Thomas Nielsen on Race2Alaska

Thomas Nielsen started the 750NM adventure towards Alaska on June 23rd, finishing after 22 long, most of the time windless days. One even wouldn’t call it a race, it is a journey, an adventure, challenge, and it takes a lot of courage, the spirit and patience in this case! Thomas shared this quite unique experience with us.

Snagging the Line – Ketchikan Alaska

Solo racing the Seascape 18 in the 2016 Race to Alaska
by Thomas Nielsen

It had been a long windless race through debris clogged waters. Of the 750 nautical miles from Port Townsend Washington to Ketchikan Alaska, I had three maybe four days of decent wind. Some days there was none. I did my fair share of slow sailing chasing wind zephyrs.

The finish line was now about one hundred meters away. I had negotiated foul currents full of logs, sleepless days and nights avoiding numerous ships and the craggy coastline along the Inside Passage. So close to the end, I was about to be derailed by a salmon.

About 25 meters from the finish line there were a number of young men fishing from the pier at the entrance to Thomas Basin, the race finish. Set up to cross the line, one of these fishers suddenly hooked a large salmon. It took off with a powerful leap out of the water, landed on the far side of my boat and proceeded to swim around and under me. I was now snagged in this battle between man and fish and I was cursing and somewhat hog tied. Boat control?

The current was setting me towards a moored cruise ship. My choice was that or a rock breakwater. I spun the boat around heading away from the finish line. Was I never going to finish this race? What where the folks on the dock thinking? Some kind of Moitessier move? Luckily, the salmon had a different plan. Without the rod in play, its brute force broke the line. Free of the fish and tensioned line, I put the helm over hard over, got back on course and crossed the finish line. Done!

Finish line bell rung, handshakes all round, beer in hand, and awaiting the US Customs Officer for my official re-entry into US waters, I had completed what the previous year’s conditions had blockaded. Race to Alaska complete. And with that, the Seascape 18 now held the R2AK record (unofficial) for the first and fastest monohull of any size to be sailed solo in the race.

The 2016 Race to Alaska is the second time this race has been held. It is far from your normal racing experience. It winds its way up the northwest coast of North America. There are two check points along the way; Seymour Narrows, a narrow gorge where the current of up to 18 knots creates a turmoil of whirlpools and the First Nations village of Bella Bella. There are few rules; No motor, no outside team specific support, no crew substitutions. Race protocols are not followed, just the international rules of the road. There are no classes. All the boats race against each other in one category. This year the pack stretched from a professionally crewed 73 foot trimaran to a guy on a stand up paddle board. Neither of those teams completed the race. The tri didn’t even get to the start line. First prize is $10,000 nailed to a tree in Ketchikan. Second prize is a set of steak knives. They are nice ones!

The race starts in the marine village of Port Townsend. There is a dis-qualifying leg – the race to Victoria where all teams must arrive before a cut off time and also clear Canadian Customs. Inevitably some of the ill prepared or experimental boats don’t make it. This is a good thing. The real race from Victoria to Ketchikan is through some very remote areas where no one lives and there are limited search and rescue resources. All boats are fitted with SPOT trackers. If your boat stays stationary for several days or starts to take an erratic course and you don’t respond to radio calls they do come looking for you.

Racing solo is not encouraged but if you meet the criteria, they let you race that way. This year almost 25% of the fleet was solo. Most of these teams have withdrawn. Only three solo teams have made it so far, including myself on the Seascape 18. There are two more solo sailor working their way up the coast; one has clearly switched to “cruising mode” the other has had the tenacity to continue after he lost his crew member.

Sailing solo and on a monohull is no way to win this race, especially when you are pitted without a handicap system against well crewed multihulls. This year the winning boat was a foiling M32 with a crew of three. They averaged 24.8 knots and made it in 3 days and 20 hours. Sailing solo ends up being a personal challenge.

The Seascape 18 has been a great boat to challenge myself in this race. Sailing it solo was perhaps not the fastest way to get to the finish line. Light winds didn’t help either nor did getting past by other teams while I slept. Numerous boats that I lead or past regained their leads. A crew of two might have helped but really a crew of three on a Seascape 24 would be the best way to go – one resting while the other two pushed on. Theoretically the course from Victoria to Ketchikan should be able to be covered in 6 days.

Ketchikan Alaska is a friendly but strange town. Everyday in summer, the population doubles as cruise ships arrive in the morning and depart late evening disgorging bored cruisers who are looking for activities to do or stuff to buy. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. The local yacht club is a bright shining light in the midst of this, hosting finishing racers. Moorage, showers, laundry and if you time it right or stick around, Friday night BBQ’s are perks of finishing.

In the end everyone who finishes this race is a winner. It takes a massive effort just to get to the start line and there are endless obstacles encounter to derail your effort including a very dedicated fan base that all want to rub shoulders with the racers. For a brief moment, racers get to be rock stars!

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