Some 150 sailors, paddlers and rowers will climb aboard 60 assorted boats in Port Townsend and set off for the second nonmotorized Race to Alaska this week. It’s billed as Washington’s Iditarod.

Share story

This time last year, Seattle sailor Dan Blanchard was drenched in 50-degree saltwater, sleep-deprived, mildly hypothermic and clinging to the helm of a flyweight sailboat, battered by 35-knot winds and 5-foot waves somewhere along the British Columbia coastline.

For more than 10 days, he and his exhausted crewmates aboard a 31-foot trimaran crashed through gale-force winds and surf, trying to remember why they decided to sail from Puget Sound to Ketchikan, Alaska, with no motor.

“It was like car camping in an enormous washing machine,” he recalled with a shudder.

This week he’s going back for more. Early Thursday morning, Blanchard will be one of some 150 sailors, paddlers and rowers who climb aboard 60 assorted boats in Port Townsend and set off for the second nonmotorized Race to Alaska.

Billed as Washington’s Iditarod, the race is the brainstorm of Jake Beattie, former director of Seattle’s Wooden Boat Center and now director of the nonprofit Northwest Maritime Center on the Port Townsend waterfront. His idea was to invent a new race — 750 miles from Port Townsend to Ketchikan without any kind of motor on board.

Last year’s race began with 50 small boats, a quarter of which were washed out the first day by unseasonal winds and frothy seas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on their way to Victoria, B.C. The stiff winds continued as the race resumed up the Inside Passage.

Tracked online via satellite devices aboard each boat, the competition became an internet sensation, with 11.5 million individual hits on the race website — R2AK.com.

The winning boat, Elsie Piddock, with its Seattle crew, made it from Victoria to Ketchikan in five days. Fifteen boats eventually finished the race, most of them taking eight to 12 days.

This year’s fleet is another strange assortment that includes everything from homemade rowboats to world-class racing machines. It includes a couple of guys in solo kayaks. There are several teams or solo adventurers who plan to row the entire route.

Carl and Jamie Buchan, from Seattle’s best-known sailing family, will be racing aboard a 40-foot racing sloop. There are two crews made up of people with physical disabilities. One self-styled ironman plans to make it on a stand-up paddleboard. And three boats will be crewed entirely by women.

“For me, it’s a way to empower women,” said Michele Borowski, a veteran sailor and self-styled adventurer who has assembled a crew of women in their 50s.

Some contestants had grumbled about a high-tech, 73-foot boat from California that had entered the race. However, the boat has been pulled due to mechanical problems.

Beattie says the Race to Alaska was conceived as a competition to test human innovation and creativity as well as stamina. So there are only a few basic rules. Racers can sail or paddle, and most are equipped to do some of each. They get no supply drops and no changes of crew. And they can’t have an engine on board — gas, diesel, electric or anything else.

Beattie, like many others, hopes that the weather this year will be more typical of June — light, variable winds that would favor the rowers and paddlers.

“It’s likely to be a different kind of race this year,” he said. “It’s getting faster, more multihull sailboats, and fewer people who design and build boats specifically for this race.”

Given the high-tech competition, he said, there may also be fewer racers who actually think they can compete for the $10,000 first prize or even the second place “set of steak knives.”

Blanchard, who is a CEO of a small cruise-ship company, says there are good reasons that most of the competitive boats are small multihull boats.

“They’re fast and they perform well upwind,” he said. “They’re so fast that they make their own wind and pick up speed that enables them to point higher.”

But they’re not designed for comfort. The smaller catamarans favored by several entrants have no cabin, no cooking facilities; they have been described as two kayaks bridged by a screen door.

Comfort isn’t the point, Blanchard says. This race is about other values.

“I’ve sailed all my life. I like the feeling of being unshackled to technology. We’re all tied to our cellphones and our cars. I love being freed of all that stuff now and then. It puts you back n touch with yourself and with the elements.”

Information in this article, originally published June 20, 2016, was changed June 21, 2016. This story initially included information about a 73-foot trimaran from California that had entered the race. After the story was written, the boat was pulled due to mechanical problems. The story has been changed to reflect that development.