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An interview with Team Barely Legal Racing about their plans to take on the 2021 R2AK

by David Schmidt 1 Dec 2020 08:00 PST June 7, 2021
Pear shaped Racing during the Race to Alaska 2019 © Drew Malcolm

Without question, the Race to Alaska is one of the world's hardest adventure-sailing races. The course runs 750 nautical miles from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska, and is divided into two legs. The first leg takes the fleet some 40 nautical to Victoria, British Columbia, while the second leg takes the fleet the additional 710 nautical miles to the Ketchikan finishing line. While the days are long that time of year in the Pacific Northwest (the 2021 R2AK begins on June 7), so are the miles, and all racers can expect to deal with serious conditions en route to Alaska.

For starters, the water is cold, and the currents and tides run strong in this part of the world. For example, Seymour Narrows, on the inside passage between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, sees currents that max out at 15 knots. It's said that whales wait for slack or positive water to clear this bottleneck passage.

Then there are the rules: The first team to Alaska wins $10,000, cash; the second gets a set of steak knives, and everybody else gets a great story to tell their grandkids...and possibly some unsettled business.

Racers can take any kind of vessel they like, so long as there's no engine. They can also take any second-leg routing they like, so long as they clear a waypoint in Bella Bella, B.C. This means that both the inside and outside of Vancouver Island are at play. Take the inside track and there's Seymour Narrows; go outside and there's the Brooks Peninsula, which can deliver some of the West Coast's roughest weather.

Many great sailors have thrown themselves against the R2AK, including at least one Olympic gold medalist and several America's Cup sailors, but it's entirely possible that Team Barely Legal Racing is one of the youngest crew to engage this challenge. The mixed-gender crew, which mostly hails from Bellingham, Washington, includes five accomplished former high school and college sailors (Cedric Wesley Keneipp, Shea Walker, Liam Hood, Liam Walz, and Mallory Hood), as well as four-time kiteboard World Champion and two-time US Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year winner Daniela Moroz.

The team clearly has go-fast skills, but—as Team Barely Legal Racing and all other R2AK teams know or will discover—the R2AK leans as heavily on the word "adventure" as it does "race".

I checked in with Keneipp, Hood, Moroz, and Walz, via email, to learn more about their plans to take on the 2021 R2AK.

What was your team's inspiration for taking on the R2AK?

CWK: I wanted to do the race because it was exactly the kind of crazy, no-rules business that I love to do. It's the polar opposite to most yacht races where you lose on handicap or you get penalized for making your boat faster. The idea of actual seamanship is real here; the challenge unique to your own imagination. There is no fastest boat, there is no fastest crew, there are no guarantees, and you can always outwork your competition to win.

The Race to Alaska is about imagination, and you can out-idea your competition. It has a lot more to do with how badly you want to win than how well you can start off the line.

Can you tell us how your team joined forces? Also, are you guys still in school, or have you already graduated?

CWK: I met the Hood siblings, Liam and Mallory, and Shea Walker while growing up racing in Bellingham. We have been sailing together for years. Liam and Shea taught me how to race [during] my freshman year of high school. Mallory is who I spent the majority of my high school sailing with. I chose Mallory because of her unique skill of knowing exactly what her teammates need to hear to move up the fleet. I chose Liam Hood because he is the best short-course racer I know. The (sometimes) quiet intensity he brings to every race is second to none. Shea was the next obvious choice because of her leadership and organization skills.

Liam Walz and I met at Oakcliff in New York last summer when we were training in the 49er. We immediately got in sync and realized that this would not be the end of our racing together. He was the full deal, great team player, ready to try again after a crash, and predicting what I would need before I asked.

Daniela on the other hand is kind of a funny story. I had been following the KiteFoil World Series and saw how she was kicking ass. I asked her for advice on how to get started in the class before I eventually committed to Moth sailing. When I was putting the team together there were a ton of stellar options. But I wanted to aim bigger than what I knew. I asked Daniela if she wanted to go on this absolutely crazy race and she said yes.

Liam Hood and Shea Walker have graduated from Cal Poly SLO, the rest of us are still in school. I go to Bellingham Technical College, Mallory goes to Tufts, Liam Walz goes to Grand Valley State University, and Daniela goes to [the] University of Hawaii.

What kind of big-boat experience do you guys have? What about distance-racing and offshore experience?

DM: I think I can probably count the number of hours I've spent on sailboats on one hand...for me, this will be a really cool experience and I'm excited to do something outside of kitefoiling.

CWK: I have raced big boats on short courses around the PNW for years, most recently being on a winning team in Seattle's Grand Prix. I have about 2,000 ocean miles from deliveries and races on the East Coast. Most notably the Marblehead to Halifax race in 2019 on a Turbo Farr 40.

LW: Currently, I have raced five Port Huron to Mackinac races and one Chicago to Mackinac race. I'm usually a bowman but recently I have been trimming sails and helming more. Outside of offshore races, I have spent plenty of time racing keelboats around Lake St. Clair in our one design regattas and local distance races.

What kind of boat do you plan to race to Ketchikan? Or, is this still to be determined?

CWK: That is still to be determined. We are actively looking for a boat, an owner, or a title sponsor to get us to the start line. We are selling an adventure and really good storytelling.

There are two schools of thought for this race. A really fast multihull that could compete with the others. Or a very skinny fast monohull that could keep it together in the big waves where the faster multihulls can't go.

Both ideas are a gamble on the weather, but the multihull platform is more challenging because there is more competition in that category at the top end of the fleet.

What's your plan for a human-propulsion system? Or, is this TBD when you sort out your ride to Alaska?

CWK: I know that we will be using a pedal drive regardless of the boat we take. The gains had from legs versus arms are huge. Rowing is an OK idea, but on a boat with a high freeboard it becomes quite difficult to reach the water with oars.

Do you guys have experience using navigation technologies such as GPS and AIS and dealing with lots of heavy metal?

CWK: I have done a lot of cruising navigation around Washington state. But most of my experience comes from short to medium-[distance] course racing tactics.

LH: I have a relatively deep understanding of GPS' limits and capabilities from my experience in my senior project. Our task was to design a satellite-navigation system for the moon. We modelled much of the system off of GPS, so I have learned a lot about the underlying technologies and algorithms employed by satellite positioning systems.

LW: I have a good amount of experience with a couple different GPS and AIS systems such as B&G devices, Navionics, and PredictWind. Although there's always more to learn, I feel that our team will be able to chart out a quick trek to Ketchikan.

What do you see as your team's biggest strengths going into this race?

CWK: Our biggest strengths are our intensity, boat-handling [skills], and short-course experience. This team wasn't hastily put together; I chose this lineup because I know everyone can work as a team.

What about your team's biggest weaknesses? And, for your team's weaknesses, how do you plan to use the next six-plus months to overcome these?

CWK: Our biggest weaknesses right now are our inexperience with the race itself. None of us have been up the inside passage. The only information we have on what to expect is provided by people who have already done the race.

We are pushing hard to secure a boat and sponsorships soon, so we can have more time on the water. We already have dedicated time blocks for training, and while we can't get into Canadian waters right now, we'll do the best we can in Puget Sound.

Looking at all 750 nm of the course, what part (or parts) do you see as the biggest challenges? And what's your strategy for dealing with this hurdle(s)?

CWK: The biggest challenge for this race will be the very first decision: The boat.

Because they changed the rules this year to allow an offshore route, that opens up the possibilities for bigger monohulls to compete with the trimarans. The smaller fast multihulls won't go offshore because the waves are too tall. But the wind might be stronger, and the tide does not affect the west side of the island nearly as much as the east side.

So, the gamble works like this—if we take a fast monohull offshore, we just might be able to beat the trimarans to Bella Bella. But if it's not much of a difference in wind speed on either side of the island and the trimarans manage to get every single tide gate on time, they will win the first half. If we bring a multihull on the other hand, we are left with a much more difficult game.

We would most likely not go offshore and be left to race people with more experience and better preparation.

Anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

This is going to be the best adventure of my life so far. I want our team to do well and push as hard as we can. Regardless of finishing order, I just want to make sure that we leave nothing on the table.

The majority of the work for any campaign is getting to the startine. We are looking for sponsors, and are open to any crazy ideas to get us there! Be a part of our journey -- head over to our website to learn more, donate, and contact us: www.barelylegalracing.com and follow our Instagram @barelylegal_racing.

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