Outdoors

Craig Hill: Engineless watercraft race from Port Townsend to Alaska starts Thursday

A few minutes before sunrise Thursday, 40 engineless vessels will shove off from Port Townsend on a 750-mile race to Ketchikan, Alaska.

The field includes a 33-foot yacht, a standup paddleboard and just about everything in between. Some teams will sail, some will paddle, and some will row.

The first team to Ketchikan gets $10,000. Second place gets a set of steak knives. And racers who want a T-shirt have to finish before July 4.

If it sounds like a race concocted by some buddies hanging out in a beer garden, that’s because it is.

The idea for the Race to Alaska was born at the 2013 Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. A group of men were in the beer tent discussing their passion for engineless voyaging when a simple question was asked.

How could they bring more awareness to this particular type of adventuring?

An impromptu brainstorming session yielded several ideas. But it was racing across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and up the Inside Passage to Alaska that stuck with Jake Beattie, director of the Northwest Maritime Center.

“It’s kind of outlandish, but I couldn’t get out of my mind,” Beattie said.

So he went about rallying support for the race in hopes that maybe 10 teams would sign up. He’s been pleasantly surprised by the event’s success so far.

In addition to the 40 teams racing to Alaska, 23 others signed up to race as far as Victoria.

MORE RISKS THAN RULES

The event website makes it abundantly — and humorously — clear this isn’t a race for novices.

“It’s like the Iditarod on a boat with a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter or eaten by a grizzly bear,” reads the official race description written by Beattie.

It also warns of squalls, killer whales and 20 mph currents. The website’s FAQ section includes gems such as “How do I not get eaten by a bear?”

Beattie warned those interested in entering should be fit, have a tolerance for hardship and the ability to repair their vessel in a variety of situations.

While the risks are many, the rules are few.

In fact there are only two: No motors and no support.

“We want it to be more about the adventure side of things,” Beattie said.

Teams are free to stop as often as they like along the way.

“As long as it’s something that’s available to everybody, it’s OK,” Beattie said. “They can stop for a foot massage if they like.”

THE QUALIFIER

If the warnings and the $650 per team (plus $20 per team member) entry fee aren’t enough to weed out novices, the first leg of the race ought to do the trick.

Once the starting gun is fired Thursday at 5 a.m., the teams have 36 hours to reach Victoria.

It’s a 40-mile trip, which might sounds like a breeze compared to the trip to Alaska, but it’s not.

“It’s pretty burly in an engineless craft,” Beattie said.

“I’m sitting here in my office right now looking out at a bank of fog,” Beattie said by phone from the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend.

The boaters must cross shipping lanes and waters with the potential for strong winds and swells the size of houses.

While there won’t be support boats the rest of the way to Alaska, race officials will provide support between Port Townsend and Victoria. “A safety net,” Beattie said.

But any team that requires assistance is out of the race. So is any team that can’t ring a bell on a dock in the Victoria harbor by 5 p.m. Friday.

The teams who make it get to spend a few days celebrating and prepping for the real race. It starts at noon June 7.

PADDLE OR SAIL?

Most of the vessels in the race are sailboats.

Some are small (a dinghy rigged with a sail), some are built for speed, and one is Hobie 33 that looks like a luxury hotel below deck.

But when organizers launched the fundraising campaign to secure the prize money for the race, they hoped to have a more diverse field.

They have no idea who’d have the advantage in this race — sailors, rowers or paddlers — and they hoped to find out. So they were delighted to see teams enter with other types of vessels too.

Two kayaks, two rowboats, a standup paddleboard and an outrigger canoe are also in the field.

“We tried to pick a course and a time of year where it wasn’t going to be clear (which kind of vessel would have the advantage),” Beattie said. “We wanted to restart the conversation about what it means to be on the water on an engineless craft.”

Beattie also presumes the advantage could go to different kinds of boats each year. Perhaps even each day.

If the weather is nasty Thursday, just reaching Victoria could be brutal for paddlers and rowers. But if conditions are calm, Beattie said, “They could be there in time for high tea.”

Beattie’s not sure when to expect the winner to arrive in Alaska. “Maybe two weeks, give or take a week,” he said.

As soon as the winner finishes or on June 25 — whichever happens last — sweep boats will depart Port Townsend traveling to Ketchikan at a clip of 75 nautical miles per day. Teams they catch are out of the race.

NO CAMERAS

The Northwest Maritime Museum has yet to decide if the race will return in 2016. Officials are waiting to see how this year’s race goes, then plan to announce its future plans later this summer.

But if the objective was simply to capture people’s imagination, the event is already a success.

“It has surpassed all expectations,” Beattie said.

They’d planned to kick off the race with a chili feed on Wednesday. But as interest grew, the celebration grew into a street party that will include opportunities to meet the racers and see their boats.

Beattie said a Las Vegas sportsbook contacted him looking to set betting odds on the race.

And multiple reality TV outfits have inquired about filming the race, Beattie said. He responded with a “thanks, but no thanks.”

“They are not there to explicitly give support,” Beattie said of the TV crews, “but it provides the perception of a safety net. We felt like it was outside the intention of the race.”

Beattie said there was also concern that a perceived safety net might encourage racers to take risks they might not otherwise.

Race organizers don’t want the teams racing for the cameras. They hope the contestants aren’t racing for the money, either.

“We want it to be about the adventure, the experience,” Beattie said. In the official rules, he wrote, “Any teams finishing ahead of the sweep boat are victorious.”

Plus, if they can’t collect the money, there’s always those steak knives. How fancy are they?

Beattie hadn’t bought them yet as of last week. “But they’re not going to be real nice,” he said. “We’re a nonprofit.”

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