OFF BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — With wind in its sails, the Dazed and Confused was running neck and neck with the Amicus on a recent Wednesday night.
Eager to maintain its lead, the crew aboard the Amicus prepared to tack aggressively and cut off wind to the rival boat. As the boom swung across the deck, Kiel Reijnen, 34, yelled, “EmmyLou, spot! Butt down!” His daughter knew exactly what to do. With a tether connecting her to the 30-foot sailboat, she crouched down in the entrance to the companionway and stayed out of harm’s way while her father trimmed the sail. Grandfather Derek Reijnen, 67, stood behind her at the helm keeping a watchful eye.
The Amicus eventually finished third in a race off Bainbridge Island and around Blakely Rock. For the three generations of Reijnens on the water, this weekly race series is just a tuneup for a bigger competition — one that will take them in sight of their island home twice as they navigate the length of Puget Sound in the first-ever WA360 race, which leaves from Port Townsend at 6 a.m. on June 7. From there, competitors will have two weeks to sail, paddle or row south to Olympia, north to Point Roberts near the Canadian border, then south back to Port Townsend for a 360-mile tour of our local saltwater.
At age 4, EmmyLou is the race’s youngest participant by a long shot. “I like the colors of the kite,” she said, pointing to the pink, blue and purple spinnaker during a lull in the wind. Favorite onboard task? “Making sure everything is tight.” Least favorite part about sailing? “Getting seasick.”
EmmyLou has memorized the Amicus’ five-digit sail number, which even her father can’t remember by heart, and baptized her team Unicorns With Pretty Horns. (They are sponsored by Fisheries Supply.) This 4-year-old sailing savant is just one of the many quirky but driven characters who make up the latest nautical adventure cooked up by the folks at the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend.
“With ages that now range from 4 to 83, our adventure races attract a type that is hard to nail down,” said race director Daniel Evans. “They’re playful and hungry and driven, but a unifying characteristic might be integrity. They operate from an inner compass and their true north, their sense of direction, is not the same as the people around them. They may seem courageous or oddball or even reckless, but they are 100% present, sometimes terribly frightened, and unwilling to give up on being more than they are today.”
Port Townsend is rightly famous as the launching point for the Race to Alaska, which typically sees 45 hardy teams attempt the treacherous journey to Ketchikan to claim the first prize of $10,000 nailed to a tree. (Second place wins a set of steak knives. Don’t ask.) In five editions since the inaugural race in 2015, the first-of-its-kind, 750-mile engineless journey up the Inside Passage has attracted national attention and minted stories like the historic all-female team Sail Like a Girl and an Orcas Island man who made it to Alaska on a stand-up paddleboard.
But the continued closure of Canadian waters to U.S. mariners for the second summer in a row sent Evans back to the drawing board. After months of waiting for good news from Ottawa about reopening the U.S.-Canada border, he was frustrated. “Every month Canadian officials would push it back one more month. It got so repetitive, I stopped looking,” he said. “It was easier to wash my hands of checking that every month and go into a straight planning phase.”
In November, his sailboat put away for the season, Evans began seriously thinking about an idea that Team Sail Like a Girl captain Jeanne Goussev had floated soon after the pandemic forced international borders shut: an in-state race. Evans began consulting nautical charts, calculating mileage and mulling over what would make for a safe, exciting route.
When December rolled around, Evans revealed that there was a new race staying close to home, which dulled the pain when he announced that the Race to Alaska was called off yet again. “The reaction was really strong,” he said. “All the people thinking about Race to Alaska started thinking about WA360. And a bunch of local fans all of a sudden found they had a different way to get involved as volunteers.”
By the time of the sign-up deadline, 47 wind-powered and 13 human-powered teams had joined the fray — more than would show up for Race to Alaska. A race that is half the distance through less remote and treacherous waters ultimately offers a lower barrier to entry. Kiel Reijnen thought he might take EmmyLou on the Race to Alaska when she was 12, but when he explained WA360 to his daughter, who has been sailing since she was an infant, she perked up at the prospect of a four-to-eight-day sailing adventure with her father and grandfather.
“No one listens to their 4-year-old when they say, ‘I want to race around Washington,’ but I take that at face value,” said Reijnen, a professional cyclist who is carving out precious time right in the middle of race season. He will return from a cycling race in Kansas at 6 p.m. the night before WA360 kicks off.
Lillian Kuehl, 35, lives part time aboard her sailboat in Elliott Bay Marina and rows to work at Miller & Miller Boatyard in Salmon Bay aboard Amarillo, her 18-foot sliding seat rowboat. Those 5-mile legs are training miles en route to her solo quest to race WA360, though she estimates that she has rowed fewer than 360 miles in her lifetime. “I’m fairly underqualified,” she deadpanned.
Rowing began as a lark when Kuehl and her boyfriend surreptitiously signed up for Seventy48 (a human-powered race from Tacoma to Port Townsend and another Northwest Maritime Center adventure) because she thought it would be amusing to show up in Port Townsend by rowboat in order to join her father’s sailing crew for the 2019 Race to Alaska. Her Seventy48 team name: Don’t Tell My Dad.
“I like that [WA360] is hard and simple with no categories,” she said during a break at the boatyard from tinkering with hydronic heaters and fixing leaky plumbing. “It’s more like unhitching your buggy horse than bringing your thoroughbred.” Though other human-powered competitors are bringing their thoroughbreds, like Team Pacific Boys, which will use the same boat in which they intend to row across the Atlantic, and Team Rogue Kayaker, a solo racer building his own watercraft.
Kuehl hopes to log 30-mile days with up to 12 hours of active rowing. She’s already manipulated her sleep schedule so she can row when the tides and currents are right, time of day be damned. Last winter’s after-work commutes accustomed her to rowing in the dark.
The curious nature of a jointly human- and wind-powered race is the diametric opposites. While Kuehl is most anxious about how the Amarillo will handle the open water crossings in the Georgia Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Reijnens are eager to let the Amicus loose around Puget Sound’s northern reaches. By contrast, they fear the complicated currents and unreliable wind of South Puget Sound, a paddler’s paradise.
Ultimately, then, it comes down to maritime strategy. Will sailors pick up the subtle wind puffs in South Sound? How well will paddlers and rowers time winds, currents and tidal swings up north? Should competitors attempt a shortcut through the turbulent waters around Deception Pass or risk the long, unpredictable ride up Swinomish Channel, the bottom of which hasn’t been dredged for years, making for inaccurate depth charts?
“It will be a mental game for a lot of teams,” Evans said.
With two races under his wing, Evans hopes WA360 will join the flock for good. “It feels like the perfect third leg that fits in well with the other two races, all of which offer an elite level of challenge for people who aren’t professionals,” he said.