Well, that went by quickly.
Three weeks ago we stepped on to a big blue and white sailboat, ducked into the cabin, started furiously typing, downing coffee and recording amidst the churn of the ocean, and when we popped out the Race to Alaska was over. If you're reading this as soon as we publish it, we'll be 10 podcast episodes in, and the Race to Alaska will be done save for one final straggler (Go Team Wee Free Men!) that will be finishing at some point very soon. Once again, the Grim Sweeper will have caught no one. Or, rather, everyone who the sweep boat would have caught will have quit before they caught up with them.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but we'll still be releasing 4 more podcast episodes in rapid succession this week through The Daily Fix, at least one R2AK-focused episode through the Boldly Went stream sometime later this month, some more killer outtakes on Patreon, and for a kicker probably eventually a Seventy48 Boldly Went episode as well. The race will be over soon, but we have so much audio and podcasts are forever. The stories keep coming. We'll never escape it.
This thing was a real pilgrimage for us. We didn't know much about sailing, or about the R2AK organization, before we dove in to this immersion experience. We still don't know much about sailing, but we've been repeatedly doused by R2AK, and I can tell you that it's all whales and dolphins and massive wilderness and good people in silly boats and remarkable athletes with good senses of humor. So good!
Most of my previous impressions about boating culture were formed when I was a child, and I watched One Crazy Summer a bunch of times on Fox, when they were best known as the network that showed Savage Steve Holland movies on Saturday afternoons, and before they spawned the news channel that's ushering in the end of Western society. Based on that experience, I'd always assumed boat racing was for bad guys and their feather-haired girlfriends.
So, it was really great to be immersed in this small bit of dirtbag boating subculture for a few weeks. While I assume there were a few bad guys with feather haired girlfriends in the race, these people were mostly on borrowed or working class boats, or creatives who built or modified their own. Even the fast racers embraced the indignity of attaching specially engineered Cannondales with propellers on the back of their $250,000 boats since they can't use motors. There's no way to end up in the R2AK if you don't know how to have a good time.
Are sailors athletes? Hell yeah, these people were. I'm not sure what category to put them in, but this race required a weird combo of the abilities to row for hours at a time, go for days without sleep, stave off hypothermia, engineer fixes for expensive machinery from crap you find in the couch (boats have couches!), read the winds and the tides, poop in buckets, crank lines, and point cloths in the right direction so you move forward rather than backwards. I don't know exactly what category of athletes you'd put them in, but their skill set was similar to the Warboys from that last Mad Max movie.
Because this has been our sample size, I'm pretty sure my views about boating culture aren't any less skewed now than they were beforehand, but I do think we learned a few things. We were on a big, complicated boat, so it wasn't the easiest place to learn to sail, but we did get a primer on some of the basics and learned some helpful terms like cock-a-bill, spreader, broach, monohull and multihull. I still don't really understand most of those words, but I do know what port and starboard mean, and I know that stern is the part of the boat that you vomit and urinate off of. I could tell you basically why people use a spinnaker, and what it means to reach and steam. I'm indoctrinated now because I think 20 mph is pretty fast. Also, I've already been made fun of for pronouncing "Portage" according to Canadian conventions rather than American. Can’t win but that's nothing new.
I understand now why this race gets in people’s blood. The course itself is incredible. It's real wilderness: big, absorbing, water and mountains that seem to go on forever and probably want to kill you. There are whales and grizzlies and dolphins and sea wolves. The landscape hearkens back to a time where bigger animals than people dominated things.
And the race itself doesn't feel like any other race I've been to. Well, maybe a little bit like a Fatass ultramarathon or something, that lasts for a month. The thing that helped me understand the race’s culture the most was talking to Jake Beattie, one of the race founders, about it. He said that what they’re doing is influenced by the organizers' history as Outward Bound instructors, where the goal is facilitating life-changing, transformative experiences in nature more than putting together competitive races. Jake and Daniel Evans are the heart of the race, and both of them are themselves all heart. When I realized that, the race made sense. These people are trying earnestly to change lives.
And I do think it's working. Racers are so fiercely supportive of one another by the end, even when they're competitive. It's a ridiculous challenge to complete this thing, and it seems like people end up in at least once a day in survival mode. In that space, people tend to see past their differences and work together. And at the finish line the sense of having conquered a shared struggle together was palpable.
It's really an amazing thing we've been able to be a part of these last few weeks. We have a few more episodes coming your way, so I hope you'll listen. For now, I'm really happy to have been able to participate in this, and get the full Camp R2AK immersion experience. It all went by too quickly.
Also, hey, seriously, let's hang out sometime. We go all over the Western US and Canada hosting Boldly Went Storytelling events where you all can share your stories. Our next tour will be in the Fall, so fill out that form up in the right hand corner of this page to get our weekly podcast in your inbox every week. It's great and free. Also, if you like the R2AK, you're totally the target audience for our book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's funny and useful and inspiring and ridiculous and dirtbaggy.