Vicious water: Hecate Strait as depicted in “The Golden Spruce”

“The water in Rupert is boiling, rough water and that’s just by the dock… It’s vicious that water, just vicious.” — Pat Campbell

Before and since my 2015 R2AK = Race Towards Alaska, I’ve enjoyed reading novels and non-fiction that take place along the race route: the coasts of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.  While my favorite is still Ivan Doig’s “Sea Runners” (inspiration for our team name), the most recent good read was John Valliant’s “The Golden Spruce” in which the main character attempts to kayak from Prince Rupert across Hecate Strait to Haida Gwaii — in February.  The question of whether he perished in the process, or staged an accident and disappeared into the woods beyond Ketchikan is an intriguing one, but what caught my #R2AK-eye was the author’s description of the oceanography of Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance.

…Hecate Strait is arguably the most dangerous body of water on the coast.  The strait is a malevolent weather factory; on a regular basis its unique combination of wind, tide, shoals, and shallows produces a kind of destructive synergy that has few parallels elsewhere in nature.  From the northeast come katabatic winds generated by cold air rushing down from the mountains and funnelling, wind-tunnel style, through the region’s many fjords, the largest of these being Portland Inlet, which empties into the strait 50 km north of Prince Rupert.  Winter storms, meanwhile are generally driven by Arctic low pressure systems born over Alaska, and they tend to manifest themselves as southerlies along the coast.  It is because of these winds that the weather buoy at the south end of Hecate Strait has registered waves over 30 meters high.  One of the things that makes the strait so dangerous is that these two opposing weather systems can occur simultaneously.  Thus, when a southwesterly sea storm, blowing at 80 – 160 km/hr collides, head-on, with a northesasterly katabatic wind blowing at similar strength, the result is a kind of atmospheric hammer-and-anvil effect.  Veteran North Coast kayakers tell stories of winds like this lifting 180 kg of boat and paddler completely out of the water and heaving them through the air.

NOAA chart showing Prince Rupert, Masset, and Ketchikan.

But this is only one ingredient in Hecate Strait’s chaos formula.  Tides are another; in this area they run to 7 meters, which means that twice each day vast quantities of water are being pumped in and out of the coast’s maze of inlets, fjords, and channels.  The transfer of such volumes in the open ocean is a relatively orderly process, but when it occurs within a confined area like Hecate Strait that is not only narrow but shallow, the effect is of a giant thumb being pressed over the end of an even larger garden hose.  The scientific name for this is the Venturi effect, and the result is dramatic increase in pressure and flow.  A third ingredient is a frightening thing called an overfall which occurs when wind and tide are moving rapidly in opposite directions.  Overfalls are steep, closely packed, unpredictable waves capable — even a modest height of 4-5 meters — of rolling a fishing boat an driving it into the sea bottom.  They can show up anywhere but their effects are intensified by sandbars and shoals like the one that extends for 30 km off the end of Rose Spit between Masset and Prince Rupert.  Under certain conditions, overfalls take the form of “blind rollers,” which are large, nearly vertical waves that roll without breaking; not only are these waves virtually silent, but under poor light conditions they are also invisible — until you are inside them.  If one then factors in the prevailing deep-sea swell that in winter surges eastward through Dixon Entrance at heights of 10-20 meters, and the fact that a large enough wave will expose the sea floor of Hecate Strait , the result is one of the most diabolically hostile environments that wind , sea, and land are capable of conjuring up.

 

Preparing for the Race to Alaska

The Race to Alaska is a big race. There are many uncertainties and it’s complicated. As simple as the rules are — no motors, no outside support and no crew changes; go from Port Townsend to Ketchikan stopping in Victoria to clear Canadian Customs and then transit Seymour Narrows and sail past Bella Bella — the waters that the race crosses are wild and varied: fickle winds in the Strait of Georgia; raging currents of up to 16 knots at Seymour; soul-sucking rain possibilities on the north coast; water-jet like winds funneling out of mountain inlets with little notice; and endless rocks and other obstacles to hit.

How do you prepare for this maelstrom of conditions in what is essentially a desolate inshore race?

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 6.19.42 AMThough the race was conceived of in the United States by American organizers, all but about 75 miles of it is in Canada.  As the 2015 race proved, the weather along the B.C. coast governed the race. Some teams got lucky and rocketed north enjoying a nice summer sail.  Others had their hopes dashed as they fought vicious conditions that were possible but unprecedented. Environment Canada, has many responsibilities — from trying to understand the chimera that is climate change to enforcing rules related to boundary waters like the Northwest Passage. In the midst of all this they are also expected to predict what the weather will be like in a few short passages. The Canadian weather forecasting body in their publication Nation Marine Weather Guide: British Columbia Regional Guide go on for 152 pages about the hazards of the B.C. coast. They provide helpful mariner antidotes such as “The day before a major southeast storm is often deceptively calm; then the bad weather strikes with a vengeance. Veteran mariners call these glassy calm days “weather breeders.”” But most foreboding are deadpan statements delivered in a calm bureaucratic voice from afar like: “Several locations across the Georgia Basin appear to experience significant changes in their wind and weather patterns—Seymour Narrows, in Desolation Sound, being one of them. It is said that going north through Seymour Narrows and the Yuculta Rapids is like going through a door into another room, with both colder water and air. Precipitation amounts are also different on opposite side of the Narrows.”  That should make you realize that this is not going to be an easy race.

So how do you prepare? You need a list, but this is no “I’m going to the grocery store, what do we need” kind of list!  First you need to be really hungry (or even insane or obsessed?) to even want to contemplate “going to the store.”  But yes, you do need a list:

1. Boat
2. Crew
3. Food
4. Navigation
5. Safety
6. Clothing
7. Human Power
8. Power
9. Water
10. Training

Easy right?  It’s only 10 items. Perfect! But doubt creeps in like a day-long fog. Within those 10 items you can obsess about the perfect sub-list — each category breaking down into hundreds of sub-items each with their doubts and flaws. And it is easy to go down the rabbit hole each item generates and completely forget the others.

In the end, this race, conceived as a opportunity for six sets of local friends to row-sail their open boats up the coast as a lark, has quickly become a somewhat predictable battle and something of the money race. This of course was an invited outcome. You don’t challenge Larry Ellison of America’s Cup stature to show up in an America’s Cup boat without other like minded individuals taking up the call. Don’t get me wrong. It will be entertaining to watch a stand-up paddle boarder challenge a mega-trimaran. The odds are as endless as is the difference in the list of what to bring. As one racer commented to another on Facebook recently when the second individual stated they were planning for a two-week transit, “I thought this was a race.” The perspective on this event varies greatly. Last year’s record of five days, one hour and 55 minutes stands as the World Record. It’s a challenge that in its audacity says “go ahead see if you can break me!” What bad choices might be made because of this worm dangling on a hook? Contemplating pushing the limits of yourself and/or boat leads to more list obsessions…

Why even enter? The prize seems hardly worth it as it will likely cost more to enter than the ten grand nailed to a tree you’ll win if you’re the first boat in.  And if we “know” that a big, monied, multi-hull with a super-crew onboard is going to win then why even do it?  Well, there is a slight chance that they won’t win and you might. There is also the internal race, the one we all have with ourselves if we are even half awake.  And there is the camaraderie of talking boat with like-minded souls with a dash of safety net thrown in (thanks SPOT!).

As they contemplate their motivations, there are many other questions faced by racers. The curious and the casual refrain from asking “Why the hell are you doing this?” Instead they want to know the mundane. “How will you sleep?” “What are you going to eat?” And the one complete strangers want intimate details about: “How will you poop?”

Perhaps inside we all know why we attempt these type of endeavors but are afraid of the consequences of listening to the voice within. Regardless of these questions, it will be a challenge to the racers and entertaining to the observers.

The race starts in just over two weeks. There’s still time to obsess about the list.
‪#‎R2AK‬ ‪#‎RacetoAlaska

Hawaiian double canoe talk May 17 at Center for Wooden Boats

What it’s all about.

Calling all R2AK racers and fans — especially Team Pure and Wild (the proa innovators)!  Don’t miss our wise advisor, Kiko Johnston-Kitazawa, as he spins yarns regarding “Wa`akaulua, the Hawaiian Double Canoe” at the Center for Wooden Boats (South Lake Union location).  Kiko will talk at 5pm on Sunday May 17 (2015) in the Boathouse.  He also plans to have his Pahi 26 with a Hawaiian sprits’l rig moored alongside for tours and maybe a post-talk sail adventure.

When he is not guiding sailing adventures or talks in the National Parks on the Island of HawKii, Kiko visits Seattle where he is renovating and sailing a Wharram Pahi 26′ double canoe and giving advice to Team Sea Runners as they prepare to compete in the June 5th, “Race to Alaska“.  In addition to discussing the history of Hawaiian sailors he will review the current role of these designs in the Pacific Northwest.

Kiko has spent most of his life sailing, building boats and exploring Hawaii’s Big Island. Growing up in Hilo as the son of a surfboard and outrigger canoe builder, Kiko had his first sailboat at age 14 and a captain’s license at age 18.  He has sailed from Hawaii to California, Washington, and Canada several times.

“Captain Kiko” studied seamanship and navigation under Captain David B.K. Lyman and Captain Norman Pi‘ianaia as well as apprenticing with boat builders on the mainland.   He is a graduate of Bates Boat Building Program in Tacoma who now builds double-hulled canoes, leads sailing tours, and teaches canoe building.

Everytime I talk with Kiko I learn something new about sailing and boats.  His knowledge of maritime history  is encyclopedic.  He’s especially knowledgeable about Pacific, Polynesian, and Hawaiian cultural history, but what impresses me the most is the diversity of boat designs, innovators, and good precedents he is able to hold in his mind.

If you can make it there in person, I guarantee that Kiko will spin you some amazing yarns and field most any question you can think up.  If you can’t make it, here are a couple of videos — ones that either Kiko recommended and I found compelling, or ones of Kiko practicing his art in Hawaii.

The Manu Kai was the inspiration for Hobie catamarans in the mid-20th-century.

Watch Kiko steer his double-canoe into a typical Hawaiian bay.

Captain Kiko shares sailing wisdom in Friday Harbor tomorrow

For those of you based in the San Juan Islands, don’t miss a talk sponsored by the San Juan Nature Institute tomorrow night (Saturday 3/14/15) from 7-8:30 at the Grange in Friday Harbor.  The presenter is none other than our Team Searunner sail and vessel design advisor for the Race to Alaska, Kiko Johnston-Kitazawa, of Wa’akaulua Sailing Excursions on the big island of Hawaii.  The topic is:

Hawaiian Sailing Canoes – History and their recent use in the Pacific Northwest

Everytime I talk with Kiko I learn something new about sailing and boats.  His knowledge of maritime history  is encyclopedic.  He’s especially knowledgeable about Pacific, Polynesian, and Hawaiian cultural history, but what impresses me the most is the diversity of boat designs, innovators, and good precedents he is able to hold in his mind.

If you can make it there in person, I guarantee that Kiko will spin you some amazing yarns and field most any question you can think up.  Here are a couple of videos — ones that either Kiko recommended and I found compelling, or ones of Kiko practicing his art in Hawaii.

“Say YES More”

The more I think about the #R2AK and the more I research about human powered travel, the bigger the tribe becomes!  All of these folks could be part of this race.

Sparkly voyage to Jake’s R2AK talk at the Center for Wooden Boats

A couple days before his #R2AK 101 talk at the Center for Wooden Boats on (1/16/2015), Race to Alaska Director Jake Beattie queried us via Facebook: could we bring our boat down to display dockside?  We said that sounds like good motivation to do some night sailing/paddling from Sail Sand Point (where we thankfully have a lakeside home for our Hitia 17 “Manu-o-ku”) and got permission and a slip from CWB.  Little did we know what lay ahead of us: not only interesting bits from Jake, but also paddle-sailing upwind speed data, adventure, reunions, and a mini-R2AK micro-raid with our new friend Brian McGinn at 1 a.m on Lake Union!

The back of Kevin's and Thomas's heads.  And Jake Beattie introducing Seattle to the R2AK.  (Instagram by CWR -- http://instagram.com/p/x8Lmilpw5g/ )
The back of Kevin’s and Thomas’s heads. And Jake Beattie introducing Seattle to the R2AK. (Instagram by CWR — http://instagram.com/p/x8Lmilpw5g/ )

Oh, and the talk itself proved to be rich in laughter and even a bit of beta on new collaborators who have entered or made it through the full-race application process.  Here are my notes:

How this started: In 2013 there was a beer tent at the wooden boat festival.  A 2nd beer was had last March (2014).  Then there was a Race.  Instigators were at least Josh of small boat advisor, Colin, & Jake

Overarching motivation: Democratize the water (SV: hear echoes of Wharram’s ethic?)

Inspiration: Tourd’Divide; some sort of X-Games for boats

Full-race registration update: 17 thru or in app process; 10 in prep/negotions (most of Jake’s job at the moment); highlights:

  • Team Dartagne (big group, serious sailors, e.g. 2014 Record 900 nautiques)
  • Shane Perrin (World record 24 hr distance SUP holder)
  • Team Uncruise (Family including a daughter)
  • 2 women in a sliding seat row boat

A reason to have a sail?  “Nothing’s more dumb than rowing downwind”

Invited tribes, but no response

Questions (only a few noted):

Is land based human travel w your boat ok/encouraged?  Short portages ok, but it’s a boat race, not bike, hike/etc.

How to checkpoints work?
— Don’t have to stop.
— Thomas Basin June 18 – July 4
— VHF VTS check-in is ok, or SPOT or photo

On the way to south Lake Union, leaving SSP around midnight, Thomas and I paddled and sailed (almost entirely upwind) in a gentle southerly.  It was spittling when we started, but was pleasantly warm & dry for most of both night sails.

Here are some data and analyses from the passage to the CWB:

Sail Sand Point wind history
Sail Sand Point wind history: note the 12-5 a.m. y-axis ticks at top (clipped in subsequent grabs)

The wind was definitely flukey, especially in the lee of Sand Point and in Union Bay.  It was on the nose for most of the Lake Washington segment (seemed more S than SW sometimes), then more of a beam or broad reach in Union Bay, the Cut, and Portage Bay, and then back on the nose as we headed south in Lake Union.

GPS Action Replay display
GPS Action Replay display for leg from Sail Sand Point through Union Bay

GPSar (above) and iSailGPS (below) agree that the upwind paddle-sail speed (using voyageur style paddles this trip) during this first ~10 km was about 5-6 kph with some peaks around 8.  We entered the cut at about 2 am.

boat-speed-plot-1

In retrospect, these are encouraging results for our first upwind stint with these paddles and the 13m^2 crab claw.  Paddle-sailing with intermittent 130ish bpm effort from 1 or both of us in moderate steady winds on flattish water, we were tacking through 120 degrees at ~5 kph (and through ~90 at lower speeds?).

Polar plot shows we were pointing pretty high for a cat!
Polar plot shows we were pointing pretty high for a cat!

After paddling through the cut unmolested (we saw only one boat that night — a little power pod in Union Bay), we had a really serene broad reach in a light smooth breeze and slipped past the UW’s Tommy Thompson and my old grad school stomping grounds.  The southerly picked up after we paddled under I-5 and we paddle-tacked upwind through Lake Union.

GPSar display of 2nd leg.
GPSar display of 2nd leg.

Average speeds were 4-6 kph, with top speeds of 8-9 kph.  With some paddle assists we were tacking through ~110 degrees (101-129ish).

U District wind history
U District wind history: seems like it picked up around 2:30 when we crossed Portage Bay

 

Lake Union wind history
Lake Union wind during our trip: ~10 kph out of the SSW

Overall it seems like we averaged 4-6 in the spotty winds, and then 6-7 in the steadier wind on Lake Union.

iSailGPS boat speed screen grab
iSailGPS boat speed screen grab

 

We got in around 4 a.m., found the slip, and ran home in time to get the kids going on their Friday.  After a day of work, we had a grand time at Jake’s talk.  We of course enjoyed hearing about the Race and listening to the (somewhat drunken) queries of the CWB community, but an unexpected highlight was bumping into old friends afterwards.  Thomas reunited with lots of old CWB pals, and I caught up with Chris Jones, an acoustician I met back in grad school who is active in Sound Rowers and might participate in Stage 1.  This Race is proving to be a powerful catalyst for friendships.

That manifested shortly thereafter when we tracked down Jake and some of his friends at a local pub.  There was lots of laughter and many a yarn.  At my end of the table, we got to hear about the 40′ sloop Sparkle from Brian McGinn and its preordained decision to win the Race to Alaska.  Amazingly, no matter what Brian does (e.g. neglecting to pump 2 feet of water out of her bilge; arriving late), she just wins races.  So watch out.

Shortly afterwards (around midnight) we found ourselves back at the CWB dock saying adieu.  While most of expected Brian to grab a taxi after Thomas and I, and our 3rd crewmate and trainer Kevin embarked on the return trip to Sail Sand Point.  Instead, he hopped in his rowboat, put a headlamp on backwards and began to row for home (Gas Works Marina).  Thus ensued a riotous race with us tacking into a faint northerly breeze and paddling like hell when we were not watching Brian methodically pass us mid-Lake and ultimately beat us to the north shore (apparently by running into it).  We yelled congrats and adieu, and bore off into Portage Bay — marveling at the bustling cityscape as we headed for home.

It was a very calm, warm night, conducive to a slow paddle and lots of chatting.  Kevin produced a bottle of something that we collectively nursed through the voyage, though he spent the last 45 minutes or so testing out how cold he could get in one of the hulls (with no pad or insulation).

520 wind history
520 (no) wind history

 

Our route back to SSP.
Our route back to SSP.

We went 14 km in about 3.5 hours, averaging about 4 kph.  But as the final plot (below) shows, we spent about a third of the trip drifting.  When we paddled (1-3 of us) we typically made 4-6 kph, and during the race with Brian we hit 7.5 kph a couple times.  As I recall, having the sail up as we paddled into the wind wasn’t helping us…

Boat speed screen grab
Boat speed screen grab

Hypothermia training video: trailer & ice bath immersion

A couple weeks ago our Survival Trainer, Dr. Kevin Flick, issued the Flickian Challenge #1: get hypothermic in Puget Sound and then try to make a fire on the beach using only wet wood and a flint & steel.  An unplanned bonus of the experience was meeting Emily Riedel, a real (tough) Alaskan who joined us in taking part in the Challenge.

Liam has been working diligently on editing down all the footage he and Cora got and expects to publish a detailed documentary (about how we failed to meet the challenge) next week.  In the mean time, enjoy this trailer and some more back-story!

We all read and learned a good bit about hypothermia and fire-starting techniques before taking the Challenge.  Kevin took things a step further the night before by taking an ice bath — both to inspire us to HTFU and to help him be better prepared as a safety manager during the Challenge.

Here’s the video  he made of the experience.  At the very least, it shows that (a) he’s a zoologist who likes to experiment on himself, and (b) he’s tough.

 

Nav Lights, Burgees and Anchor Testing

We held Tiki Tuesday on Thursday night this week as Kiko came to town from Hawaii yesterday.  He brought us a couple of gems;  a big bright yellow sail made by Warren Seaman himself and an intriguing option for the human propulsion side of things.

2015-01-23 00.45.26
Nav light
2015-01-23 00.54.06
#R2AK Burgee (prototype)
2015-01-23 00.15.34
Anchor testing 😉

Shop time was mainly used to catch-up and work on a project for Kiko so he can get his Pahi 26 in the water tomorrow.  Thanks to Tim for sharing awesome beer and cat food can alcohol stove designs, and to Ty for lending a hand again.

Going for the R2AK Gold

Scott and I have been doing HTFU training with the help of our buddy Kevin as I posted about a few days ago.  While we were trying to survive the cold waters of Puget Sound, it happened that Emily Riedel of The Discovery Channel’s Bering Sea Gold fame wandered down the beach to see what was up with the swimmers.   She then proceeded to join us in the water as the countdown timer hit 6 minutes to go.  She was pretty casual about it all, laughing and clearly enjoying herself.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 3.29.39 PMToday I had coffee with her to talk to her about cold water, the spirit of Alaska and going for the gold.  In her words:

It only hurts until you go numb,  I saw you out in the water and thought “kindred  spirits” and getting the gold is never easy, it can be a disaster!

When I suggested she join the race, her eyes lit up and she said “I’m fascinated by this race and will consider it in the future.”

Jake Beattie and the Northwest Maritime Center, you better start planning R2AK 2016!