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A look at the Race to Alaska and remembering Lowell North

by David Schmidt 10 Jun 2019 12:00 PDT June 10, 2019
Lowell North, founder of North Sails, has passed away © North Sails

While every annual or semi-annual sailboat race has its own unique character courtesy of the assembled collection of vessels, sailors and weather, the annual Race to Alaska (R2AK) seems to specialize in delivering unique experiences that unfurl on the same patch of highly unpredictable, tide-riven brine. The rules are always the same: sailors can bring whatever craft they like on the predefined course, so long as there's no onboard engine (ICE or electric); they can stop and acquire/use whatever resources they like en route, so long as these resources are publicly available (read: hotels are fine, but support vans are out), and they can (and should, if winning the race's $10,000 cash purse is a driving factor) involve human propulsion for when the wind machine goes soft, but the cast of characters and the conditions are always wild cards.

Once the starting guns sound, teams row, sail or paddle from Port Townsend, which is situated on one of the most northwest points of land in the continental 48, and gun it for the beautiful coastal city of Victoria, British Columbia. This 40-mile qualifier leg crosses the heavy-metal-laden Strait of Juan de Fuca and is designed to expose teams to the cold waters, mind-bending tides and collision-avoidance tactics that will be their reality for the remaining 710 miles to Ketchikan, Alaska.

Traditionally, this shakedown leg is just that, however this year delivered storm conditions that broke boats and threatened to tatter the fleet's determination and will. But, thanks to Victoria's marine-facing trades, teams were able to use their (ballpark) two days ashore to rebuild, re-stitch and otherwise recraft their battered boats to begin the considerably longer and harder leg to Alaska.

One of the great truths of the R2AK is that, historically speaking, the first team through Seymour Narrows, a small, 3.1-mile-long pinch of water that flows between Vancouver Island and Quadra Island (and, at its northern extreme, Sonora Island) where the tide can rip at up to 15 knots, wins the prize. This year, however, the tidal gate slammed shut just as the front runner, Team Pear Shaped Racing, arrived. A tide-induced restart unfurled as a smattering of teams waited for the tidal window to reopen.

Interestingly, Team Pear Shaped Racing was the first team through this natural pinch point, but their lead didn't endure (as of this writing, Team Pear Shaped Racing is sitting fairly deep in the pack, however there have been tracker issues so readers are advised to visit the race's online tracker to get the latest info).

Even more unusual, the pole position has changed hands several times since teams escaped Seymour Narrows. As of this writing, Team Angry Beavers, sailing aboard a Schock 40, are in the front by a comfortable margin, however, with some 90-plus miles (again, as of this writing) to go before ringing the victory bell, and with some seriously fast sailors astern, it's fair to say that the Beavers will be working hard for their win.

Stay tuned for more R2AK racing action, as it becomes known, and be sure to stay glued to the race tracker (your humble scribe certainly will be) as teams battle the elements and their racecourse competition for the final miles into Ketchikan.

Meanwhile, and on a considerably more somber note, the sailing world lost one of its greatest minds and kindest gentlemen on June 2, when Lowell North, an Olympic gold medalist, many-time world champion, and the founder of North Sails, passed away at the age of 89.

I was fortunate to have met Lowell and his lovely wife, Bea, at the 2006 Pro Am Regatta at the Bitter End Yacht Club on beautiful Virgin Gorda. While I'm sure that my team and I had plenty of time to contemplate the perfectly trimmed shape of Mr North's sails walking away from us on the racecourse, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to join the Norths, as well as the famous yacht designer Bruce Kirby and his wife Margo, for a dinner full of lively conversation that ranged from sailing to world affairs.

Almost 13 years have quietly ticked by since that memorable evening, but I'll never forget Mr North's inquisitive, humble, and incredible intelligent persona, nor the way that he thoughtfully and seamlessly involved myself and my media colleague in what felt like an ongoing conversation with Mr Kirby that could have begun decades earlier.

While I am fortunate to have met many great sailors in my career as a yachting journalist, few made a bigger impression on me than Mr North, and I'm thankful to have a beautiful memory of an evening spent in the company of a true giant and absolute gentleman.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt North American Editor

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