Race To Alaska The Hard Way

Jonathan McKee and his crew on the Bieker 44 take advantage of a new route in the Race to Alaska and reap the rewards.
Team on Bieker 44
Matt Pistay, Alyosha Strum-­Palerm and the author on board his Bieker 44, modified for the 2022 edition of the Race to Alaska. Elisabeth Johnson McKee

Through six editions, the 750-mile Race to Alaska has become one of the premier adventure races in the world. It attracts paddlers, rowers, sailors and adventure-seekers with this simple mandate: Get from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska, using human power only. There are few other rules. The traditional route through the inside passage of Vancouver Island and north through the wilds of northern British Columbia has been plied by an incredible variety of watercraft, from high-performance racing sailboats to humble rowboats, paddleboards, kayaks and ­combinations of all.

The competitors are equally varied: Some come for the adventure, the opportunity to prove their endurance and skills over many days of extended exertion. Some think sails are the answer, although you still have to propel your sailboat through portions of the course. So, even the sailors are paddlers at some point. There are professional adventure athletes in the race, as well as high-level sailors and Olympic rowers, but the vast majority of these trekkers are normal people yearning to test themselves in one the most rugged and beautiful ­environments on the planet.

The 2022 edition had one significant change: Organizers allowed racers to go outside Vancouver Island on the way to the checkpoint at Bella Bella. This open-water option adds more miles, has less favorable current, and normally requires upwind sailing across more than 300 miles of North Pacific Ocean—one of the roughest stretches of ocean anywhere on the planet.

This new route caught my attention, so I entered my Bieker 44 Dark Star into the race. I have always wanted to test my boat in the open ocean, and the course had an instinctive appeal to me, with the mix of offshore and inshore, and the pure challenge of just getting there. Could we sail our boat quickly and safely to Alaska? I really love the spirit of this race, with few rules and a unique blending of cultures, so ambitious yet witty and humble at the same time. I also wanted this challenge to have a larger purpose, so we partnered with SeaShare (seashare.org), a nonprofit that stocks food banks across the country with high-quality seafood, much of it from Alaska. In its honor, for the race, we renamed the boat Pure and Wild.

As for any distance race, our preparations were extensive, from sails and sailing systems, to removing the diesel engine, to creating a human propulsion system, a power-generation system, etc. My original thought was to sail doublehanded, but after further consideration, I decided to race with three crew: Matt Pistay, a Race to Alaska winner, and rising star Alyosha Strum-Palerm. Together, with technical director Erik Kristen, they set about preparing for the race.

The pre-race plan fell into place one milestone at a time, and we won the Proving Ground qualifier from Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia, in rough conditions as many of our competitors, mostly fast trimarans, struggled. That was easy relative to what was to come. For the real race, we had to choose whether to take the more ambitious route outside Vancouver Island, which I strongly preferred, or play it safe in the confined (but still rough) waters of the Inside Passage.

As we paddled out of Victoria Harbor to start the race, there was no doubt in my mind that Pure and Wild would be turning right, to the open Pacific. Only three other larger monohull sailboats made a go of it. All the fast multihulls set off for the inside track. The decision proved decisive, but not for the obvious reasons. After 48 hours of racing, three of the trimarans, including pre-race favorite Malolo, had catastrophic collisions with floating logs and withdrew. So, the yellow brick road was opened to Pure and Wild, but we had our own ­challenges to overcome. Halfway up the west coast of Vancouver Island, I logged the following passages.

Friday, 6/17/22, 10:52 p.m. So far to go. It is dark and getting darker. And it is getting windier, slowly but surely. Our day on board Pure and Wild has been reasonably pleasant off the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, with a northwester of 14 to 18 knots. But the sea state has been building, the wind is up over 20, and now the waves on ­starboard are getting pretty steep. Between Alyosha, Matt and I, we had been taking one-hour shifts at the helm, with the second person on standby and the third resting. But as it was getting rougher, everything is getting harder. Suddenly, we had a bit on, moving up the course in worsening conditions. This might be the toughest part of the whole R2AK right here tonight.

Saturday, 6/18/22, 12:04 a.m. Storm is worsening. Trying to keep my s— together. Now it is really dark. I tell myself to just keep concentrating on steering the bucking bronco through the waves, keeping some kind of even heel angle. Try as I might to keep going, I admit I am pretty tired, and my focus is waning. I can’t get at the watch on my wrist because I have too many layers of clothes on. Need ’em all because big waves sometimes break over the bow, despite our freeboard. North Pacific water is a sobering 50 degrees F. I try to focus my fuzzy head for another few minutes, then decide it is Alyosha’s turn. A soft cry is all that is needed for his head to appear in the companionway. Soon he is beside me in the back of the cockpit. “Maybe think about the second reef?” The logic is suddenly obvious.

Of course, tucking in the second reef makes sense right now. Except that I am super tired, it is pitch black, and the waves are crashing pretty hard. But other than that…

I give Alyosha the wheel and ease the jib a little. Talking to myself again: “OK, focus on doing this reef right. Lazy jacks on. Slack out of reef line. Halyard on the winch. Drop the halyard past the mark. Now the hard part.

I trudge up to the mast to haul the luff down and secure the tack. I give it all my weight, and the flapping sail slowly succumbs. Now the fiddly part. I need to feed the reef strop through the webbing on the luff. My hands are not working well, and the motion of the boat doesn’t help. Finally, I clip the snap shackle directly to the sail. Screw it; it will be strong enough, maybe. Back to the cockpit to tension the luff and grind on the leech reef line. I am getting really winded now! I still have to trim on both mainsheet and jib sheet. Afterward, I stand in a puddle of sweat and mental haziness. Time to lie down.

Saturday, 3:56 a.m. We survived. When I wake up three hours later, I feel surprisingly OK. Dawn has arrived, and the wind is down to 12 knots. All is good with the world! And best of all, the dreaded Brooks Peninsula has been transited. I can see its looming mass in dark clouds 8 miles astern. Next stop, Cape Scott, the north tip of Vancouver Island. The elation I feel is such a contrast to my despair last night, such a short time ago. What a crazy activity we do, racing sailboats in the open ocean. My boat is well-founded, and I worked hard on the preparations for this trip. But even with a seasoned crew and a strong boat, there is a lot that can go wrong out here, especially sailing with a small crew like we are. But right now, everything seems great!

Saturday, 5:12 a.m. Battery trouble. Matt checks the battery level. Oh crap—22 percent. That is really bad news. Without an engine, we will have to charge the batteries with our EFOY fuel cell and our SunPower solar panels. But the fuel cell does not seem to be working, and it is too cloudy for the solar. Without power, this little adventure will get a lot harder. Matt decides to take it on, and he finds a way to rewire the fuel cell so it goes straight to the start battery. After an hour of fiddling, it is working, with 2 amps of positive charge. We are back in business.

Saturday, 10:34 a.m. Sailing again. The wind dies for a couple of hours, and we sort of regroup, have lunch and dry things out. Then a little breeze fills, and we hoist the A1.5 kite for the first time in the 250 miles sailed so far. Only 500 to go. After noon, the wind shifts to the right, and we swap the kite for the J1.5 jib, now heading straight for Cape Scott, the fabled graveyard of ships on the north tip of Vancouver Island, 30 miles away.

Saturday, 7:42 p.m. Cape Scott. As we approach the cape, things are getting kind of spooky. The wind dies, the current starts ripping against us, and the fog sets in. I can clearly hear the crashing waves as the North Pacific swell collides with the rocky and wild coast. We have no engine, so getting becalmed would probably not be good. Alyosha suggests we tack offshore, and Matt and I instantly agree.

This place emanates a feeling of danger and dread, like humans are not supposed to be here. The wind gradually fills and backs as we sail on starboard. After 20 minutes, we tack back in a perfect 12-knot nor’westerly, reaching straight for Bella Bella, our next landfall. By 10:30, darkness is complete and some fog persists. Plus, there is a lot of kelp and logs in the water, so night sailing in this part of the world is kind of fraught with peril. For now, all is good again on P&W. Soon we get around Cape Scott, the first big milestone in this crazy adventure. In any case, I am off watch for the next three hours, so down I go.

Sunday, 6/19/22, 3:16 a.m. Another world. The wind lifts enough to set the kite. As I go forward to rig it, I glance up at gaps in the clouds to see stars emerging. It is pleasant sailing as the eastern sky starts to lighten. The breeze keeps lifting, so we jibe to starboard to stay off the approaching shore, some of British Columbia’s wildest and most remote islands.

There are quite a few options for navigating to the Bella Bella checkpoint, which is nestled deep in the central British Columbian coastal islands. Since we will be arriving in daylight, and we expect light wind, we choose the shortest passage from offshore to Lama Pass to save distance and keep us in the ocean breeze longer. The only catch is that it is quite a narrow rock-strewn stretch of water, essentially short tacking between reefs in a dying breeze and adverse current.

We have been warned about this part of the race, and all of us have full focus as we drop the kite, round up through the first set of reefs, and head for the more open Lama Pass, which will take us to Bella Bella.

Team Pure and Wild
Team Pure and Wild slip past the Alaskan coastline, dodging logs, debris and sweeping currents during the Race to Alaska. Elisabeth Johnson McKee

The breeze dies, but so does the swell. Suddenly, it is completely quiet. We are surrounded by small rocky islands and coves, with ancient fir, hemlock and spruce growing over the water’s edge. We hear the repeated blows of humpback whales spouting just to leeward. It is like a dream, a sort of maritime utopia.

Nobody says anything; we are in a trance. We are racing, but we are also doing something else right now. I don’t know what to call it, but it feels like we have been transported to an ethereal world of mist and kelp. Nobody says it, but we don’t really want to leave this nirvana; it feels magical and otherworldly.

Sunday, 8:43 p.m. Getting hairy again. After negotiating the Bella Bella checkpoint, we head back out to sea into the mighty Hecate Strait, the shallow but open stretch between the Queen Charlotte islands and British Columbia coast. It was nice downwind sailing all afternoon, but now the rain has arrived, and the southeast wind is rising. From a pleasant 12 knots, we now have 18 knots, a rising sea state and constant rain. Welcome to the gates of Alaska. With the forecast of increasing winds, all three of us know this could be a challenging night, but also our last one if we can get through it successfully.

Sunday, 11:21 p.m. Jibe time. Matt and Alyosha have been crushing it, surfing and planing in the 22 knots, confused sea and total darkness. But now it is time to jibe. I put on my foulies and harness, and climb on deck for the jibe. First, we move the stack of sails and other gear that we use to help our trim and stability (legal in this race with few rules). 

That is a lot of exertion, so we take a couple of minutes to cool down before executing the jibe. We get through it. Not pretty but adequate. Now we are heading straight for the finish at Ketchikan, only 100 miles away. Matt goes down to rest, and Alyosha and I take short spells at the helm to try to stay fresh.

Monday, 6/20/22, 1:08 a.m. Bump in the night. Bam! The boat shudders, and the sound of splintering wood tells us we have hit a large log head-on. Matt is on deck in a flash. I rush below to check the bow and the bilges. All seem OK. We are not sinking. But it seems like a warning. Caution to all ye who ply these waters; you are mere humans, and there are larger forces at work out here.

With the wind continuing to climb and fatigue becoming a factor, we drop the kite and sail the main only for a while. The letterbox drop is not as clean as some we’ve done in the past. The kite gets around the leach of the main and catches on the lazy jacks going over the boom. Matt puts his hand right through the sail in his enthusiasm to get the spinnaker under control, and we can see the sail has ripped in several places. Finally, we get it into the companionway. We switch to one person on deck to preserve energy until dawn arrives or the wind lightens.

Monday, 4:56 p.m. The finish (but not the end). After a light and sloppy transit of Dixon Entrance, then a beautiful downwind run into Ketchikan (shirts off), we finish the R2AK after four days and four hours of intense sailing. Yes, we’ve won the race, which was incredible. But as the three of us reflect in the rare Alaska sunshine, we agree we’ve all been changed by the experience.

I’ve found a renewed love of the ocean and the land that bounds it, the creatures within it, and the winds and currents that stir it so relentlessly. We have trusted each other completely and worked together in the way only shipmates can. And each of us found something within ourselves, a sense of peace and gratitude that only the sea can provide.