Stina and George Booth used oars and wind power to navigate a 750-mile racecourse
It’s hard to wrap your mind around a boat race so demanding that you could come in second-to-last yet still finish in the top half. But the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile water journey from Port Townsend to Ketchikan with just two rules — no motors and no outside help — is unique.
Stina Booth — normally an orchardist near Carlton — got home at the end of June after finishing the course in 20 days with her younger brother, George. Of the 50 boats that started in Port Townsend on June 6, only 26 made it to Ketchikan. The Booths came in 25th.
“When your little brother — who can do anything in the world — says, ‘Hey, you want to go do something stupid and crazy?’ there’s really only one answer — ‘Yeah, why not?’” said Stina. “Why wouldn’t I? Who else could I go with that I could hate and trust at the same time?”
The Booths’ boat, a 20-foot Norwegian rowboat with one sail and two sets of oars, was the smallest craft to finish the race. George bought it from the folks who took it on its last excursion, from the headwaters of the Mississippi River to Florida. He spent the winter outfitting it for the tides and open seas en route to Alaska.
“I was super-impressed with how sea-worthy the boat was,” Stina said. Even in the most challenging conditions — like the 3- to 5-foot seas they confronted on the first day to Victoria — the boat, which sits just a foot above the water, handled spectacularly, she said.
Although small, the boat wasn’t light — it weighed 300 pounds without any gear. Generally, a boat that’s good for rowing isn’t well designed for sailing — and vice-versa — but Solveig (the boat came with the name) was versatile.
Stina and George — calling themselves Team Solveig — would get up at dawn to row 20 to 25 miles while the water and wind were calm. They hoisted the sail when the wind picked up in the afternoon. Overall, they traveled half by rowing and half by sailing.
The organizers of the race affectionately call it R2AK. They describe it as “a self-supported race with no supply drops and no safety net.” Being self-supported means you can’t have anyone drop off food for you, nor text or radio directions or weather forecasts. Any boat without an engine can enter.
There are a few safeguards. The race begins with a qualifying leg, 40 miles from Port Townsend to Victoria in a maximum of 36 hours. And a sweep boat heads out two weeks into the race to watch for stragglers or anyone in trouble. Any boats passed by the sweeper are disqualified.
Powerful winds and tides eliminated many boats on the first day. But overall, Stina and George had favorable weather, with calm winds and little rain.
Stina is no stranger to boats — she grew up sailing on Puget Sound and she and her husband, John Richardson, live on a 30-foot sailboat when they take fruit from Booth Canyon Orchards to sell in Seattle. Both she and George have paddled in whitewater.
Still, nothing quite prepares you for a journey like the R2AK. “There was never any question in my mind that we would not make it,” said Stina. “But sometimes I was so tired I wondered how tomorrow would happen.”
They spent 12 to 14 hours a day on the boat, covering up to 60 miles in a day. “We were either on the move, making or breaking camp, sleeping, or eating,” said Stina.
A few high-end racing boats whizzed to Ketchikan in four and a half days, but Stina was pleased to finish in 20. Just in case, they’d made two reservations, one week apart, for their return trip by ferry.
Racers can take any route they’d like to Ketchikan, as long as they hit two check-in points. The Booths traveled the Inside Passage, the standard route for ferries and cruise ships. “It was fabulously beautiful,” said Stina. They saw whales, eagles and a few bears.
The hardest part of finding a campsite is that the beaches are just rock, with the tide going up to the treeline. “We would crash into the verdant jungle to try and put our tent somewhere,” said Stina.
The solar panel mounted on the bow of the boat got wet on the first day and shorted out, so they saved their batteries for their emergency radio. So, unlike most R2AK participants, they didn’t have radio forecasts and just sized up the weather as they saw it, said Stina. They used paper and digital charts and GPS on their phones.
Stina and George have shared lots of adventures over the years. They biked together for six months in South America and have done mountaineering trips. Still, the R2AK requires a unique combination of physical and mental preparedness and skill.
Stina spent the winter rowing on the Columbia River near Pateros. She and George tested the Solveig on a four-day trip on Lake Chelan. Even though she put in seven hours a day twice a week, “nothing can prepare you for spending 12 hours on the water,” she said. “There are no easy miles.”
Beyond the physical challenges, making time for training and taking a month off from work was especially difficult. George is a physician in Boise. “June’s a terrible time of year to leave the farm,” said Stina.
“It’s a pretty cool thing. People who do it are a little crazy, but you’re pretty stoked when you get to Ketchikan,” said Stina.
“It was pretty awesome. I would love to take two months and do that trip in that boat, but I don’t have two months,” she said. “That would be the normal thing to do. It would have been funner.”
“Thanks for coming, sis — it was awesome,” said George in the video the R2AK folks made of them after they got to Ketchikan. “It was pretty much everything I was hoping it would be.”
People can watch the video of Stina and George on the R2AK website at r2ak.com, under Podcasts, Updates & Videos. Look for Day 20.