Race to Alaska starts Sunday

Event will switch to biennial schedule

PORT TOWNSEND — The 750-mile Race to Alaska from Port Townsend to Ketchikan, Alaska, begins Sunday, the last year the race will occur on an annual schedule.

Thirty-seven teams using a variety of non-motor vessels will leave from Port Townsend at 5 a.m., heading for Victoria, British Columbia, where the next leg of the race will begin.

Craft entered into this year’s race include traditional sailboats — both monohulls and catamarans — as well as kayaks, pedal craft and one stand-up paddle boarder.

“We’re super grateful that the racers have a devoted following,” said Jesse Wiegel, race boss for Northwest Maritime, which hosts the race. “It’s a real treat to see everyone coming back to consume as much of this race as possible.”

Northwest Maritime offers $10,000 to the first-place team, a set of steak knives to the second-place team and a sense of accomplishment to the remaining teams.

The only rules are vessels must not be motor-powered, and no assistance can be pre-arranged along the way.

But while Northwest Maritime only hands out two prizes, Wiegel said some past teams are offering their own rewards. One former team, Team Oracle, is again putting up its “blister prize” for the first human-powered vessel to finish the race. Team Oracle’s prize is $1,000 in Canadian dollars (about $730), given as a bag of $1 “loonie” coins.

Racers are free to stop and resupply at any of the communities along the race route, but they can’t have arranged help like a support team to meet them. Each team has a GPS tracker and can be followed in real time on the race website.

This year, Wiegel said Race to Alaska will use a new race tracker system called Yellow Brick Tracking. The tracker can be accessed through a web browser on a desktop or laptop computer, but mobile phone users must download the free YB Races app.

Last year, 39 teams left from Port Townsend, but only 18 made it all the way to Alaska, with monohull sailboat team We Brake for Whales winning with a time of five days, 18 hours and 59 minutes from Victoria to Ketchikan. The last two teams to arrive, solo kayaker teams Bella Bella and Beyond and Sporting Chance, arrived after 18 days, 23 hours and nine minutes.

The Race to Alaska is preceded each year by a downtown street party known as the Ruckus, held in Port Townsend’s Pope Marine Park adjacent to Northwest Maritime from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. The Ruckus features live music, food stalls and even a tattoo artist on hand for anyone who wants a tattoo of the R2AK logo. The first 15 takers are free.

“We definitely gave out our allotment of free ones at least,” Wiegel said of last year’s tattoos.

The Ruckus also is an opportunity to see this year’s boats and meet the racers.

This is the last year the Race to Alaska will run on an annual schedule. Northwest Maritime announced in March it was moving the race to a biennial schedule.

Starting next year, Northwest Maritime will alternate the Race to Alaska with the WA360, or Washington 360 race, a 360-mile engineless race around Puget Sound. WA360 replaced the Race to Alaska during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Canadian border was closed, and it proved to be a popular event.

Racers in WA360 sort themselves into three categories — Go Fast, Go Hard or Human Power — and is awarded a championship belt that gets passed on to the winner of the next race.

Wiegel said the full details of the route and schedule of WA360 will be announced at the Race to Alaska blazer during Port Townsend’s Wooden Boat Festival in September.

With this being the last year of annual races, Wiegel said several teams moved quickly to be ready for this year’s race.

“I think it has the ‘last hurrah’ feeling for a couple of years,” Wiegel said. “We had teams that were really excited they’ve gotten in under the wire, they really revved their gears up and got in shape a lot quicker.”

“As always, the real news is every new team,” he said. “The rules may not have changed every year (but) we’ve got a new batch of teams.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached by email at peter.segall@peninsulanews.us.

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