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“There’s the emotional side—moments of terror, tedium, anxiety,” says New-York based artist and casual sailor Zoë Sheehan-Saldaña, 49, about her first taste of the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile mad dash from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. The race is designed for boats propelled by wind and muscle power only; no outside assistance allowed. “Then there were moments that were so beautiful, you can’t believe you are in this. But being so close to the water, I felt vulnerable by the intensity. If anything happens, whether it’s a challenge or a scare, you are in it. There’s no boundary, really.”

Team Fix oder Nix stopped in a placid bay on Gibson Island in the Ogden Channel

Team Fix oder Nix stopped in a placid bay on Gibson Island in the Ogden Channel

While campaigning a small, self-built, plywood trimaran with three sailing rigs and miniscule accommodations, Sheehan-Saldaña and her soul mate, Joachim Rösler, braved mountainous seas, rapacious currents and fickle breezes that oscillated from nothing to gale and back in the blink of an eye. The couple rowed like mad and sailed like kings. They weathered torrential rain and basked in glorious sunshine. They found themselves in solitude and in the company of whales, all while surrounded by snowcapped mountains, dark forests, and the sometimes placid, sometimes wild waters of the Inside Passage. And at the end of the race (also known as R2AK), they simply rang the bell at the finish and cracked a beer.

The R2AK, first produced by Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend in 2015, is a sufferfest for everyman, an eclectic and decidedly un-yachty affair that is open to all, regardless of age, sex, creed or color. The race website jokingly claims there’s only one rule: No rules. That, of course, is a lie, but regulations are kept to a minimum. Participants can bring any craft of any size, design or make, from a carbon-fiber rocket or beach cat, to a trimaran, a DIY-contraption, a 1903 fishing cutter, a paddle board, a kayak, a rowing shell, a sharpie or a wreck dug out of the brambles and fixed up on a shoestring. You can use oars, paddles or pedals to move when there is no wind, but you can’t rely on a service crew. If you pass the sanity check at the pre-race inspection, you’re good to go, and there’s a good chance you’ll find out exactly what you’re made of. If, in the end, your name isn’t associated with the letters DNF (did not finish), you win. You may not take home the $10,000 that’s nailed to a piece of firewood for first place, or the lovely set of steak knives for second, but you win in every other way.

Early in the race, they battled wild surf in the Cabbage Patch.

Early in the race, they battled wild surf in the Cabbage Patch.

“You can’t do such a race on adrenaline. You have to find a rhythm and a marina with shore support every three to five days,” warned Rösler, 66, a retired publishing executive who lives in upstate New York. He’d entered this madness twice before as a singlehander—once finishing, the other time getting skunked by a technical problem that took more to fix than blood, sweat and duct tape. The R2AK fascinated him since its inception, not because of the promise of adventure and the selective parcours through the Inside Passage, but also because it just upends conventional boat design ideas.

If conditions often flout forecasts, solid preparation and formulating a game plan help bend the odds in a participant’s favor. “Mentally it’s a marathon,” he says, and compares it to a chess game as the race requires you to think ahead several moves. Having grown up on Lake Constance near the Swiss border, he cut his teeth on traditional keelboats and athletic dinghies. When Rösler moved to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, he did so for a career opportunity, but also to take up paragliding, where he met Sheehan-Saldaña, and to try small-boat adventures like the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile raid in Florida. “My R&D is 50 years of boating experience,” he says with a laugh when explaining his decision to build a custom boat for two for the R2AK.

The author takes a siesta in the bow cabin

The author takes a siesta in the bow cabin

Approaching this race with an accountant’s attention to detail, he got sheets of plywood and enough fiberglass and epoxy to sheathe the hull inside and out. Then he set to work in his garage, building a larger version of his old boat, an Angus Sailing RowCruiser named Kairos after the Greek god of opportunity. That boat was designed by
Canadian Colin Angus, the first human to circle the world by muscle power. Rösler liked the RowCruiser concept but wanted the boat to be big enough for two. So, he made a larger version, fitted it with two cabins (one forward for his 6-foot frame and a smaller one aft for Zoë who’s 5 feet 2 inches) and a rowing station with sliding seat in between. “Having a dry and comfortable space to stretch out is very important for good rest,” he notes, adding that he likes moving by day and sleeping in a safe anchorage at night.

Kairos 4Two, which made her maiden voyage last winter on Rudd Pond in Millerton, New York, uses the short amas of Rösler’s old boat and two carbon oars, and carries three short and interchangeable carbon masts with full-battened sails of various sizes that add up to a maximum sail area of 130 sq. ft. Rösler also fitted an off-center daggerboard for 90-degree tacking angles in flat water. A draft of only 2 inches with rudder and daggerboard up opens shallow coves for refuge, places that are off limits to larger boats. Toilet? Sure, bucket and chuck it, preferably downwind from your mate. Water? Yes, in plastic bottles, enough for 5 days, as refilling from streams is easy on this trip. Rösler insisted on bottles with caps that have longer threads, so they won’t pop off if squeezed or dropped.

Sheehan-Saldaña gets a laugh about stowing salmon for a trip to Alaska.

Sheehan-Saldaña gets a laugh about stowing salmon for a trip to Alaska.

Rösler and Sheehan-Saldaña, who entered the race as Team Fix oder Nix (you snooze, you lose), provisioned for the race in the parking lot at the Maritime Center while others still were building their boats a few yards away. Afterwards he explained the special care he lavishes on phone charging cables that cannot be exposed to saltwater and the taping of his fingers to protect them from blisters. “I still get them,” he offered, “but it hurts less if I tape before they occur.”

To shake down Kairos 4Two for the race, Team Fix oder Nix went for a tune-up sail. In light to moderate winds off Point Hudson the boat cut through the water with ease, aided by her narrow 3-foot 10-inch main hull and her wave-piercing amas that were tied to the akas with spectra line. There are sheets, control lines and carbon tiller, and a converted frog jigging pole, end in the cockpit, within easy reach. When in action, the autopilot draws power from a lithium polymer battery that gets charged by a 130-watt solar panel on the foredeck. Mobile phones loaded with nautical charts and navigation apps are powered by portable Mophie batteries.

Seals have the best seats to watch Kairos 4Two during pre-race practice. LOA: 24’6” Amas: 8’0” Beam (overall): 10’0” Beam (main hull): 3’10” Displ. (light): 350 lbs. Draft (board up/down): 2” - 3’0” Sail area max.: 130 sq. ft.

Seals have the best seats to watch Kairos 4Two during pre-race practice. LOA: 24’6” Amas: 8’0” Beam (overall): 10’0” Beam (main hull): 3’10” Displ. (light): 350 lbs. Draft (board up/down): 2” - 3’0” Sail area max.: 130 sq. ft.

The process of reefing looked a bit tricky, requiring one crew to venture out onto the deck, take down the mast to strip and roll the sail for stowing. Reducing canvas before conditions get sketchy would be key. One hand for the boat and one for the crew would be good advice as man-overboard maneuvers in 50-degree water had limited appeal. When under way, the couple would live in dry suits and PFDs. Only when safe at anchor and ready to retire for the night would it be time for a sponge bath and changing into fresh undergarments.

“My measure of success? That we still like each other after we cross the finish line,” joked Sheehan-Saldaña the night before the start. She said she was comfortable with his risk management, and prior to the start of the race he vowed to take the foot off the pedal in consideration of her more junior experience. “If I push [too] hard, she can keep me in check,” Rösler said. His words were put to the test the next morning, less than an hour after the 5 a.m. starting gun.

The predicted monster ebb was running headlong into a building westerly, producing giant swells in the Cabbage Patch off Point Wilson a mile after the start. Some misjudged the power of the maelstrom, which earned them a spot on the evening news after capsizing and making the trip to shore in a Coast Guard chopper that had plucked them from the frigid waters.

Fix oder Nix stayed out of that mess, but paid a price. “For two hours we went backwards at half a knot or one knot while we were surfing down waves, and it looked like we were doing 5-plus knots (through the water),” Rösler shuddered afterwards. “We were surfing down the face of the waves laterally until we got close to Whidbey
Island, where we got out of it.” He steered facing aft, while Sheehan-Saldaña checked position and bailed the Pacific out of their cockpit.

At day’s end they had made miles, but empty ones. Instead of going to Victoria, B.C., the finish of the first stage, they fetched up at the dock in Point Hudson whence they came from, to wait for a weather window for the crossing of roughly 40 miles, which they found in the wee hours two days later. Sheehan-Saldaña said the early dusting “impacted us later whenever we encountered a rip current or tide. We were holding back more than necessary, but hey, that’s how it works.”

But there’s no point in fighting elements that can be stacked against you “80 percent of the time,” says Rösler about his tactic for the race. It’s better to wait it out and go with the flow when the time comes. “When conditions were in our favor, we maxed them out. We never missed an opportunity,” he says.

“I never experienced anything that complex,” says Sheehan- Saldaña about the way the water and wind interacted during the race. “In the Royal [expletive] Princess Channel, we rowed in a constant opposing current for two days. It never changed to a flood the entire time.” Equally lousy is a fair current running into a headwind, which they experienced farther north in the Grenville Channel. “In the afternoon the Northwest kicked up to 15 to 25 knots,” she continued, “so even with a 2- to 3-knot supporting current, we weren’t going to make headway. We sat in Lowe Inlet a whole day.”

They rang the bell at the dock in Ketchikan after 21 days, 7 hours and 25 minutes—more than 17 days after the winners on a Riptide 44 racing yacht skippered by Olympic gold medalist and Sailing Hall-of-Famer Jonathan McKee. Finishing 18th out of 19 teams might not sound impressive, but there were more than a dozen dropouts and there was that declared priority to enjoy the journey and stay friends. With the exception of losing a cell phone to the brine of Victoria Harbor, Rösler and Sheehan-Saldaña did exactly want they set out to do. Will they be coming back for another trick? Nah.

“We can suffer in some other environment,” she said in a post-race chat. “I thought we did very well together. We still get along.” 

This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue.

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