R2AK – Race To Alaska 2017

It was a race, it wasn’t a race, it WAS a race. How could an old, heavy wooden boat hauling rocks and window weights with an inefficient rig compete against modern, lighter efficient designs. She couldn’t, but her crew disregarded her peculiarities and were described by team Rush Aweigh as “stealthy, wily old bastards”.

Finished in Ketchikan

End of R2AK

 

Grace B was built by Ernie Baird as an apprentice project and launched in Port Townsend 1985. She is an extreme Crotch Island Pinky with lines taken directly from Chapelle’s American Small Sailing Craft. Pinky means pinched or double ended. Chapelle gave no reference for rig so Ernie sought input from various sources for sizing of the quadrilateral sprit rigged main and mizzen. Grace B became a diva of Port Townsend Bay and surrounding waters including being 1999 poster child for the Wooden Boat Festival.

 

Ernie was aging (70) and thought himself becoming “soft”. He became a tracker junkie of R2AK in 2016 which culminated in his decision to enter 2017’s race. Ernie attended Evergreen Fitness to “toughen up” and soon met Martin Musson (63), another 2016 tracker junkie, who was accepted as a team member. A third team member was necessary and good fortune came with John Calogero, “Sockeye” (52), a highly skilled Outward Bound instructor of open boat sailing. We each had different specialities which made a cohesive, non-combative team.

Grace B at 1999 Wooden Boat Festival

Grace B’s team was cemented during 2016 Wooden Boat Festival and initial plans formed. Ernie and Martin would concentrate preparing Grace B for the rigors of R2AK 2017 as they are both mostly retired. John was responsible for navigation, charts and first aid. Martin was also responsible for nutritous food and drink requirements for 3 weeks supply. Grace B had lain idle on the hard for almost 2 years and needed a thorough going over plus additions and improvements deemed necessary for the event.

Martin made a new pair of Doug Fir 12’ balanced oars based on the long oars of Pete Culler whilst Ernie constructed a stout roofed pole barn next to his homestead workshop during Oct 2016. Through 2016/17 winter Grace B had her insides scrubbed clean searching for any signs of rot. There was only minor rot behind the Whale manual pump otherwise all was sound. Oarlocks and bow cleat were repositioned due to the construction of a heavily built cuddy cabin, and an additional thwart was included for the new rowing position. All work was done in true “traditional” fashion by milling stock from raw lumber. The rotating main mast was fixed by wedges at the partners and mast boot supplied by Nahja Chimenti of Force 10 Sailmaking kept the cuddy completely dry. The Whale manual bilge pump was overhauled with new parts but was redundant to a float switch electric bilge pump. Centerboard 1” pivot pin was replaced and packed with marine grease. Grace B finally re-entered the brine in mid April ready for her sea trials. Her sails were in good condition with only a slight bit of stitching attention to one of her top sails which was attended to by Carol Hasse sail loft. Main and mizzen were of 10 oz cloth built by Northwest Sails & Canvas years before. Mystery Bay Sails and Canvas supplied foam cushions as butt savers for rowing and a spare pair of 10’6” lifeboat oars for our secondary stations. Sugar Flanagan of Alcyone lent 3 survival suits to team Grace B.

Stern view all sails up

The first leg of the race was billed as a proving ground, Port Townsend to Victoria in 36 hours. It truly was a proving ground for team Grace B and the boat. Adrenaline filled sleepless nights subsided into “this is real and happening now”. A windless, drizzly ebb tide had us rowing with slack sails up for hours wending our way west. We knew bad weather was forecast with strong Westerly gusts up to 29 knots. We felt comfortable and expected to reach Victoria in those conditions by positioning ourselves for close reaching from mid Straits on the flood tide into Victoria’s harbor. We dropped the topsail as winds started to reach 10 knots then within 10 minutes full fury of the non-forecast central Straits storm hit us. A rushed single reef in the main was put in amongst confused and building seas. Ernie took the helm like a stoic sea captain of yesteryear. He threw his hat into the cockpit, removed salt sprayed glasses and opened his foulies! He was ready for battle.

 

Grace B had a tough time slogging through severely confused seas in 40 to 50 knots gusty winds, grossly over-powered, but unable to downsize her sail area in the rollicking motions. She was being picked up by the waves and slammed into each trough taking large amounts of green water over her leeward rail and often taking airborne water over her windward rail. We got swept into Haro Strait and after 4 brave and tiring hours on the tiller Ernie handed off to Sockeye. Two hours later, with tide change, we headed West again into Oak Bay and found calm, sheltered water close to a public beach and anchored overnight. Early the next morning we rowed the remaining 7 miles in calm, sunny conditions to Victoria’s Inner Harbor to ring the bell for first stage successfully completed.

Entering Victoria Harbor

Leaving Victoria

Victoria allowed us time to reconfigure our over packed boat, dry everything and fix the jammed partly open cuddy hatch. We still had excessive gear which made movement about Grace B’s cockpit awkward. Sunday 11th Le Mans start saw us trailing the fleet in clear, superlight winds rowing with sails slack. This was our “motor-sailing” mode awaiting 3 knots of forward progress before shipping the oars. Wending Northwards off Sidney Spit just prior to dusk Ernie struck the topsail and a halyard escaped to the truck of the mast. Martin stood on Ernie’s shoulders with a stick to attempt grabbing the wayward line only to be 4’ too short. Martin then free climbed the mast, retrieved the line in his teeth and scurried back down the mast – never again! In the ensuing darkness we battled a strong ebb and ferry-glide rowed to a tiny cove on Ker Island awaiting tide change. Our plans of 24/7 and shift system were already breaking down due to circumstances.

 

The continuance of the entire trip then became a series of happenings. Mostly favorable winds pushed us gently into Georgia Straits off Nanaimo at dusk, then dropped. We tried rowing through the night against an ebb and increasing sloppy swell from the South. The first of many running rigging failures occurred and had the main sprit loosely banging the mast. All rigging failures were dealt with quickly and caused little concern overall but it felt like a Ford (Fix Or Repair Daily) rig. Messing with the rig saw us get very close to rocks twice and we scraped the centerboard shoe a few times. When winds kicked in again we sailed hard and fast to Comox ferry landing to anchor. Grace B’s lapstrake hull sounded like a freight train gurgling and slapping through the waves as she surfed under single reefed main and full mizzen. We could reach out and pat the waves just below the stern gunnels. It was enthralling sailing.

Reefed & scandalized mizzen

On anchor it was decided to sail more conservatively as forecasts informed of increasing conditions. We decided to completely drop our 24/7 and shift system plan to catch up on sleep. Next morning we double reefed the main, single reefed and scandalized the mizzen before rowing off our anchorage. A couple of hours later we had yet another enthusiastic sail to Campbell River arriving early afternoon. Several other racers were also there, a couple getting ready to continue whilst the rest of us decided to sit out the forecast storm of 45 knot winds and horizontal rain. Grace B was in need of attention and we got right to it replacing main sail halyard and sprit falls halyard after borrowing a bosuns chair. We manually lifted the main mast 2” to pack Splashzone epoxy to re-seat its mastfoot and re-wedged the mast at its partners before the storm hit and enjoyed real food and hotel beds for 2 nights.

Bosun chair repair

Transiting Seymor Narrows on a 6 knot tide with Southerly winds opened us to another world. One where the scenery became even more dramatic and wild, along with the understanding that stakes were higher where caution rather than bravado rules. Pleasant sailing Discovery Passage had us stumped at Chatham Point and Johnstone Strait’s flood. We had a couple of unsuccessful sailing attempts to get ensconced in Johnstone Strait before using the eddy current and rowing close to the lighthouse then ferry-glided across to the Northern shore before finding a sheltered cove to overnight. Our trip through Johnston Strait was generally fantastic with some calm spells, a short spell with NW winds and seas against us (uncomfortable) and some great sailing with 20-30 knot Southerlies that once again had us patting wave tops at the gunnels. We were making 8.9 to 10 knots surfing the waves per Navionics GPS. Wildlife was in abundance with Humpback whales spouting and rolling, a massive pod of Pacific white sided dolphins, occasional seals and countless Bald Eagles. Johnstone Straight was kind to us as we exited it on the last, stormy Southerly when many of the smaller, lighter racers sat the day out. We crossed to the Northern shore of Queen Charlotte Strait in drizzly weather to anchor in the same sheltered bay as Sistership. They invited us aboard their cozy trimaran for hot drinks, food and an impromptu interview. Their company and comfort were greatly appreciated.

Team Sistership

Next morning we set sail after Sistership in rain and wind towards Cape Caution. It rained continuously for 10 hours and visibility was reduced. Ernie and John’s hands became white, waterlogged prunes for the entire day but neither showed concern as we sailed Pacific swells well clear of the Cape. Over a couple of days we worked our way Northwards towards Bella Bella, R2AK’s second checkpoint, mostly sailing or “motor sailing”. The French duo, team Phocoena, sailed nimbly by us in their sleek little trimaran South of Lama Passage and were soon out of sight.

 

We made no progress in Lama Passage with tide against and superlight winds. We rowed the entire passage using eddy currents close to South shore and were blessed with the most amazing whale show ever. Three Humbacks put on a display of leaping barrel rolls for 10 minutes before raising a pectoral fin and wave slapping “that’s all for now folks” show’s over. Magic.

To our stern in Lama Pass Northern shore, team Rush Aweigh appeared to be catching us and the race was on to reach Shearwater resort at Bella Bella before the bar closed. We arrived within minutes of each other but behind Rush Aweigh at 11.45pm and went straight to the bar with full foulies and head torches ablaze. Other racers were docked at Shearwater and it was a little party atmosphere for a few hours. We had a chance to shower, wash clothes, phone home and eat real food before setting off again.

Shearwater dock Bella Bella

Other teams left Shearwater before us next morning and we found that our main battery was severely discharged by an electrical inverter inadvertently hooked up for too long. We hung around Shearwater whilst having the battery speed charged by the local outboard motor shop and were able to set off “motor sailing” at 5pm for the final and longest leg of R2AK. The next 3 or 4 days became a bit of a blur with pleasant but virtually windless days. We rowed, a lot, up the Seaforth Channel – Fitz Hugh Sound with plenty of scenery and wildlife encounters; more Humbacks, two Fin Whales, a Steller Sea Lion macerating a salmon and plentiful Bald Eagles. We navigated Higgins Passage surrounded by ancient scenery that few people must have seen because only small, shallow draft boats can transit its narrow hidden channel. It’s only 4’ deep at high tide and dry at low tide with plenty of rocks to scout around. Several channels and islands further North had huge tidal ranges and saw us high and dry in a small inlet one morning which allowed us to explore the surroundings. We found several abalone shells, one live abalone plus numerous beautiful sea anenomes and many colorful starfish. We had expected a 15’ drop in tide based on Bella Bella but should have used Prince Rupert’s figures which were more accurate and closer to the near 21’ tidal drop we experienced.

Oops! Aground

Tide still ebbing

Grace B suffered no harm lain gently on shingle on her starboard side and hefty keel with centerboard housed as we awaited the incoming tide for 5 hours then kedge her off. Some whales cruised by our inlet blowing off raucously as if to rally us into action but we were still land bound. Around midday we rowed out into open waters and continued the quiet journey NW. Team Kelp appeared from behind and slowly crept ahead in light air. Later in the day as the ebb and lack of wind slowed them they anchored close to shore but in deep water, 110’, and could not retrieve their anchor. Grace B came into site and team Kelp hailed us to assist. Sockeye talked them through the method to move in-line ahead of their anchor to free it from its grip and team Kelp were ecstatic  to break free then offered us a meal rafted together. As we parted company expressions changed and racing resumed. Later on we remembered team Kelp needed fresh water so we arranged a rendezvous and decanted 6 gallons from our excessive supply before heading deep into an inlet for night’s anchorage. Team Kelp continued through the night and got a substantial jump on us.

Next morning had us going backwards on the tide with NW wind against us for the first hour then we started making slow headway tacking widely with 110-120 between tacks. Winds freshened along with seas and we had to decide whether to go outside into Hecate Strait or the safer but longer inside route towards Prince Rupert. Forecast was not favorable for the outside route plus we were having great difficulty heading NW due to Grace B’s inability to sail close hauled, so we entered Schooner Passage as our way to Ogden Channel. By now our desire of reaching Ketchikan was looming as imminent and we didn’t feel like dilly-dallying any more. We sailed mostly with full main and single reefed mizzen dropping our earlier conservative sail plan.

 

We spent a lot of time in Schooner Passage caught in the grips of standing waves and whirlpools travelling at over 5 knots against us for about 90 minutes. We sailed like surfers enjoying every moment but got nowhere until the current relented. We adopted the routine of night sailing to use favorable tides and negotiated the Ogden Channel briskly. Next day’s forecast was for strong NW around 25 knots and we continued towards Stephens Island, passing teams Kelp, Rod Price Adventures and Viz Reporter who’d holed up for the day. Team Rush Aweigh was having their own “fun” 2 miles outside Prince Rupert trying to avoid big ships. We had spirited sailing and called a conference to decide the next steps opting to backtrack slightly into the shelter of a small cove on Stephens Island. It was still quite windy and we lowered the kellet to hold our anchor down around 5pm.

On anchor Stephens Island

Safe and snug in our anchorage we had a multi course meal of hot Bovril drink, fresh salad, hot noodles and Tuna, Grapefruit and Kit Kat and finally cheese washed down by tea. It seemed akin to a last supper. We were able to sleep for the next 8 or 9 hours before getting underway for what we hopefully expected to be our final push to Ketchikan.

 

As usual we were late starters getting underway at 7am beating into NW headwinds. The teams we’d passed the previous day started at 4.30am through Chatham Sound and the main passage to Ketchikan. Our tactics were to work out into Dixon Entrance and take the open but more direct route to Ketchikan. Mother Nature had different plans for us by kicking up confused big seas and moderate to increased winds. We needed to sail with as much cloth as safely possible to make headway with our poor upwind performance. Under full main and single reefed mizzen we regularly shipped green water over the leeward rail, but we were “old hat” at that and had no cause for concern until a slight increase in the wind and a wave that broke over the entire windward length of the boat forced us to reef. That wasn’t a pretty sight with Martin violently seasick , John wrestling not to be beaten to pulp by a flailing main sprit and Ernie stoically rolling the bunt. It took all 3 of us to put the first reef in under those conditions and Ernie had to work the tiller often to climb over intermittent series’ of three big waves before resuming course. Half an hour later the wind subsided and we realized that our direct outside line to Ketchikan was not going to work so we altered course for Duke Island and Revillagigedo Channel. Nighttime engulfed us as the winds died and had us slopping around dabbling oars to avoid Sisters Rocks off Duke Island. Around 2.30am light Southerlies wafted our limp sails into shape and allowed us to stow our oars. We rounded Duke Island to enter Revillagigedo Channel and breezed the final 25 or so nautical miles. Life was feeling good, breakfast and hot drinks all around had us feeling half human again until we spotted team Rush Aweigh ahead and team Kelp ahead of them. Downwind we were slowly catching team Rush Aweigh but team Kelp was far ahead. We opted to take a short cut navigating through rocks to close the distance but team Rush Aweigh refused to let the “old bastards” get any closer, so they added sliding seat rowing to pull ahead. The three teams came in within a couple of hours of each other with Grace B stopping to douse sails, don sail covers and make a graceful entrance under oar power to go ring that bell. Eleven hours later teams Rod Price Adventure and Viz Reporter completed R2AK accompanying each other. Five teams in wildly different modes of vessel finished within 14 hours of one another over 710 nautical miles and differing courses, a testament to the human spirit. Grace B finished in 18 days, our estimate before the race was 14-21 days. We hit target.

Approaching Ketchikan

R2AK forms deep camaraderie bonds and doesn’t bring out the win at all costs mentality. Winning is completing the R2AK successfully, safely without traumatic baggage. There was so much good feeling, support and willingness to help from everyone we met anywhere and everywhere. We even had a visiting coastguard RIB approach us in Johnstone Strait to ask for Ernie by name and wish us well. The stormy day near Stephens Island another Canadian RIB coastguard checked us out but once informed that we were in R2AK they must have assumed we knew what we were doing and wished us well before speeding away. Was it a race? You decide.