was announced, there was lots of dockside chatter about the best vessel for bagging the $10K…as race organizer, is this question now settled, or do you think there’s still a chance a monohull might claim victory some year?

You know, we were really excited about the riddle when we started the race, but we learned something: it turns out fast boats tend to win races!

Team Jungle Kitty’s [2016] bid on that [Fox 44’ sloop] Ocelot was impressive- they got second much to the surprise of most. Their innovation was really in this pedal-drive system that was like two cobbled together tandem bicycles. They had nine people, so they could have four people peddling at once. When they had even the lightest wind they could “motor sail”.

I saw a clip of them with three people trapped out in like 4 knots of wind. The sails were giving them like two knots, the cyclists added another four...so they were doing like six knots in four knots of wind. Bonkers.

What kinds of conditions would play into a monohull’s favor?

I’m not sure what kind of apocalyptic scenario might only affect mutli-hulls, but I think that’s their only shot. I’m kind of a traditionalist, and I started with this real anti-trimaran bent, but after seeing them sail upwind in rough conditions, and fast...I’m a believer.

I'm not the only one, I know of a couple of wooden-boat types who made the switch after Elsie Piddock, [who was the] winner in 2015, [and] I've always thought that [the late, great] Ian Farrier owes us some money, or a thank you card, or something…

What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned about running this race in the three (soon to be four) editions that you have overseen things? Also, when you compare your biggest fears for what might go wrong on year one, how have they changed or evolved from your fears four year four?

Honestly, our biggest fear in the first year was that no one would show up. We really thought it would be more like a publicity stunt than a real event. I remember saying “I’ll just have the three people who sign up over to my house, make some chili, and send them on their way.” This year we’re anticipating 4,000 people at the street party to send them off. Also bonkers.

The real fears pretty much stay the same, [but] year after [year] we just get more comfortable with them and better at managing [them].

This whole thing really relies on racers making good decisions- I mean, that’s the point: we wanted take a stand for self-supported resiliency in a world that is increasingly reliant on people coming to the rescue when you get stuck, or skin your knee, or whatever. The sea doesn’t work like that, adventure doesn’t work like that, and that’s what we were shooting for...but that also means the race is only as safe as the riskiest racer. That’s true every year.

Without naming names, can you share any epic mishaps that raised your pulse as race director over the past few years?

Each year has a few moments, but the worst-or maybe because it’s the freshest-was last year’s race start. It was one of those when I thought, “Well, this has been a good run but this might be it.” The weather was flat calm when we started, and even though the weather forecast was calling for a full gale in the Straits, people went out to get across.

The gale showed up right on schedule, and maybe a bit stronger [than was forecast]. It was basically a wall of wind that showed up right at 2PM. About a third of the fleet made it across before, about a third decided not to try and hunkered down on the U.S. side [of the Strait], the rest of the fleet were stuck in the middle and got hammered. A few of them were even right in sight of the Victoria breakwater but couldn’t claw up and got scattered as far as San Juan Island.

A few of them got rescued, one capsized, one capsized and ran into another one, things broke- we were actively managing rescue scenarios until around 3AM. The root cause was just that disconnect between what it felt like on the water and what was about to happen, and people over estimating their speed and ability to deal with that shit covered fan.

We had to adjust our vetting process. It used to be a little easier to qualify for just the first stage, now the application process is the same.

When you think back over the years, is there one finisher who comes to mind as someone who you figured would never reach Campbell River—let alone Ketchikan—but who persevered and made it to the finishing line under his/her own steam?

I’m going to flip that a bit, [as] we don’t let people into the race that we don’t think can do it, but there are people who impressed the hell out of me when they did.

Karl Kruger’s SUP campaign last year, Team Allula’s bid as a team of quadriplegics, the team of high schoolers who built their own boat and then made it to Ketchikan (Team North2Alaska), this guy named Roger Mann who did it on a little Hobie Adventure Island- there are ton of stories of impressive people pushing the envelope.

I’m a root-for-the-underdog kind of guy, but when Team MAD Dog set the record on a Marstrom 32 after 92 sleep-deprived hours-that was frigging incredible. They had a fast boat but they were always a one-strike-and-you’re-out sort of team-so I wasn't surprised when they won, but I was really surprised that they made it at all. Those guys sailed the hell out of it.

Generally speaking, what kinds of personality traits have you seen in winning crews? What about in crews that muster the gumption to finish, versus those who discover that there’s a hell of a lot of brine separating Port Townsend from Ketchikan?

That's a good question, each of the three winners were serious campaigns who had skills, boats, preparation- they were all no-joke guys, confident and personable but not a lot of drama or flash. Once you get past a base level of skill and preparation, whether you finish or not depends a lot on whether you can adapt. Fast teams drop out because they won’t win, others call it a day because something breaks, or that people got fed up with the misery...the warm call of a dry bed and a loving spouse...it's pretty powerful when you're out of your element, behind your plan and looking at 600 miles of suffering. Hard to overcome that.

Shifting expectations and the ability to generate Plan B, over and over again seems like a more common story than just gutting it out.

The R2AK obviously wends past some pretty darn remote areas…have you guys taken any steps to help reduce the event’s overall environmental footprint? Also, have you taken any additional steps to try and green things up even more over last year?

The engineless/unsupported ethic is really our environmental statement. Leave No Trace is such a strong ethic in the mountain-climbing world, and we wanted to bring some of that minimalist reverence to the boaters, too.

You don't need a carbon footprint to hit the water for a bucket-list run at Alaska, that's pretty much been there since the beginning.

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