Nikki Henderson braves grizzly bears, whales, whirlpools and ferocious winds to take part in the unique Race to Alaska

“Nikki, give up the tiller for a second. You gotta see this.” Ev Goussev, co-owner of the yacht Gray Wolf, shoved the binoculars in my hand. “Just there. That beach. That’s bear territory, for sure.” A shady stretch of sand lay a quarter of a mile to our starboard during the Race to Alaska. Looking through the lenses, I could see the tide gently rippling past the remains of old logs and bracken washed up on the shore.

Scanning left and right to see if there was any life out there, I almost got lost among the trees. So many trees, so thick, so old – so untouched by humankind. For sure, this place was inaccessible by land. Beyond it were hundreds of miles of dense forest, grizzly bears and uncharted wilderness. I guess some people might view this a desolate wasteland. I’d describe it as an untainted paradise. I wondered how many people had even seen this beach.

Meanwhile, with a dying wind, we were struggling to make headway against the 2-knot ebb. From recumbent bike seats at the transom, crewmembers Maisie and Andy were toiling on pedal drives connected to propellers at the stern of Gray Wolf, a replacement for the removed Beta engine.

The Race to Alaska starts at Port Townsend, British Columbia, and runs 750 miles to Ketchikan, Alaska

Gray Wolf is Jeanne and Ev Goussev’s family boat, a 40ft monohull built in 1995 from cold moulded cedar by Lyman-Morse in Maine. She has an unstayed rig we affectionately referred to as ‘the tree trunk’, a tapering, hollow stick of hand-laid carbon that bends in the wind like a branch so that she depowers her square-topped main independently, increasing twist and spilling air on each puff. Just over a tonne of water ballast adds a little extra when it starts blowing.

The Race to Alaska – the R2AK as it is known – is a 750-mile adventure race that takes place annually in early June. Jake Beattie, executive director of the Northwest Maritime Centre, and some pals came up with the idea late one night during the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Washington. “Imagine if we challenged people to a race from here to Alaska,” he mused. “And Rule Number 1: no engines.”

Like many good ideas, its absurdity made it irresistible.

Grizzly bear standing in the morning mist in British Columbia: the Race 2 Alaska passes remote areas of deep forest. Photo: Alamy

In 2015 he launched the first edition. Expecting only a couple of people crazy enough to sign up, Jake planned the opening party at his house in the woods. He lit the bonfire, put on a pot of chilli, and waited for a handful of people to show up. But something about the race inspired people. That first year 39 teams entered.

Jeanne Goussev called me to say she was doing the R2AK again. “Come with us,” she added.

Jeanne and I met in Seattle back in 2018, having just sailed in from China with the Clipper Round the World Race. We became friends and the following year I joined her The Race to Alaska Team ‘Sail Like a Girl’. In Jeanne’s words: “People do this race because they are running away from something or running towards something.”

After the intense responsibility of skippering a team in the Clipper Race, I was looking for a less regulated, more light-hearted adventure. That year, we finished 4th on her Melges 32, Maks to the Moon.

Monkey Fist crew using pedal auxiliary power. Photo: Joe Cline/R2AK

Yearning for adventure

Now I was back again, and mainly because of the community atmosphere. The Race to Alaska attracts people who have a lightness of spirit and a yearning for adventure.

The team for the 2023 Race to Alaska were Jeanne and Ev Goussev, local racers Lindsay Lind and Remy Lang, liveaboard cruiser John Guillote, R2AK veteran Maisie Bryant, windsurfer Andy Kleitch, and me.

Knowing it could be anything from five days of fast sailing to 15 days of pedalling if winds were light, Jeanne and Ev put together the team carefully. We had enough racing and offshore experience to navigate the course safely and competitively, but also have a laugh.

Two-stages of the Race to Alaska

The race is split into two stages. The first is known as ‘The Proving Ground’ and is a qualifying leg designed to filter out ahead of the 750-mile main event any vessels and crews that aren’t seaworthy.

At 0501 on Monday 5 June the starting cannon fired for the first 40-mile stage. It was hard to hear over the Red Army Choir’s rousing rendition of the old Soviet National Anthem blasting through the speakers (apparently that’s still funny in formerly Russian Alaska).

To starboard, the sun was rising over the Cascade Mountain Range, and to port the full moon was still visible, setting above Port Townsend. The aroma of bacon and eggs (my British contribution) wafted up from down below.

On board Gray Wolf at a busy start. Photo: John Guillote

Immediately, we were playing a game of chess with our fellow competitors in a fleet that included kayakers, rowing boats, monohulls skippered by solo sailors, trimarans and a wing foiler. Ev and Jeanne were bickering (co-skippering with your spouse is hard) about whether to stay left or right of the exclusion zone in the middle of Puget Sound.

The tension was broken as we very nearly ran aground the wrong side of a red buoy, but we arrived in Victoria before lunch, less than an hour ahead of a solo kayaker.

The start of Stage 2 is from Victoria, British Columbia, to Ketchikan, Alaska. There is just one waypoint: the tiny and remote town of Bella Bella in Northern BC. Any teams that traverse the 40 miles north of the ‘Proving Ground’ course, from Washington to Canada, within the allotted 36 hours without getting rescued go on to qualify for this stage.

Competitors must rely solely on wind or human power for propulsion. Disabling your motor is not an option; even inboard engines must be removed. No exclusive support is permitted, but anything that would be available to all competitors is fair game, so if you get hungry and fancy going ashore for a Big Mac or a craft beer, it’s OK.

Everything from kayaks to paddleboards take part in the adventure. Photo: Joe Cline/R2AK

You can borrow a can of bear spray from a hunter in the forest, or make friends with the guy down the dock with a welding shop in his garage (yes, these people exist up there and can fix up your steering quadrant as you go) but you can’t have a support crew standing by on shore. Disqualification is the penalty for poor sportsmanship. If a lawyer needs to be consulted for any reason, you’re automatically disqualified.

The event is somewhat anarchic, but the Race to Alaska manages to retain just the right balance of wit, responsibility and humility to be taken seriously. And rightly so. Fellow R2AK veterans, among them world record holders, Vendée Globe sailors and athletes, can all agree that navigating this route in late spring is no joke.

Some years, northerlies blow straight down from Alaska’s glaciers. These icy winds funnel through the mountains, accelerate off every headland and churn up the shallow waters of Hecate Straits into an almost impassable short, sharp chop. This forces the fleet inshore to endure relentless tacking marathons to snake up the inland waterways, most of which are barely more than a mile wide.

Humpback whale off Vancouver Island. Photo: HP Canada/Alamy

On other years, a Pacific depression might pass north and bring with it warm southerlies and powerful fronts. Thick sea fog can cloak the entire course as the warm southerly air flow meets these waters, still cold from winter. Competitors then have to blind-navigate the rocky shores, dodging partially submerged logs (a by-product of the logging industry), turbulent rapids, and currents exceeding double digits without actually being able to see much beyond the bow of their boat.

Don’t break the law

To make Gray Wolf race-ready, Ev had removed her Beta engine and wired up an EFOY fuel cell, which uses ethanol. He built a frame on the transom, added two recumbent bike seats and connected pedal drives to a couple of three-blade baby bronze propellers. They’d be more efficient than oars, and we’d use them when the boat speed dropped below 3 knots. Faster than that, they’d create more drag than propulsion.

For our team name we chose ‘We Brake for Whales’, an environmental message with a nod to the TV comedy Braking for Whales.

Stage 2 began on the pavement above the Victoria Inner Harbour Docks, a Le Mans-style start just before noon on 8 June. We were reminded of the main rule: “Don’t break the law”, and given a few final words of guidance: “Watch out for bears. Avoid the logs.”

Then, after a “3, 2, 1 Go!” everyone rushed down the steps to their boats and set off in a competitive frenzy. Hoisting sails is forbidden in Victoria Harbour, so after the sprint starts there was half an hour of chaos as 25ft monohulls with 20ft of oars vied for water with trimarans, our 40ft yacht, local ferries and even float planes.

Strategically, the race is fascinating. There’s just one compulsory waypoint among the myriad islands, so the route options are endless. Heavy tides create frequent opportunities for the fleet to restart. It’s a nailbiter all the way to the finish.

Gray Wolf is a 40ft one-off design built by Lyman-Morse that was modified for the event including removing the engine. Photo: John Guillote

Inside or outside?

The first big decision is whether to go outside or inside Vancouver Island. You have to weigh up whether to turn right out of Victoria and head for the consistent winds offshore, or turn left and risk light air, rapids, and logs in search of flat seas and better wind angles. This remained a theme for the entire course: weave through narrow waterways or brave open water.

Our priorities were safety, fun, fast sailing, and the spirit of R2AK – in that order. So we opted to sail inside Vancouver Island. We applied the same logic throughout the whole race, ducking inside when the wind was heavy and poking our noses outside when it dropped off.

Author Nikki Henderson on the bow. Photo: John Guillote

The most notorious divider of the fleet falls 180 miles after start. Seymour Narrows is a three-mile section of Discovery Passage, cutting between the mountains of Vancouver Island and mainland of British Columbia. The tidal streams here can exceed 15 knots.

Some 36 hours into the race, we were gybing up Campbell River, 10 miles south of Seymour Narrows looking for the safest way to wait out the tide. Do we anchor or hook a mooring buoy? Do we dock alongside a pontoon? Mid-discussion, the Navionics track showed us sailing a reciprocal COG. With no real plan or preparation, we slipped towards the nearest shore and threw the anchor over the side.

Before I did the race, I’d read reports of the ‘crazy’ tidal waters and put it down to hyperbole. How wrong I was. As we sipped bourbon waiting for darkness to fall, a whirlpool appeared just 50m away, and its centre was at least a metre lower than the surrounding water.

The rare spectacle of a pod of humpback whales bubble feeding. John Guillote

The entire length of the course is bordered by rugged mountains, which plunge underwater as steeply as they soar into the sky. The submarine cliffs and fast tidal flows paint mesmeric patterns of swirling lines on the surface of the water, and fork out tributaries that run like rivers.

Sailing these waterways is like running along a highway on the wrong side of the road, but the oncoming traffic is in the form of logs. A head-on collision with some of these would end your race, if not sink the boat. “Keep watch at all times” is a rule respected even by crazy adventurers.

Vancouver Island’s inside passage. Photo: John Guillote

A rugged passage

In the middle of this turbulence, we lifted anchor then cycled 15 miles on an inshore eddy to sneak through Seymour Narrows in the dead of night.

The moment we poked our noses out of the lee of the cliffs, the prevailing 25 knot winds hit us head on and smacked us sideways. Johnstone Straits is the race’s next challenge: a 100-mile long intestine of water that competitors must navigate in order to round Cape Caution and make it back to open water. Seymour Narrows divides the fleet, but the Straits can destroy it.

Ferocious winds funnelled down the mountains and decimated our competitors. The short head sea was particularly punishing for the multihulls. Many of the lightweight tris suffered structural damage. Exhausted short-handed crews were forced to stop and rest at anchor. A couple of boats hit rocks. After 24 hours and 63 tacks, we made it through battered, bruised but in one piece.

Ev and Nikki deliberate how to navigate light winds on the approach to Ketchikan. Photo: John Guillote

The latter 350 miles of the R2AK is more of a rugged voyage. The course widens and boats disappear from sight of one another as you sail into the wilderness. You are out there in bear territory.

By day four, we were resting up in anticipation of a gale that was forecast to blow in by dinner time.

Suddenly someone shouted: “Whales. Everyone wake-up!” I scrabbled on deck to see a pod of humpbacks bubble-feeding nearby. Perhaps 10 of them, together with their babies, were blowing air up and swimming around in circles.
We huddled on deck to watch. The whales dived, the water settled, then they reared out of the water, mouths open wide as they fed in unison.

As is often the case, the further you get from civilisation, the closer you draw to the people around you. There’s a richness of memories in the smaller moments as well as the grand experiences.

Party atmosphere and a slightly anarchic vibe are traits of the R2AK. Photo: John Guillote

Our race ended by ringing the winners’ bell together in Ketchikan, damp, and slightly bruised. Opening the cast iron wood burning stove of Ketchikan’s local fish house, race director Jesse Wiegal pulled out the winner’s prize, $10,000 nailed to a log (there is only one other prize, a set of steak knives for 2nd place). Before handing it over, he asked us to describe the Race to Alaska.

Ev, not often a man of brevity, answered with just one word: “Adventure.”

For some the R2AK adventure begins with building a boat in their backyard. Yet others see the challenge as an individual physical test, perhaps to completing 750 miles on a paddleboard, pitching camp every night and keeping watch for grizzly bears.

We hadn’t defined our adventure before we set out. And maybe that’s the key: to embark on a journey without really knowing what you’ll find.

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