He's the first SUPer to complete the Race to Alaska, now in its third year pitting non-motorized craft in a 750-mile race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan.
Highs and lows, he had them like a barometer.
One of the more adrenaline-charged experiences for Karl Kruger on his two-week, 750-mile stand-up paddleboard journey from Washington to Alaska, which ended Sunday, came on Johnstone Strait, on the inside of Vancouver Island, when an almost-unheard-of-in-those-parts windstorm from the south propelled him like a northward-spit olive pit.
He didn’t want to spend many hours paddling up the long strait against the typical northwest headwinds. So he risked the forecast storm on his 19-foot, custom-built carbon-fiber board, estimating his tailwind at 50 knots at the storm’s peak. Saltwater spray hurled through the air around him.
“I went out in a gale warning and cleared 50 miles — I surfed Johnstone Strait!” says Kruger, of Orcas Island, the first SUPer to complete the Race to Alaska, now in its third year pitting non-motorized craft in a race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan, Alaska.
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Some of his best moments came during a peaceful and magical passage the previous night through Seymour Narrows, an often-busy, current-blasted shipping lane.
“I went through at night and it was just beautiful. It was the most soulful experience. To get to be there alone was a miracle. I timed it perfectly and went through at slack water. It was very calm, not a breath of wind, I could hear the birds in the trees, and the bioluminescence was just streaming off my paddles — it was like riding a comet through the sky,” recalls Kruger.
He trained for his journey like an Olympian. He camped at rest stops in modern, ultralight gear; kept to a highly disciplined, scientific diet heavy with gels and protein shakes from one of his sponsors, Hammer Nutrition, a supplier of energy foods for extreme athletes. He plotted his route using navigation maps on an iPad stored safely in a dry bag and a watch with barometer and compass functions, finding his way around landmarks with names such as Cape Caution.
On his longest day Kruger paddled 72 miles. He routinely paddled 10-to-16-hour days, averaging 50 miles per day.
“I’ve been training like a mad dog for the last couple years prepping for this race,” and he followed his personal trainer’s strict warm-up and cool-down routine so physical exhaustion wasn’t a big challenge, he says, though “there were several days it was a real boxing match” against strong currents.
One day, he recalls, the wind and current around Dundas Island, B.C., required him to paddle on his right side for hours on end. “The seascape was stacked up and lumpy and I had knots and cramps around my right shoulder that were just brutal — it was a street fight.”
Still, “This race is more a mental challenge than a physical challenge,” Kruger said Wednesday, his first day home, in a phone conversation from his liveaboard sailboat at Deer Harbor, where he and his wife, Jessica, run a sailing charter business.
“It’s like you’re running a marathon every day for two weeks. There were days when every single stroke was a barrier. Everything in my body said no, no, no; stop, stop stop.”
By the rules of the race, Kruger had no chase boat and no support crew, nor could food caches be placed along the route. Except for a few brief forays into towns along the way — including a couple hamburger stops — he was alone most of the trip, and sometimes cold. “I never built a fire at my shore camps; everything around this race was built around shortening up the time of my busy work at night. I wanted to maximize my time on the water. I didn’t have a lot of time.”
He was alone, that is, except for an amazing variety of wildlife.
“Once I passed Seymour Narrows, I saw whales every single day. I paddled along with a humpback whale for maybe 10 miles through Johnstone Strait, maybe 30 or 40 feet away at times; we just happened to be going the same way.” Other wildlife included sea otters, seals, sea lions, bears, orca whales and “tons of eagles.”
Before the race, he had predicted his paddling time at two weeks. It ended up two weeks, six hours and 17 minutes before he stepped on to the dock at Ketchikan, rang the finish-line bell and greeted Jessica and their 9-year-old daughter, Dagny.
There was no prize for him. The $10,000 first-place winners, three brothers from Massachusetts on a 27-foot sailing trimaran, had arrived June 15, 10 days ahead of Kruger, out of 57 vessels that started the race. Kruger didn’t even get the “pretty good set of steak knives” that are second prize.
But he says he didn’t do it for money. His sponsorships only helped defray his gear costs, and he knew he wouldn’t win.
“The reason I did it: I’ve always been most attracted to outdoors activities, I’ve never been into ball sports played by teams,” says Kruger, who turned 45 during his paddle. “All my life I’ve been into skiing and paddling and climbing. I’ve always been after the rawest and most unfiltered form of those activities, and doing this by SUP is about the most unfiltered way of traveling this coast I can think of.”
Back on his sailboat, he was nursing a problem with his lower legs. The first day out, which was bright and sunny, he got a bad sunburn on his calves, exposed by his 3/4-length compression tights. “I was so focused on the race, the first day or two I roasted them in the sun,” which caused blistering, later rubbed raw by longer tights he wore as the weather got colder.
“I think I got a little infection,” Kruger says. “I probably need to see the doctor in the next day or two.”