Surviving the Race to Alaska
This motor-free ocean race—with vessels ranging from paddleboards to pedal-assist sailboats—is less about how fast you can go and more about whether you get there at all.
Article body copy
Watch the recording of “Salt, Sweat, and Grit: Why We’re Driven to Extreme Adventure at Sea” for more on what drives people to take on extreme adventures at sea.
There’s an eerie, nervous energy on the docks of Port Townsend, Washington, on the first Monday of June 2019. In the dark, the lights of dozens of boats bob in the waves, including from the 10-meter sailboat Maks to the Moon. Standing aboard, Jeanne Goussev, a wealth manager from Seattle, Washington, with long, dark hair and a competitive spirit, buzzes with anticipation. Around her, the crew pulls lines to hoist the sails. Two women hang off the boat’s open back, suspended upon the padded seats of two bicycles attached to propellers beneath the surface of the water. When the wind doesn’t blow, the women will pedal their engineless boat forward.
Goussev is captain of this quirky crew, which goes by the team name Sail Like a Girl. As the other women prepare, Goussev sizes up the competition. There are large sailboats and small ones. There are kayaks and rowboats and stand-up paddleboards. There’s an outrigger sailing canoe, and boats custom built by their owners. The only common theme is that, like Maks to the Moon, not a single vessel has a motor, and all of them have a long way to go. The 1,200-kilometer Inside Passage lies between them and their destination, Ketchikan, Alaska, a small town just northwest of the British Columbia border. This is the route for the Race to Alaska—R2AK to fans and racers—an event that is less about how fast you can go than whether you get there at all.
The mastermind of R2AK is a bald, 40-something-year-old named Jake Beattie. Beattie, the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center, had been casting about for new ways to entice more people onto the water when he finally struck on something at the bottom of his third beer during the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in 2013. A race not between fancy motorized yachts with expensive equipment, but between people mustering whatever the hell they could find, people depending on seamanship, improvisation, and resilience. “What if we nail 10 grand to a tree in Alaska and say, ‘Come and get it’?” he remembers musing to his friends in the beer tent. Their quizzical looks all said the same thing: are you stupid?
Yet, on this race day, upward of 1,000 fans have risen in the predawn to watch Sail Like a Girl and the others depart. Along the shore, beach fires flare, and a band that no one invited threads the air with the sound of trumpets, a tuba, trombones, a drum, and a clarinet.
The race rules are simple: no motor, no support, no handicaps. The US $10,000 grand prize is nailed to a piece of firewood, not to a tree. And second place gets a nice set of eight steak knives.
There are plenty of dangers, from complicated currents and narrow rocky channels to inclement weather and floating logs that could puncture a hull, so race organizers have adopted the role of “Darwin’s bouncers.” “Every wing nut with a bad idea was going to show up with something that mostly floated,” Beattie says. So a qualified but secret committee carefully reviews each entrant’s adventure résumé, looking above all for one specific trait: are they smart enough to know when to quit? Organizers also set a proving ground to weed out the least seaworthy vessels and crews. For participants to proceed to the wilder portions of the route where help is scarce, they must cross the exposed but much more populated waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait to Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, in under 36 hours.
Team Sail Like a Girl first entered Maks to the Moon in the R2AK in 2018. The Melges 32 sailboat was built for day races, not designed to go offshore. Most people thought it had no chance of winning. But with wind mostly absent, the bicycle-powered propellers prevailed. It took the team over six days to finish, including 75 full hours of pedaling. Now, they are back to defend their title. For them, the race is about more than prizes, prestige, or the challenge. They’ve formed a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire women to pursue dreams. With that in mind, Goussev wondered if they could beat their time. “We have this amazing, fast, hot-rod boat,” she says; they wanted to see what it was made of.
Other than Goussev, there are two returning members: Aimee Fulwell, who learned to sail for the 2018 race, and Anna Stevens, the team’s declared Energizer Bunny who never seemed to sleep. To help steer, Goussev has also enlisted Nikki Henderson—recently the youngest skipper and the second-place finisher in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Rounding things out are sailing teacher Lisa Cole, head sail trimmer Laurie Anna (aka LA) Kaplan, and Katrina Zoë Norbom, a one-woman media crew. It’s the first time they have all sailed together.
At 5:00 a.m., as the sky illuminates a clear blue, an air horn sounds. The Soviet national anthem—another of the event’s idiosyncrasies—begins to blare through loudspeakers, and the boats set off. As soon as Team Sail Like a Girl exits port, the wind hits hard and stays behind them, hammering them across the strait. They whoop and holler amid sea spray, arriving in Victoria in time for brunch.
Big fan Raelyn Maxwell rushes to greet the sailors when they arrive in Victoria. A redhead with infectious energy who favors bold lipstick, Maxwell works in Seattle as a flight attendant for private jets. But in her off time, she’s what’s known in the R2AK world as a tracker junkie. For safety, race organizers require every boat to have a GPS device, which serves double duty through a publicly accessible website as a way for fans to track their favorite teams. The race’s quirkiness appealed to Maxwell, and she, like many of the other tens of thousands of tracker junkies, initially engaged just by watching the map. But she wanted more, and in 2017, she drove to Port Townsend, then followed racers to Victoria, where she jumped in to help jigsaw boats into the harbor and arrange wine-and-cheese parties, complete with champagne served in bailer buckets. She’s come every year since, sleeping in her Ford Ranger in harbor parking lots and setting her alarm for when she predicts boats will arrive, based on the tracker. “No team should come in with an empty dock,” says Maxwell.
The second leg of the race begins with a Le Mans start, where, instead of starting on the water in their boats, the racers begin on the downtown street overlooking the harbor and make a dash for their vessels when the race bell tolls. Maxwell hands out high fives as they pass, laughing at those acting as if two minutes will make a difference over the next thousand kilometers. Then again, it just might. In 2017, first place was decided by six minutes after days of racing.
Team Sail Like a Girl sprints from their huddle on the sidewalk across from Victoria’s historic Fairmont Empress Hotel, weaving through the maze of docks, untying the boat, and taking their positions. Goussev womans the tiller, two sailors perch on the bikes, and the rest seize the long paddles. It’s a frenzy of movement and yelling and then they’re ready. And then they wait. Sailing isn’t allowed in the crowded harbor, so the boats pedal, paddle, or row in a slow procession on their way out into the strait.
The Melges 32, being a day racer, has no head and no galley. The bathroom is a bucket. The kitchen is a Jetboil the women hold in their hands because there is no stable place to put it down. The wind picks up on the second day of the race, bringing with it rain that will persist for the next four. Still, they sail nonstop through the nights, bunking on a rotating schedule of three hours of sleep for every eight hours of waking. When two people slip out of the hammocks strung up below deck, another two fill their spots. This means a warm bed if the previous occupant was dry, but due to the rain and ocean spray, she often wasn’t. The winches for the jib sit directly above the hammocks and emit a near-constant cranking sound as the racers fine-tune their sails. And when there is no wind, the whir of the pedal drive keeps them awake with the dread of yet another shift of biking.
At one point, the team navigates a whirlpool so large they can’t see its edges. It isn’t until they’ve passed the same lighthouse three times, going backward, that they realize they’ve sailed into a washing machine.
The waters remain turbulent as they approach the town of Campbell River on the evening of day two. East across the channel, the forested hills of Quadra Island tumble into the sea to form the tapered opening known as Seymour Narrows—the first of the race’s two mandatory waypoints. Requiring racers to pass this landmark ensures they head east out of Victoria and enter the Inside Passage rather than head for the exposed outer coast of Vancouver Island, where rescue is riskier. It also gives them a moment to reconsider. “If you can get to [Seymour Narrows], you have a gut check,” says Beattie. “A lot of people opt out at this point because they know that the next bit is going to be even crazier.”
As the sea squeezes itself through this 750-meter-wide door, its currents can move as fast as 30 kilometers per hour. These change direction twice a day with the tides. The shift between can be up to a 30-minute window of stillness known as slack tide, after which momentum increases, as does the difficulty of a safe passage. It’s a timing game, and with a lot of distance to cover and unpredictable winds, it’s not an easy one.
Team Sail Like a Girl’s energy grows taut as they reach the narrows beneath a clouded night sky and rain. The drivers, Goussev and Henderson, stay alert on deck, glancing over their electronic charts. Not a single moonbeam shines on the churning water, but the crew doesn’t need light to imagine each vortex as their boat dips and twists. Passing through the entrance is like entering “the mouth of the monster,” says Goussev. “You know you’re headed down to a dark, dark place.”
Beyond lies a skinny channel known as Johnstone Strait that stretches 87 kilometers to Telegraph Cove. Blasted by strong Pacific winds, it is effectively a river that reverses with the tide. For many, it is also the hardest part of the journey.
Goussev and the others know that cliffs loom on both sides, yet fog obscures the danger. Two other boats travel nearby at an indeterminate distance, their red and green navigation lights flashing in and out of view. The sailors navigate by GPS on their phones and pray the system doesn’t glitch while they zigzag their way upwind, cold and stressed. Then, as they pass through the narrows, gray forms appear in the boat’s wake, their outlines aglow with bioluminescence. The dolphins dart, weave, and shimmer, leading the women through the darkness.
It is stretches like these that led race organizers to an unspoken rule: in the early years, they would not allow stand-up paddleboards. But a soft-spoken man named Karl Krüger changed that when he entered in 2016. Krüger’s resume spoke for itself: he grew up paddling, runs a sail charter off Orcas Island in Washington State, and has spent years exploring this coast. Forced to bail partway through his 2016 race due to stress fractures in his board, Krüger returned in 2017. And thanks to his skill, his paddleboard ended up being an asset in Seymour Narrows and Johnstone Strait. In the narrows, the board’s shallow draft allowed him to stay away from the most turbulent water and close to the rocks, where he could let the back eddies pull him through. And in Johnstone Strait, it allowed him to surf the narrow channel with the aid of a southeasterly gale, while competing sailboats had to hunker down and wait out the weather. “Indigenous peoples have been paddling this coast for centuries,” says Krüger. “That’s one of the reasons I always knew doing this on the stand-up was possible, maybe even easier in a lot of ways.”
As racers get farther north, large mountains carve into the sky before rolling in swoops and jagged steps to the sea. The trees along shore, bent from howling winds, convey both promise and threat. To the west, the ocean expands wide and unending. To the east, numerous islands cleave the sea into a dozen passages and channels with endless decisions and possibilities.
Bella Bella, the second and last waypoint, is about the halfway mark. It is also where Sail Like a Girl discovered they were in first place in 2018. As their phones dipped into service, they flooded with messages and posts from fans all over the world. At the time, says Goussev, “I thought I was sailing to Alaska and that was it.” Then, “I realized we were doing more than that. There were people that were really behind us, and I wanted to succeed for them just as much as I wanted to succeed for us.”
Race organizers know how to build an audience, with bios and daily recaps written with the flair of a well-caffeinated sports announcer. Perhaps this is part of the reason why fans like Maxwell aren’t content simply to spectate. The race doesn’t allow any organized support, meaning no phone calls to family for spare-part deliveries, and no scheduled food drop-offs. But grocery and hardware stores along the route are fair game, as are, according to the rules, “random grandmas walking down the beach with apple pies.” In the 2018 race, a passing sailor gave Sail Like a Girl some butter and told them to eat it straight since they needed all the fat and calories they could get. When the crew made faces, he handed them bread and mangoes to go with it. In 2016, a little old lady brought Krüger freshly baked scones and peach chutney. She called him by his team name, Heart of Gold, and sat with him in his tent while he ate them all.
These connections are also driven in part by the racers themselves. “People sign up for the race that are just normal people,” says Maxwell. “You’re really rooting for the guy that just wants to finish.” And while past competitors have consisted of veteran adventurers and serious athletes, most racers haven’t been training for years to sail to Alaska. In a race full of Everymen, it’s not hard for fans to imagine themselves charting their own madcap course.
This time, Team Sail Like a Girl is in third place as they come into Bella Bella. Ahead of them, between Haida Gwaii and the mainland, the forecast calls for intense winds—a chance at last to see just what Maks to the Moon can do. The following hours prove to be some of their wildest sailing ever. With gusts up to 40 knots, the crew has to stick to the high side of the boat just to keep it level. When they surf a wave, they erupt in laughter. When a wave slams the hull, it sends a shudder through the boat’s core.
“You’re on a knife’s edge,” says Goussev. And sometimes they slip off that narrow margin, as a forceful gust into the sail pulls the boat over. For those in bed, the wall becomes the floor, and those on deck brace themselves as water spills over the low side. On one of these knockdowns, as the boat lies on its side, Stevens is floating in the water in her survival suit, one hand gripping a railing, the other a Jetboil she’d been using to cook dinner. She has to toss the Jetboil. They also lose a toilet bucket this way. Fortunately, they have spares of both.
They battle like this all day and through the night, managing a quick and consistent speed. As they near Ketchikan, they abandon their sleeping schedule entirely. Then, just as they are about to change directions, Henderson looks up and sees that one of the spreaders—horizontal struts attached to the mast to help support the force of the wind on the sail—is broken. Until now, the intact spreader has managed the load, but turning will shift it onto the broken one and send all that force onto the mast, potentially breaking it. That would mean one thing: game over.
As they drop their mainsail, they slow from 12 knots to four and lose their position in third, along with the prospect of a daylight arrival. Some of the crew has to sleep again. The others fight over who gets to pedal the bicycles and thus stay warm.
It is 2:00 a.m. by the time Team Sail Like a Girl limps toward the finish line. The wind has died, so the two women on the back are pedaling hard. The others kneel at the sides of the boat, digging with the awkward paddles. As their lights near town enough to be visible, the sounds come. Hoots and hollers and cowbells echo in the darkness. When the boat touches the dock, the seven sailors link arms to step off at the same time, but all that weight on one side virtually throws them into the arms of waiting family and friends. There’s no disappointment: even though they didn’t win, they’ve shaved two days off their winning 2018 time.
Over the next couple of weeks, many more sailors will reach the docks—around half as many as set out from Victoria, the rest having opted out en route. But the race organizers and the tracker junkies won’t have stopped caring. In fact, they often care more about the plucky late arrivals.
When Karl Krüger and his paddleboard approached Ketchikan in 2017, 10 days after the winners, honking cars and waving flags spread up the coastline to greet him. Online, twice as many people turned on the map to witness his finish as did to watch the first teams cross. When he saw the crowds and realized it was over, he began to cry. “You hit a space when you know in every fiber of your being that you’re living to your fullest potential,” he says. “To stop doing that, it’s so painful.”
The race is, in essence, whatever participants want it to be. Whether it’s “to go as fast as they can in the pursuit of glory,” says Beattie, “or go as hard as they can in the pursuit of personal betterment.” In this, it’s accessible to just about anyone with nautical chops, and trackers can tune in every year knowing they’ll find at least one racer who sparks their imagination and their sense of what’s possible—if not an entire fleet of them.
After Team Sail Like a Girl arrives in Ketchikan, they wait on the docks for another hour to welcome the next finishers—the team that shared their moonless night through Johnstone Strait. Then the two teams make their way to the yacht club, strip to their long johns, and Goussev’s husband makes everyone breakfast. Encased in the aroma of beer, bacon, and days of sweat and salt, their stories bubble forth. Four days of hard sailing distilled and recounted.
These are the moments the race was created for. “The coastline from Port Townsend to Victoria to the finish line is breathtaking and humbling and instructive,” says Beattie. “The goal of the race is to get more people to have that unfiltered experience with who they could be.” It is, as its website notes, an endeavor “based on the hardest kind of simplicity.”
And this year, after two years of pandemic cancellations, organizers are taking that belief a step further. In the 2022 race, Seymour Narrows will no longer be a required waypoint. Now, teams can opt to sail the outside edge of Vancouver Island, where they have better chances of finding big wind, but will also face the full force of the Pacific. “The exciting thing to me,” says Beattie, “is that when we leave Victoria that day, there are some boats we’re not gonna know if they are gonna turn left or right. That’s the magic moment. Adding uncertainty. That’s where learning happens.”