Jake Beattie took inspiration from the space race—and the beer tent—in hatching an epic race for small, non-motorized vessels from Washington state to Alaska. “It was , around the same time the X-prize was generating interest in private space research,” recalls Beattie, the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend. “I realized the beauty of the idea: Don’t prescribe anything, just put up an outlandish-sounding price, keep the rules to a minimum and let people figure it out. I was actually kind of shocked that no one had created a race up the coast to Alaska yet.”
In early June, teams of rowers, sailors and paddlers will launch from Port Townsend in the inaugural Race to Alaska. The rules are simple: The first time to make it 750 miles to the finish line wins $10,000. The prize for second is a set of steak knives.
The race immediately caught the attention of long-distance paddling fiend Russell Henry, who set a new speed record for circumnavigating Vancouver Island last summer. “It just sounds amazing,” says Henry. “We’ll paddle the entire BC coastline in a race with a bunch of buddies against a whole whack of other like-minded people, with hardly any rules. Who wouldn’t want to do it?”
The rules are simple: The first team to make it 750 miles to the finish line wins $10,000. The prize for second is a set of steak knives.
Henry plans to race in a six-person outrigger canoe with his brother, Graham (the siblings paddled together on a 4,000-mile Caribbean crossing) and four friends from Strathcona Park Lodge and Thompson Rivers University. “The canoe brings us all together rather than paddling in ones and twos,” explains Henry. “It makes us faster and will allow us to sleep while on the move. Outrigger canoes have been used for centuries to explore island chains. They had to have used them for a reason.
“To win will take the exact chemistry I used to beat the Vancouver Island speed record,” adds Henry. “Pushing through a lot of suffering and getting the right weather.”
We caught up with organizer Beattie to learn more about the race.
CanoeKayak.com: How do you make sure registrants have the appropriate skills and experience? How will you keep track of competitors while they’re racing up the coast?
Jake Beattie: First, there’s an application process and selection committee in place to vet the applicants. Second, the race itself is designed to test the mettle of the racers and their craft fairly early on. The first stage across the Strait of Juan de Fuca is a relatively big deal in terms of exposure, shipping traffic and potentially weather. Racers have to make it to Victoria without getting rescued to qualify for the second stage. Our hunch is that some of the racers who do qualify but realize the full scope of the race will opt out at that point. After that there is a couple hundred miles of somewhat exposed and incredibly tidal waters before the departure of the shelter of Vancouver Island. The island also offers a pretty accessible evacuation route if things go wrong. This gives a significant portion of the race within easy distance to a road for teams who break down mechanically or physically. Once teams make that big right turn the race route becomes dramatically more remote and bailout less of an option, but at that point they will have been through the fire so to speak.
CanoeKayak.com: What are you most looking forward to about the race?
Beattie: Honestly it’s meeting all of the participants—every single one of them is a character. There are world-class athletes and ambitious amateurs, young folks and retirees, father/son teams. I’ve been in contact with most of them in one way or another through the process and if they are a fraction as interesting as their resumes they will be formidable and jovial bunch. The June 3rd pre-race party should be a blast.
CanoeKayak.com: Of all the types of vessels (sail, row, paddle), which do you think has the best odds of winning?
Beattie: That’s the biggest topic of debate surrounding the race—followed closely by How long will it take? “I don’t know” is my honest answer to both questions. We tried hard to create a race with enough ambiguity and complexity that even we weren’t sure who would win. I’ve thought a lot about it and I think the race basically boils down to a tortoise and hare choice between the predictability of human power versus the easy fast miles of sail if the weather is right. Early June is a time of transition between the spring winds and the summer doldrums—if the race was a month later it would be flat calm, a month earlier there would be more storms. June is tricky to guess, and depending on the year it might be a different set of compromises that wins. Current is the biggest factor through the whole race and smaller boats better driven by human power will have a better shot through rapids but bigger boats will probably have an advantage in the more open water. I’m sticking by my original answer—I have no idea.
–Registration for the 2015 Race to Alaska closes on April 15.