The atmosphere is feverish on the docks of Port Townsend, in the State of Washington (United States), on the first Monday of June 2019. The sun is not yet up, and the loupiottes of dozens of boats dance to the rhythm waves, including those of the 10-meter sailboat named Maks to the Moon. On board is Jeanne Goussev, wealth manager in Seattle: long brown hair, driven by a spirit of competition, she quivers with impatience.
Around her, the crew pulls the halyards which will be used to hoist the sails. Two women are at the back of the boat, sitting with their legs dangling on the saddles of two bicycles attached to propellers submerged below the surface of the water. In the absence of wind, they will pedal to move the sailboat forward, which has no engine.
1,200 kilometer journey
Jeanne Goussev is captain of a funny team called Sail Like a Girl [“Navigue comme une fille”]. While her comrades manage the preparations, she gauges the competition. There are sailboats of all sizes, but also kayaks, rowing boats and paddle boards, an outrigger canoe and custom-built boats by their owners. These boats have two things in common: none are motorized, and all have a long way to go.
One thousand two hundred miles in the Inside Passage [la voie côtière de l’océan Pacifique qui longe la Colombie-Britannique (Canada) et l’Alaska] separate them from their destination: Ketchikan, a small town in Alaska. This route is that of the Race to Alaska (known to fans and navigators by the acronym R2AK), a race that does not reward speed so much as the simple fact of arriving at the right port, which is far to be won in advance.
Did you lost your mind ?
The R2AK is the brainchild of Jake Beattie. This bald 40-something, executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center [une école de voile située à Port Townsend], was looking for new ways to get people interested in boating. He ended up finding inspiration in the bottom of his third beer, during the festival called Wooden Boat, in Port Townsend, in 2013: he was going to create a race where not ultra-modern and overpriced sailboats would compete, but people who could only count on their qualities as sailors, and on their capacities for improvisation and resilience.
“What if we nailed a $10,000 bill to a tree in Alaska and told them: ‘Come get it!’” he remembers proposing to his friends at the festival bar. They all gave him the same perplexed look, which meant: how are you?
A log as a reward
And yet, on the day the 2019 edition kicks off, a thousand fans are up before dawn to watch the Sail Like a Girl team and its competitors depart. Along the coast, bonfires blaze on the beach, and a group of musicians that no one has invited brighten the atmosphere with their concert of trumpets, tuba, trombones, drum and clarinet.
The rules of the game are simple: no engine, no assistance, no handicap. The first prize – 10,000 dollars [environ 9 950 euros] – is nailed to a log, not a tree. As for the second prize, it consists of a set of eight beautiful steak knives.
Know how to give up
Along the way, there is no shortage of dangers, whether complex currents and narrow channels full of pitfalls, or even hostile weather and floating logs that risk piercing a hull at any time. This is what prompted the organizers to adopt the role of “Darwinian selectors”. As Jake Beattie explains, “Any crackpot with a bad idea in mind was bound to show up with a more or less buoyant craft.” For this reason, a competent but secret committee carefully examines the adventurer CVs of each candidate, looking for a specific characteristic: will they have the necessary savvy to know when to give up?
The organizers have also set up a trial run in order to eliminate the least competent boats and crews at sea. a rare occurrence, competitors must first cross the weather-exposed but much busier waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in less than thirty-six hours [entre la péninsule Olympique, dans l’État de Washington, et l’île de Vancouver]with the first destination being the city of Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island.
“A real speedster”
The Sail Like a Girl team signed up with Maks to the Moon for the first time in 2018. This sailboat – a Melges 32 model – is designed for regattas, not for offshore racing. Most observers were not betting a dollar on his victory. But, in the absence of wind, its propellers powered by the two bikes prevailed. The crew completed the race in six days, seventy-five hours of which were spent pedaling.
[En ce jour de juin 2019], he is back to defend his title. But its members are not solely motivated by reward, prestige or challenge. They created an association whose mission is to encourage women to realize their dreams. With this motivation in mind, Jeanne Goussev wonders if they couldn’t set a better time. “We have an incredible boat, a real racing car”, she says. And they want to see what he is capable of.
In addition to Goussev, two veterans are on board: Aimee Fulwell, who learned to sail for the 2018 edition, and Anna Stevens, whom her teammates have nicknamed the “Duracell rabbit” as she never seems to be sleepy. To help at the helm, Goussev has also recruited skipper Nikki Henderson. Rounding out the team are Lisa Cole, sailing instructor, Laurie Anna Kaplan, in charge of the mainsail, and Katrina Zoë Norbom, whose mission is to immortalize the voyage in sound and image. It’s the first time they’ve sailed together.
First stop in Victoria
At 5 a.m., when the rising sun gives the sky a luminous blue, a horn of