At 5 a.m. Thursday morning, a wide range of catamarans, sloops, kayaks and ocean rowboats will launch from Port Townsend, Washington, in the inaugural Race to Alaska.
The 750-mile race course along the Inside Passage has been traversed over the centuries by Native American canoes, gold seekers, fishing boats and yachts. That diverse history inspired modern-day adventurers to select a wide range of vessels for the novel nautical challenge.
Race to Alaska founder Jake Beattie said one of the few rules for this long-distance contest is that the entries cannot have a motor.
“The most fun is that there has been so much imagination, creativity and earnest effort in solving the riddle of what is the right boat for the race,” Beattie said.
Beattie said 34 teams will be at the start line for the full race to Ketchikan, most of them sail powered. He said the winner should reach southeast Alaska within two weeks, although it could take as little as seven days. The winner earns a $10,000 prize. Second place wins a set of steak knives.
The Northwest Maritime Center organized the adventure race in part to generate excitement about non-motorized saltwater recreation. Beattie is the nonprofit's executive director.
On Wednesday afternoon and evening - the eve of the race start - hundreds upon hundreds of people coursed along the Port Townsend waterfront to ogle and marvel at the race vessels and chat with the captains.
Racers must complete the 40-mile first leg to Victoria within 36 hours to qualify for the remainder of the race. After clearing customs and a nautical party, the adventure and endurance contest restarts at high noon on Sunday at Victoria’s Inner Harbor.
Racers must pass two checkpoints along the way to Ketchikan at Seymour Narrows and Bella Bella. Otherwise, captains are free to choose whichever protected or open-ocean route they prefer.
Racers are voyaging in vessels as small as a single kayak with a jury-rigged sail to as big as a 38-foot Crowther catamaran. The largest crew in the race is onboard a 6-man outrigger canoe. In between are at least one 16-foot dory, several beach cats and a carbon fiber trimaran.
Many of the sailboats have been modified with retractable pedal-powered propellers or rowing stations to make headway in the absence of wind. At least four of the teams at the start line had an entire vessel custom-built for the Race to Alaska.
"Everyone on this team, we're the kinds of people to push our limits and see what we can do," said Mackenzie Punter, one of Canadian crew members on the 6-man outrigger canoe. "It would be pretty cool to beat the sailboats out here. I think we have the advantage because we're going to be paddling through the night when the winds are generally calm. But through the afternoon, mid-afternoons when the winds pick up, all the other boats will have a huge advantage over us."
Some last minute scratches from the race line up included a rowing team composed of Steve Pierce, the former world record holder in pull-ups, and National Geographic's 2007 "Adventurer of the Year" Colin Angus. They pulled out earlier this week after their boat sustained significant damage when it fell off its trailer while rounding a turn.
Also a disappointing no show was the only stand up paddleboarder entered in the race up the Inside Passage. Beattie said Shane Perrin sent word from Missouri that he suffered a concussion while cutting down a tree last week and was told by his doctor to rest.