Sailor, salvage officer and 100-ton master’s license captain Katy Stewart of Wauna will compete in her fifth consecutive race to Alaska, known as the R2AK, starting June 8.
Now in its fifth year, R2AK has become infamously popular with a certain kind of adventure seeker. The race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan for wind- or human-powered vessels only — no engines and no support crews — is the longest race of its kind in North America. First prize is $10,000; second is a set of steak knives.
Race organizers describe R2AK as “like the Iditarod, on a boat, with a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter, or eaten by a grizzly bear.”
Last year 45 teams entered and 25 finished. The fastest passage to date is three days, 20 hours, 13 minutes.
“At the postrace party this past year they handed me a giant punch card that said: ‘Your fifth race is free.’ ” Stewart has already completed more R2AK races than anyone — that’s over 3,000 miles of sailing when there was wind and rowing when there wasn’t. With the entry fee taken care of, she aims to keep her most frequent racer status this year.
But this time she’s going alone.
“I decided the thing I haven’t done yet is to single-hand it,” she said.
Stewart has skippered a different boat, mostly with a different crew, every year.
“It's like the Iditarod, on a boat, with a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter, or eaten by a grizzly bear.”
“My first year I used a homemade trimaran my dad built in the ’90s that was sitting in the bushes in Lakebay. My sister and another friend restored it and we sailed it, just us three girls.”
The trimaran was called Coyote and her crew was Team Onism, “which, according to the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, means the sad awareness that you can’t possibly do everything there is to do in life,” she said. “It was great. I think it took two weeks.”
The next year Stewart’s husband and her other sister wanted to come along. “He decided that it looked like I’d had a lot of fun, so it was me, my husband and my two sisters on a boat that we found on Craigslist for $2,500.”
That crew was called Team Global after Stewart’s employer, Global Diving and Salvage, paid their entry fee and became a race sponsor.
The boat was a 1960s-era Columbia Sabre called Greener, “a really skinny missile, but heavy,” Stewart said.
Some sailors might be reluctant to take an unfamiliar 50-year-old boat on a 750-mile cruise to Alaska, but not Team Global.
“There was precedent for that,” Stewart said. “My husband and I bought a boat the year we got married in 2003. It was from the mid-1970s, and we took off and sailed all the way down to Mexico and over to Hawaii and back to San Francisco. It’s just about knowing what you’re looking at, triaging what needs to be fixed.”
During that second race, Greener suffered a dangerous mechanical failure during a gale off Aristazabal Island in southeast Alaska.
“We were in a really big following sea; I think we decided it was probably 8 feet,” Stewart said. The boat jibed, getting sideways to the wind and waves. The mainsail swung from one side of the boat to the other and the sudden backpressure snapped the boom holding it in half.
“We left the headsail up and we were just surfing down the swells,” she said. “It was perfectly fine; we were doing 4 knots just with that. We had an old rowing machine from the ’80s up in the cockpit, just a sliding seat on a rail, so we took it apart and lashed the rail along the length of the boom as a splint. It was perfect.”
For year three, a new Team Global raced Not Bad, Stewart’s own newly acquired Beneteau 345 built in 1988.
“Oh man, the thing had a head and an oven and a wine rack; it was great,” she said. “I pulled together a whole group of friends, none of whom had ever met each other until a week before the race started. We also didn’t sail that boat before the race, we just started from the line. With all that crew, we got a luxurious amount of sleep.”
When year four rolled around, Stewart almost didn’t go.
“But then a friend of mine bought a 1989 Farrier-27 trimaran called Magpie and told me that I should use it,” she said. “For most of the winter and into spring I was in Florida doing salvage, cleaning up from Hurricane Michael. So, zero planning.”
Team Razzle Dazzle signed up on the last day of registration and got their boat in the water the day before the race. “We had zero time on it before we left,” Stewart said. “We crossed the starting line just trying to get the sails up. It was messy.”
They finished the race in nine days.
For her fifth race, Stewart will be a one-woman Team Razzle Dazzle piloting a narrow, decked expedition kayak-like craft called an Angus Sailing Rowcruiser.
“It’s a trimaran ketch, 20 feet, with a tiny, tiny little cabin,” she said. “It’s made to travel well under oars, which will be refreshing.”
One of the biggest challenges in the R2AK, after injury, exhaustion or damage, is getting becalmed.
“There’s always some crazy contraption to propel the boat,” Stewart said, but most sailboats don’t row very well. “If there’s no wind, you’re just slaving away to gain a knot and a half, which is super bad for morale. You end up with these little twirly circles on your GPS track.”
But this year Stewart’s small boat may give her a big advantage.
“I think what I have to look forward to is that this is going to be the best boat I’ve used under human power, absolutely,” she said. “The builder said he can maintain 5 knots easily and I’ve never come anywhere close to that in any of the crazy things we’ve tried before.”
But Stewart won’t be entirely alone.
“My husband has decided to race against me,” she said. “I had other friends who still really wanted to go, and when I made this solo decision there were a bunch of people left aimless, so they’re going to band together and take Not Bad again. They’re going to take the comfortable way while I suffer.
“But that’s the great thing about this race,” Stewart said. “There’s always going to be the big shot or two in the expensive, fast boats that are going to win this thing, but after the first five or six boats finish it’s just one giant, happy family. It’s really just about finishing.”
For more information on R2AK, go to www.nwmaritime.org.
Editor’s Note: All potential racers are vetted by the organizers. “We don’t let every wingnut with water wings into this thing,” they say on the website. Applications require sailing resumes of each crew member, including their training and physical condition, a description and photo of the boat, and proof of possession of mandatory safety gear including an automatic emergency beacon. The registration fee starts at $950 and goes up from there based on crew size and time of registration.
2016: Team Onism took 17th place after 12 days, 14 hours and 10 minutes aboard the homebuilt 24-foot trimaran “Coyote.” 2017: Team Global took 13th place after 10 days, 1 hour and 54 minutes aboard the 32-foot Columbia Sabre “Greener.” 2018: Team Global took 13th place after 9 days, 2 hours and 0 minutes aboard the 34.5-foot Beneteau 345 “Not Bad.” 2019: Team Razzle Dazzle took 16th place after 9 days, 10 hours and 52 minutes aboard the 27-foot trimaran Farrier-27 “Magpie.”