Your heart beats a little faster when you take to the water.
Whether it’s in anticipation of a huge adventure, out of respect for the subtle (and not so subtle) power of the ocean, or the slightly-fear-edged thrill of being somewhere or trying something new - that pickup in your pulse is your body, and your heart, telling you something.
Namely - that you’re about to meet a whole new side of yourself you didn’t know existed. Especially when you’re facing newness. Ambiguity. And a huge, wild challenge.
It’s ambiguity that Daniel Evans—R2AK Race Boss—embraces, seeing unpredictability as the most important ingredient in a race that’s raised heartbeats and taken on its own ever-changing identity since 2014.
From the spectrum of mega-fauna to forging through every weather and tidal condition known to humankind, no other race is as wild—and a more humanizing celebration of this thing called life—as the Race to Alaska.
Building R2AK from the bottom up
As with most ideas that result in a cult following of passionate enthusiasts, R2AK started with one big ‘What if…’ and a whole lot of ‘Yes! And…’
That big first idea sprouted from the mind of Jake Beattie, who planted it in the brain of Daniel Evans. The idea: a motorless, unsupported race up the inside passage - from their town in Washington all the way to Alaska.
In Daniel’s words: “It’s my favourite bad idea ever.”
Throwing the concept into a two-person think tank, the seed quickly germinated into a full tilt plan - with Daniel to come on board as the race boss, and Jake to bring the race under the Northwest Maritime Center; a not for profit organization he was the Executive Director of that’s dedicated to ‘...educating people of all generations in traditional and contemporary maritime life, in a spirit of adventure and discovery.’
As half of the founding team, Daniel’s unstoppable enthusiasm and infectious positivity is matched by his reverence for the marine community. The want to create something never before seen. The dream to empower people to challenge themselves and see what’s possible. And the responsibility of making that experience as safe in its wildness as possible.
So as planning got under way, the small team gathering around the idea knew they were onto something unique; that nothing like this had ever been planned or attempted. They backed up the initial race with their extensive backgrounds in facilitating programs in maritime environments, and Daniel’s experience in risk management.
They knew they’d plan a safe race while pushing the boundaries of what people knew was possible. And they knew they were up to something special.
Which is maybe why, when their excitement wasn’t matched by their local marine community, they knew to persist anyway. There were concerns about safety; that a motorless race of this nature was irresponsible. That it was too challenging and too dangerous.
Those first debates weren’t cause for changing anything about their plan. The team had all the experience and dedication to safety throughout the entire race that they needed to make it go off without putting any participant in situations they wouldn’t be able to handle.
The feedback ended up being a direct indicator of their success in the pursuit of dynamic change: that the uproar was directly proportional to the new and unconventional ways they discovered to redesign and re-imagine the test - keeping both participants, and the marine community at large, on their toes.
Change, in the name of challenge.
- The beginning, middle and end
- That you can’t use a motor to get from Port Townsend to Ketchikan
- That there are no pre-drops or mid-race supports other than stops in shoreline towns
- The $10,000 nailed to a tree for the winning team
- The steak knives for the team coming in second
- The community that rallies around the event as participants, and enthusiastic supporters
...and, the repeat racers that come back year on year (a couple of who are working through their ‘Buy 4, get your 5th Free!’ punch card).
The rest has been an experience of finding new ways to craft the puzzle - or reinvigorate the riddle.
Because after seeing the riddle could be solved in the first couple years of the race, they wanted to find new ways for people to view the course. To get creative (within the rules, of course). So they shake up the pieces - and see what people do with them.
Well-considered changes aside, the consistent core path the race follows is a kind of gruelling paralleled in tests of will like the Iditarod or the Barkley Marathons or a circumnavigational sailing trip: hard, hard and more hard.
Which is intentional; it’s the combination of the inside passage Daniel’s not one to deny the added challenge of the racecourse’s innate unpredictability:
“It’s so widely swinging. It could blow 50 knots, or be completely calm. The water can be flat then have a wave that causes the entire boat to shudder. One year it can be so cold someone’s eyes hurt, or people come in with heat exhaustion and sunburns. No matter the team, no matter boat, no matter preparation, the race course has this ability to find a weakness and exploit it.”
True to form, he shares that with a short pause, and a laugh - because to think that he’s cultivated a community of people that chase down that ambiguity catamarans, dinghies, sailboats, peddle-powered boats—and the list goes on—is somewhat nonsensical.
And, possibly the most special element in this very niche equation.
In it to win it for the community
The team behind R2AK pours themselves into the race every year.
They live in close quarters, often without showers, for more days than they might like to share. They do what they have to do to make the race go off smoothly and tell the stories they uncover along the way.
They tell tales of racers being supported by the local fan community; like Roger Man sitting on the beach trying to start a fire for his dinner, when a local brought him a pie they had just baked...noting that it looked like he needed it more than they did.
Or a father and son team welcomed into a family’s home for a hot meal and a place to sleep while a storm whipped through the bay they had tried to find shelter in.
And at the end of the line, the Ketchikan Yacht Club turns into a common ground for every racer coming off the water. The yacht club itself holds a party every week during the race, while every day it’s where people and gear are strewn around the floor, wet clothes are hung by the rafters, and people are there to connect and convene over their tales from the race course.
That’s the community Daniel has fallen in love with.
“When I’m not on the radios or taking care of business on the course, I get to celebrate with them, listen to their stories, retell them, and handle any safety concerns that come up. These people just did something amazing - and to see them connect as a community is the most amazing part of this whole thing.”
There aren’t many experiences designed to give people the opportunity to take a step they’ve never imagined for themselves. To test their will and expand what they know to be possible.
Daniel believes there’s a small place in each person’s heart that’s waiting to be called upon for this express purpose. Waiting to hear the call to help us realize we’re stronger, more compassionate, a better leader, have more capacity for pain, celebration and suffering than we ever knew.
That little part in our hearts is ready to prove it to us. And the Race To Alaska is where that part of each racer’s heart gets to beat a little louder.
Update from the race organizers, after announcing the news that they have cancelled the 2020 race.
"Race heroics are often race jeopardy, and we refuse to gamble with others’ lives without their consent. We could race; there is a route around all the closures, but, like driving with your feet, could isn’t should, and it’s not worth the risk for racers or communities along the way". - Daniel Evans, Race Boss