Doug Kennedy has spent decades sailing the globe. He’s navigated Scandinavian waters like a viking, and once crossed the Atlantic from the coast of Morocco to the Caribbean over a three-week journey.
A trip north along B.C.’s coast should, in theory, be easy for him. In practice, it will be anything but for Kennedy and a group of Nelson sailors looking to make history — if they can finish the journey that is.
“It’s as challenging a place to sail as anywhere in the world,” says Kennedy.
The Kootenay Pedalwheelers, a team of six including Kennedy, Jay Blackmore, Mike Bowick, Roger Hassol, Todd Kettner and Mike Sagal, are set to compete in the Race to Alaska beginning June 13.
The event is a 1,200-kilometre endurance race from Port Townsend, Wash., to Ketchikan, Alaska. The 38 teams taking part are bound by two rules: no motors and no outside help.
That means if the Pedalwheelers want to become the first Canadian team to win the race, they’ll need to work together to overcome unpredictable weather, wildlife and exhaustion using only the sails of their boat to navigate the Pacific.
“It’s the anti-yacht race,” says Blackmore. “It’s the race for the everyman.”
The Pedalwheelers will compete in the Amurskaya, a 10-metre Flying Tiger sail boat. Blackmore describes it as a race car chassis with nothing but engine. Inside the small hull is a space for extra sails, supplies and two sleeping berths.
When the race begins, the crew will take four-hour shifts in pairs either at the helm, working the sails or resting inside. They’ll sail 24-7, either testing the open waters to cut down on time or closer to the coast in calmer conditions.
Teams have 48 hours to travel 64 kilometres from Port Townsend to Victoria or be disqualified. After that, they begin the journey to Alaska with only one mandatory check-in at Bella Bella, B.C.
If the boat is damaged, they have to fix it themselves. If they run out of food, they have to find a place to resupply. If there’s a mutiny, well, that’s probably unlikely.
“It’s just fun having an endeavour, a project, a goal that we’re all working towards,” says Blackmore. “We all have a love of sailing and a passion for it and adventure.”
It’s the first time the Pedalwheelers have taken part in the race, but they’ve been preparing for years. COVID-19 cancelled their plans to participate in the 2020 event, so instead they made a seven-day trip around Vancouver Island as a consolation.
The crew ranges from experienced sailors like Blackmore and Kennedy to Mike Sagal, who is on his first multi-day trip with the team. Sagal was at the helm steering the Amurskaya on Friday during the team’s final practice session on Kootenay Lake.
“I love how much you have to pay attention to the environment around you and adjust to it all the time,” he says. “The winds will pick up and then you have to adapt very quickly and be very aware and basically make the best advantages out of the wind you’re given.”
The team is aiming to finish the race in five days. In 2019, only 25-of-45 teams completed the journey, so just making it to Alaska in one piece would be worth celebrating. But Blackmore likes their chances.
“We feel like we’ve got a good shot at top-10. After that it’s a roll of the dice.”
Whichever team finishes first receives $10,000, the entirety of which the Pedalwheelers say they will donate to Friends of Kootenay Lake Stewardship Society, a non-profit that works on sustainability initiatives.
The only other prize is a set of steak knives for finishing second. The knives, and the memories, the team will keep for themselves.