The Kootenay Pedalwheelers survived waves that capsized competitors, a broken rudder and all the weather the ocean can inflict on a sail boat during a race to remember.
The Nelson-based team of Jay Blackmore, Mike Bowick, Roger Hassol, Todd Kettner, Doug Kennedy and Mike Sagal finished sixth in the Race to Alaska, a 1,200-kilometre endurance race from Port Townsend, Wash., north along the B.C. coast to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Blackmore said on the day they arrived at the finish, a sun broke through the clouds and a breeze carried them into Ketchikan. “It was magical. It was as good as you could have hoped for.”
The race was non-motorized, and the 32 teams taking part were allowed no outside help. It took the Pedalwheelers seven days to reach Ketchikan, where they arrived June 23. As of June 29, 13 teams had finished the race, 10 had dropped out and nine were still making the journey.
The Pedalwheelers’ trip was hardly smooth sailing.
On the opening day, a relatively short trip from Port Townsend to Victoria, rocky conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca led to the U.S. Coast Guard rescuing four sailors whose trimaran had capsized.
The Pedalwheelers made it to Victoria unscathed, and then had a choice: They could play it safe and sail up the quieter waters of the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland, or they could risk the west coast of the island where conditions were more dangerous but the wind might give them a significant speed advantage.
They ended up being one of three teams to opt for the open ocean, and almost immediately ran into trouble when the heavy waves led to their rudder falling apart.
“It was potentially a showstopper for us,” said Blackmore.
In Ucluelet, B.C., the Pedalwheelers found a marine shop and were able to repair the rudder, but that cost them 12 hours and the windy conditions their competitors took advantage of.
They were able to make up time, but Blackmore thinks the delay cost them third place. The third through sixth-place teams all finished on the same day.
“Being able to do all those repairs and get back underway, we felt really fortunate to even finish the race let alone to place sixth.”
There were other difficulties — Blackmore, an experienced sailor, was seasick for the first time in his life — but the broken rudder ended up being the team’s only major challenge.
As they approached Bella Bella, B.C., the Pedalwheelers had no wind at their backs and had to resort to pedalling. But Blackmore said a storm erupted behind them, sheets of rain fell and the Amurskaya, a 10-metre Flying Tiger sailboat, began to cut through the waves. It was then that the team realized two boats were not far ahead, and another was on their stern.
The race, Blackmore said, was on.
“It was one of the most amazing moments of sailing I’ve ever had.”
Now that their race is over, the Kootenay Pedalwheelers are returning home south along the coast to Vancouver, where they plan to sell their boat. Along the way they’ve handed out supplies to competitors in kayaks and row boats still on their way to Ketchikan.
Blackmore, who spoke to the Nelson Star from Bella Bella, said he is considering returning next year as a volunteer. They didn’t win the $10,000 prize, or the set of steak knives given for second place, but the journey was unforgettable.
“It’s been a rollercoaster, said Blackmore. “It’s been a really fabulous experience.”