BY EMILY GILBERT
Imagine sails fluttering in the breeze, the sunlight glittering on the waves. Maybe a salmon leaps out of the water or the fins of some humpback whales crest the surface.
Now imagine 15-knot currents, your boat going backward, and relentless rain. You have no motor, and you are miles from the nearest town.
These are the extremes of Race to Alaska, and what team Sail Like a Girl has signed up for.
R2AK is a 750-mile boat race with only two rules: no motors and no outside support during race time. The race starts on June 14 in Port Townsend and leads teams through the Inside Passage, on the east side of Vancouver Island. The finish line is in Ketchikan, Alaska — time unknown.
Last year the winning team did it in four days. For comparison, the longest time it took for a team to finish last year was 23 days.
The winner gets $10,000 nailed to a block of wood. Second place gets a set of steak knives. All other finishers get to ring a bell at the dock in Ketchikan.
Although there is not a set date by which the teams must finish, a boat nicknamed the “Grim Sweeper” leaves Port Townsend the day the first team reaches Ketchikan or on July 1, whichever comes later. Any teams that find themselves behind the Grim Sweeper are ejected from the race.
Many teams do not finish the race. The success rate is 60 percent.
“Do you want to do Race to Alaska with an all-women’s crew?” Jeanne Goussev remembers Anna Stevens asking her over a glass of homemade whiskey from a friend and fellow sailor.
They had just finished Round the County, a sailing race in the San Juans that happens in November, when Stevens asked.
Goussev has spent most of her life on the water. She owns a boat with her husband and is active in the sailboat racing circuits, but she was also particularly frustrated with how she was treated by other teams during the Round the County race this past year.
“We are both competent sailors, and he gets all of the questions about our boat. People are just dismissive of me, which drives me nuts,” Goussev said.
She told Stevens yes, she was interested in forming an all-woman crew, and they got started putting together a team for Race to Alaska. On average, one out of five race competitors is female.
Team Sail Like a Girl is made up of eight women, although the crew is considering adding a ninth since one person is leaving after reaching Victoria, B.C. Their goal is to finish the race in five days.
Many of the women hail from Bainbridge Island and have extensive experience in sailing or other activities on the water.
Goussev said she wishes that Seattle had a stronger women’s sailing community.
“I still feel like we take a step back as women in sailing,” she said. “There are some really amazing, strong sailors that are women sailors in this community, and they don’t get the credit that they deserve.”
However, both Goussev and Stevens stressed that the sailing community is welcoming, and it can be just a few individuals who make it appear otherwise.
“One thing that I noticed is that it is kind of a boys club sometimes. If guys aren’t used to having a woman around or think they [the women] don’t know what they’re doing, they might try to take over,” Stevens said. “It just depends on the actual people on the boat.”
The team of eight (or nine, if they add another skipper) plans to bring only dehydrated food and 50 gallons of water. Each person will be allowed to have a bag of a specified size for personal items. They will sleep in four bunks below deck, and, perhaps, on the folded sails.
Their boat, the 32-foot Melges, has a wide, open pit that can seat all of the crew, although it will be tight. A crew of eight may seem large — and it is larger than the average crew on R2AK. From an informal analysis of team rosters, most teams consist of three or four people.
Goussev said that the Melges typically does better with a larger crew. Having more people in the boat means there will be more movable ballast, or weight, to compensate for strong winds that may tilt the boat to one side.
The boat will also have two bikes on the stern that will be attached to propellers in case the wind dies down. The team also plans to bring four stand-up paddleboard paddles that can be used to help propel the boat. Many teams, if not all, have an additional propulsion source besides wind if they’re racing in a sailboat.
Besides power problems, R2AK teams have to navigate through the dramatic tides of the Inside Passage.
Kate Hearsley, a crew member of Sail Like a Girl, said that the area north of Bella Bella, Alaska, will likely present more challenges than other parts of the race. The weather can be bad, and the team isn’t familiar with the area.
Two spots that she anticipates will be particularly difficult are Seymour Narrows and the Johnstone Strait. The Seymour Narrows are notorious for being challenging among racers, Hearsely said. Stevens also expressed concern over the two well-known difficult places.
The current in Seymour Narrows can churn around 15 knots, and some boats will drop an anchor instead of trying to push through the area, depending on the tide. The area used to be so dangerous for seafarers that the Canadian government actually blew up one of the most prominent rocks under the water to reduce the danger.
Haley Lhamon, another skipper, said that if the weather gets too dangerous or the current gets too strong, the team will simply find a protected spot and wait.
“We’re going to be pretty conservative,” she said. Safety is a top concern shared by all team members.
Although the team has a long to-do list to get ready before the race, the women are all still committed to R2AK.
“There are days when I’m just up all night thinking about the race, and there [are] days when I wish it was tomorrow,” Stevens said. “I want to ring the bell.”
To see off the racers, head to Port Townsend on race day, Thursday, June 14. The race starts at 5 a.m.