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.


Capsize & recovery of a Wharram Hitia 17: Race to Alaska (R2AK) training

The added leverage seems to help bring the up-going hull further and ultimately through vertical.

A recent capsize talk and demonstration by Richard Woods at the 2016 Wooden Boat Festival inspired me to finally upload a long video my son, Liam, made of Thomas and me successfully righting a turtled Wharram catamaran.  As part of our training & preparation for the 2015 Race to Alaska, we intentionally capsized our modified Hitia 17 pedal-sail boat in Lake Washington (Seattle).

The video could have been edited to be more succinct (Liam was just beginning with iMovie), but for the connoisseur, the grueling details may be appreciated.  If not, or in case you’re interested in a specific topic or stage of the exercise, here’s a:

Table of contents

  • Getting the boat from the Sail Sand Point storage yard
  • 01:48 Packing gear at the top of the boat ramp
  • 08:22 Thomas tour of items stored in port hull
  • 09:00 Scott tour of items stored in starboard hull
  • 11:45 Discussion of righting line placement
  • 12:50 Getting into dry suits
  • 13:30 Putting boat in Lake Washington
  • 14:00 Pedal-sailing to the capsize location
  • 16:00 First attempts to capsize
  • 17:30 Re-thinking how to cause the capsize
  • 19:00 Re-positioning under pedal power
  • 20:00 Second attempts to capsize
  • 20:45 Capsize!
  • 22:40 Both Scott and Thomas back aboard (overturned tramp), organizing lines [immersion time was about 2 minutes]
  • 24:15 Recovery attempt 1
  • 24:50 Recovery fail 1: slipped off keel and fell into water
  • 25:30 Recovery attempt 2
  • 26:30 Recovery fail 2: not enough leverage at middle of keel
  • 26:55 Opening hatch on port main hull?
  • 27:00 Re-thinking strategy
  • Successful recovery (takes 2-3 minutes)
    • 27:30 Standing on bow
    • 27:55-28:05 Rapidly venting air as water enters hull
    • 29:00 More venting as bow quickly sinks and upper hull starts to rise from water
    • 29:15 We move back towards center of keel from the bow (gaining leverage)
    • 29:33 Trampoline is vertical
    • 29:38 Boat is back upright (with cabin coaming ~20-30 cm above water line, rail in/near water line)
  • 29:50 Reboarding on the hull that’s lower in the water
  • Pumping/bailing out begins [lasts at least 4 minutes]
    • 30:05 Thomas starts pumping with hand bilge pump while Scott cleans lines and gets bailer and bucket
    • 31:10 Using bucket to empty port hull while sailing to beach
    • 32:20 Using bailer and bilge pump now
  • 33:45 Back on the beach (with “dry” bilge)
  • 34:00 Shoreside thoughts

Looking at these time stamps (and recognizing that Liam may have edited out some portions of the continuous footage) it looks like the righting process could be reduced to about 2-3 minutes with practice.  We were immersed for about 2 minutes and we spent at least 4 (maybe 10?) minutes pumping/bailing the flooded hull dry.

Here are some frame-grabs:

A key question is whether it’s better to remove weight from the up-going hull, or add weight to the down-going hull (by flooding it).  Would it be worth it to stay immersed much longer, open up the hatch on the hull to be lifted, and remove all heavy gear from it (if that can be done without inadvertently adding weight in the form of flooding water!)?

Things we could do differently next time:

  • Try capsizing using a halyard (thereby leveraging the mast like a gin pole)
  • Try recovering with one person on the other’s shoulders
  • Try water bags and dual righting lines
  • Try using the mast or a pole for righting (e.g. like a gin pole)
  • Try flooding a hull by standing on stern, rather than bow (and also flooding further/faster by having both sailors stand on bow, or in a bow loop)


  • Is it worth it (or even possible) to put enough flotation at the mast head to prevent turtling?
  • Is it helpful to remove rigging (e.g by freeing snotters and halyard) and/or to “lower” the sail (lashing to tramp, for example?)
  • Is single-handed righting? Possible?
  • What if both hatches are open during capsize?  Does water flow in/out of hulls such that it could be righted in any downflooded initial condition (e.g. breaking waves fill both hulls, then flip boat?  Or is an air vent in each hull side needed?



R2AK 2015 spreadsheet: build, budget, boats, schedules, gear, and more

For those contemplating a bid in the 2016 (or future?) Race to Alaska, this massive R2AK-2015 spreadsheet that Thomas and I used to plan & track our efforts may be of interest —

One of my favorite parts are the “collaborators” tab which lets you sort through the full race teams in lots of ways.  Here’s an extract sorted by progress, including those that finished as well as those that didn’t finish but made some degree of progress to the north of Victoria.

Place Time Last point north First Last Team Boat type Boat model
1 5.0 Ketchikan Al Hughes Elsie Piddock Trimaran F25c
2 8.2 Ketchikan Wayne Gorrie MOB Mentality Trimaran 28′ Farrier SR “Mail order bride”
3 8.2 Ketchikan John Denny Por Favor Monohull Hobie 33′
4 Ketchikan Trip Burd Free Burd Catamaran Arc 22 catamaran
5 Ketchikan Matt Sornson Kohara Catamaran 29′ ?
6 Ketchikan Dan Blanchard Un-cruise Trimaran F-32
7 11.6  Ketchikan Graham Henry Soggy Beavers OC6 Advantage Outrigger
8  Ketchikan Phil Wampold Mau Catamaran Nacra 5.7
9  Ketchikan Al Lubkowski Blackfish Trimaran F-27
10 Ketchikan Jeremy Lucke Grin Monohull Etchell 22
11 Ketchikan Roger Mann Discovery Trimaran Hobie Islander
12 Ketchikan Bill Gifford Excellent Adventure Monohull Montgomery 17′
13 Ketchikan Patrick Buntain Boatyard Boys Monohull 17’ Swamspcott Dory
14  Ketchikan Mike Higgins Mike’s Kayak Kayak 17 foot yellow Prijon Kodiak
15  28?  Ketchikan Quill Goldman Barefoot Wooden Boats Oar & sail boat Tad Roberts custom
16  14? Bella Bella John Strathman John Canoe 19′ Easyrider w/outrigger
17 13.0 Broughtons Michael Dougherty Puffin Catamaran Wharram Tiki 21
18 13.0 Telegraph Cove Thomas Nielsen Sea Runners Catamaran Hitia 17
19 Kelsey Bay Nels Strandberg Broderna Trimaran F-24(25?) w/ Viking oars
20 Otter Bay Piper Dunlap Hexagram 59 Catamaran Hobie Miracle 20′
21 N Seymour Narrows Stephen Marcoe Golden Oldies Catamaran 38′ Crowther super Shockwave “Nice Pair”
22  9? S Seymour Narrows Heather Drugge Coastal Express Monohull Mirror 16′
23 Parksville Chris Adams Super Friends Monohull San Juan 21
24 Nanaimo Phil Wilmer Y Triamoto Trimaran Multi 23, mini ORMA 60 Van Peteghem Laurent
25 Vancouver George Corbett Seawolf Foiling trimaran 17′ Seawolf
26 Gibbons Brandon Davis Turn Point Design Catamaran Turn Point 24 (carbon fiber/nomex)
27 Active Pass Todd Bryan Real Thing Trimaran L-7 “Firefly” (Multi Marine, Michael Leneman)
28 Vancouver Joe Bersch Pure & Wild Proa Bieker Proa

I also like the beach cat comparison tabs, our different food tabs, the many lists, our training logs, and of course our ~2-month build of the main part of the boat (less the rig) —

Build day Time Line  Event
Tiki Tuesday — 9/23/2014 Decide to enter race with Scott Veirs
10/1/2014 Plans ordered from JWD
10/1/2014 Calculated cost of aluminum parts
10/1/2014 Emailed Wayne at Down-Home Woods for wood spar quote got a no-quote response
10/2/2014 JWD processing plan order
10/4/2014 Completed kayak speed test
10/8/2014 JWD H17 plans received
10/11/2014 Great cabin mocked up
1 Tue 10/14 Build started with the ceremony of the long tables & the death of a flagon of Pyrat (Thanks to our helpers Tim King and Erik Hvalsoe)
2 Wed 10/15 T drafts and cuts out bulkheads and hull side panels
3 Thu 10/16 T cuts out stem, stern, rudder, lashing backing plates
4 Fri 10/17 S cuts out butt blocks; T glues up hull sides with butt blocks
5 Sun 10/19 am: Thomas rips stringers, keel; late eve: Thomas staples outer scarfed stringers to hulls; S&T glue scarfed keels
6 Mon 10/20 T&S test mirage drive. T maintains 4-5 kph while chatting on phone. Hulls zip tied and stood up with bulkheads in place.
7 Tue 10/21 T,S,&K align and glue hull B
8 Thu 10/23 T&S align and glue hull A
9 10/27/2014 Keel fillets, End foaming, aft storage locker and diagonals added
10 11/1/2014 Decks made and undersides coated. First spar mock up glued up.
11 11/3/2014 Glued in bunk stringers on hulls and at bulkheads
12 11/4/2014 Glued on cabin sides
13 11/5/2014 Kennewick/paper day
14 11/6/2014 Made bunk cross-stringers, sanded holds
15 11/7/2014 Fitting bunks, painting holds, filling holes and coating bunks.
16 11/8/2014 Glued on decks and fixed bunk boards (with Kevin after Kenmore ride/dip)
17 11/9/2014 Cleaned up fillets, made and fit cabin side stringers and aft coaming pieces
18 11/10/2014 Glued in cabin side stringers and aft coaming pieces; trimmed decks
19 11/11/2014 Make deck and coaming pieces. broke rear seat B loose (do we need glass tape at stress points?)
20 11/12/2014 Coat cabin deck pieces/sand decks/make rudder and handle doublers
21 11/13/2014 Glue up coaming to cabin deck
22 11/14/2014 Fillet underside of coaming. Later glue cabin deck to cabin
23 11/15/2014 Sand decks/cabins, flip to sand hulls, fair stem/stern, shape keel
24 11/16/2014 T&S stay up late to glass cabin ends & rudders
25 11/17/2014 T&S glass decks
26 Tue 11/18 T glasses cabin sides during day; T&S sand hulls, glass 1st side of hulls
27 Wed 11/19 S fills 1st side hulls and rudder weave w/epoxy coat #2
28 Th 11/20 T & S sand and glass 2nd side of hulls; discuss lash pads & doublers; fill 2nd side rudders
29 Fri 11/21 T trims hull glass; S cleans up stringer for fillet, forms doublers & pads
30 Sat 11/22 S buys hardware for pads; T&S glue pads, kevlar bow, carbon fiber skeg, fillet stringer, glass keel.
31 Sun 11/23 First assembly!
32 Mon 11/24 Launch, paddle/mirage drive/flip/right/bail. We got it wet in 42 days (42×6 hours = 252hrs!)



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.


I’m wearing one of these!

In all my time sailing, I’ve only fallen overboard once – unintentionally.  It was early fall and just on the cold side.  I had multiple layers on including a thick wool sweater.  Over that a light rain coat and cycling rain pants.  I was leaving Port Hadlock completing a solo sail in the San Juans.  I was departing from the beach as I often do.  I had been chatting to a guy on his boat (The new owner of Tolfea, Matt Johnson’s and then Andy Deltoff’s Wharram Tangaroa Mk I) that was at the dock 15 m away.  As I pushed off a creosote soaked piling with a bamboo pole to clear the obstructions, the pole slipped.  I followed the trajectory of the pole and then I was in the water.  When I came up the boat, my Wharram Tiki 26 – Tsunamichaser with sails up and just catching the zephyr of a wind ghosted away.  Here the story could have gone two ways but I have a workboat mentality – never on deck without a work vest PFD.  I hooked the boat with the pole but the real difference compared to the story below was that I WAS wearing my PFD.  If I hadn’t been the story may have ended differently.  The other guy on the other boat never even realized I had gone in the water until he saw me on deck dripping wet pulling off the layers.  His head was in the forward lazarette finding treasures.  His focus elsewhere.  It’s easy to wear your PFD especially in cold environments.  They provide a boost to core insulation.  Get it on!

Watching our backs.

Most of the miles that will be sailed/rowed or otherwise transited in the R2AK will be in Canadian waters.  Only 76 miles of the total 750 miles, as the Salish Sea raven flies, will be in US waters.  Hopefully NOBODY gets in trouble deep enough that they have to hit the SOS button on their SPOT.  If they do, or we do, there will be a number of safety resources to help us out of a tight spot including the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue.  These men and women are volunteers so if you see them on the water thank them for being there – just in case you meet up again later on.  Like them on their Facebook page too.

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!


On Saturday, our friend and survival trainer put us through what he calls a Flickian Challenge.  It’s all part of getting us ready – known by the acronym HTFU.  Kevin took us to Golden Gardens Park in Seattle and put us to the test.  We had incredulous onlookers huddling in parkas, a few lone beach walkers cheering us on, and one wild Alaskan who joined us in the water for a bit (more on that later).

Challenge One was: No eating for 10 hours prior to the challenge.  Then a 15 minute swim in Puget Sound wearing only swim trunks while having to solve math problems (mental acuity testing).  That was the warm up, or in our case cool down to shivering.  The real test came after we exited the water: use teamwork to find wood, make tinder and fire starter, light a fire, keep it together and rewarm yourself with only the pocket knives and flint we had on lanyards around our necks with us on the swim.  We also had a “jump bag” of other emergency supplies we plan to take on the Race.  We resisted the bag for a long time, but eventually Flick ordered us to open it up.

For 1 hour 4 minutes — from entering the water until Kevin stopped the clock — we were wet, cold, shivering, exposed, dirty, struggling and then huddling very close to our fire to rewarm.  We did rewarm and our body temperatures came back up but it was pretty ugly.  We survived and the Red Mill Burgers we scarfed down afterwards never tasted so good.

Screen Shoot from Flickian Challenge #1 video.
Screen Shot Capture from Flickian Challenge #1 video.

After the challenge we spent the next 20 plus hours living on the boat.  More on what we learned from that (also wet) experience, soon…


Weather Forecasting

Weather will play an important role in this race.  Big picture weather forecasting like the kind you can get from the below link will only help you so far (and only be available to most of us before the race and at a stop in a town with wifi or computer access.)  Local weather will look very different because you can get in microclimates of a particular point of land or inlet.  We will rely on radio weather broadcasts, weather guides and local knowledge.  Things can change fast.  Look out for the black line on the horizon to the northwest.,wind,now,50.092,-122.344,4

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 6.19.42 AM

HTFU Taking on the waters in January

It was a cold, cold 15 minutes of attempting to stay in Lake Washington.  No dry suit; just swim suit.