A Race Between Breeze and Brawn

To win the Race to Alaska, a 750 mile “engineless race” that started on June 4, a boat  should “sail well and row well, probably not extreme in either direction but it has to look after the crew so the crew doesn’t have to stop and go ashore,” predicted John Welsford.

Not everyone agreed with Welsford though. To explain: He was part of a boat designers panel at last year’s Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Washington (shown in the clip above are, from left, Jay Benford, Welsford, Michael Kasten, Halsey Herreshoff, Dudley Dix, and Sam Devlin). In the hour-long session, the audience was allowed to throw any and all questions at the designers, which led to someone asking, “What type of boat is going to have the best chance in the Race to Alaska?”

It’s a good question with no clear answer. The race, which is in its first year, stands out for its open-ended nature. The main rule is that your boat does not have an engine. From there, racers can choose whatever boat they want to make the journey from Port Townsend to the finish line in Ketchikan.

Unpredictable weather makes that a tough choice. “We tried to create something where it wasn’t going to be obvious what type of boat would be the right boat,” said race organizer Jake Beattie of the Northwest Maritime Center, in a presentation about the race. “The weather patterns are frustratingly ambiguous. It’s in transition, and you never really know.”

So if the “right boat” could change from day to day, which one is best?

Unlike Welsford, Devlin, a Northwest boatbuilder who has made the trip to Alaska a few times, recommended going ashore during the race to rest. Better to bet against the wind and use the 18-20 hours of expanded northern daylight to slog it out, he advised, mainly by rowing or sculling.

“The winds are always going to be against you on that trip, if there is any wind. They’re not terribly strong at that time of year,” he said. “It’s not going to be a wind game. This is Inland Passage stuff.”

Though Devlin does recommend a boat capable of sailing too, the problem with that, pointed out Herreshoff, is “the best boat for rowing is not the best boat for sailing.” Racers would have to bet on either sail or manpower.

When the race began on June 4, wind delayed its 5 a.m. start by half an hour. Wind has continued to play a huge part. A week in, and an F-25c, Team Elsie Piddock, is well ahead of the other 24 boats remaining. As I write this, it is flying through the Hecate Straight at 10.6 knots per hour, leading its nearest competitors (a hobie and three more trimarans) by more than 40 nautical miles.

But whoever wins this engineless race, and the $10,000 first prize (second prize is steak knives, and after that, nothing), one of its biggest accomplishments is getting media attention. Stories have appeared not just in local newspapers and on sites for sailing enthusiasts, but in the New York Times and on public radio. Such scrutiny brings the interesting challenges of boat design to a national stage.

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