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A Q&A with Daniel Evans on the inaugural WA360

by David Schmidt 10 Mar 16:00 GMT June 7, 2021
Pear shaped Racing during the Race to Alaska 2019 © Drew Malcolm

While go-fast foilers and other high-tech racing boats command plenty of daydreams and editorial ink, the hard-boiled reality is that this equipment requires a level of skill that plenty of sailors outside of the America's Cup, the Olympics, the Moth Worlds or the SailGP circuit can't easily muster. Then there's cost and complication. These latter points also hold for flashy big-boat programs that consume sails, require small armies of crewmembers, and—increasingly—send sailors around windward-leewward courses that test skills but don't exactly kindle the imagination or rejuvenate the soul.

Enter the Race to Alaska (R2AK), an international adventure race that began in 2015 and takes teams from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.

En route, sailors contend with ripping tides, vast stretches of wilderness, cold, cold water, the errant grizzly bear(s) and plenty of make-it-or-break it decisions, all sans auxiliary propulsion (read: race any craft that you like, so long as there's no engine or motor aboard) or shore teams.

At least, that's how the deal went down before the global scourge known as COVID-19 hit the scene.

Sadly, the 2020 and 2021 editions of the R2AK had to be scrapped due to a closed northern border. But rather than disappoint the legions of interested takers, the Northwest Maritime Center, which is located in Port Townsend and has sponsored the R2AK since its inception, got creative.

Enter the WA360, a domestic adventure race that will unfurl for the first time on the Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound), starting on June 7. The course will take racers from Port Townsend down to a buoy off of Olympia, then up to the Bellingham area before taking a hitch over to Point Roberts, and, finally, back to the finishing line off of Port Townsend.

As with the R2AK, teams and individuals can "run what they brung" in terms of vessel choice (it can even have an engine or motor, but goodness help the team that uses it in anger), and there's also plenty of cold water and tough decision making to accompany the race t-shirt. Grizzly bears will hopefully be in much shorter supply, but all takers can count on a challenging adventure that will almost certainly involve multiple modes of propulsion.

I checked in with Daniel Evans, race boss of the inaugural Washington 360, via email, to learn more about this shiny new Pacific Northwest adventure race.

If you could pick any kind of boat/vessel to try and win the WA360, what would it be and why?

Well, I've always thought that a Viking ship converted to pedal drive with about 50 disgraced Soviet Olympic cyclists hopped-up on performance-enhancing drugs could be a contender. That that's the best bet.

How important do you think a human-powered propulsion system will be for this course?

Human-powered systems are going to be pivotal for about 90 percent of the race teams in [the] WA360. South Sound has a knack for eating a sailor's enthusiasm and sails often do little in the stretch from Anderson Island to Olympia.

If teams can't move their boat without sails, they'll likely be shopping for Christmas presents before they cross the finish line.

The other 10% are going to be like aliens slipping through the water on tech and designs most of us won't ever get to play within our mortal lives.

Can you walk us through the biggest/most important navigational decisions that teams will have to make? Also, what do you see as the course's crux decision-making spots?

Course crux totally depends on the vessel and crew, though the choice of Deception Pass or the Swinomish Slough is going to suck. It's the choice of rapids pinned between unforgiving cliffs or a long and unpredictable ditch with shifting mud bars.

Weather and currents are going to play the biggest part in navigating the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, followed closely by the element of Russian Roulette we call dumb luck.

Could Deception Pass prove to be the same kind of gatekeeper that Seymour Narrows has become on the R2AK's racecourse?

Deception Pass is absolutely going to be an open-and-shut affair for teams, with standing waves, rolling eddies and water speeds almost hitting double digits.

And if you know the shirt size of Deception Pass that'd be great; I want to buy them the proper reflective vest.

Why did the race decide to allow sailors to keep their engines onboard? Also, how will you ensure that engines don't get used? The honor system?

Keeping engines aboard reduces the barrier to entry for a lot of teams who can't afford [to pull] their engine[s]. And I'm a little tired of Vessel Traffic Services and the Coast Guard sending hitmen(hitpeople?) after me.

And while honor is above all else in our rule book, I plan on getting some nifty zip ties to put on their shift linkage-or something-that, if broken, will rule them out. Or I'll do something smarter I haven't thought of yet.

What's the first-place prize? More importantly, will a set of consolation cutlery be in play for the second-placed team or are knives an R2AK-only thing?

If anyone wants a set of steak knives they have to race to Alaska, but if you want a big badass Championship Belt you have to race WA360. Think Ali in the Thrilla in Manilla, and any match by his daughter, Laila Ali, who never lost a match.

We're racing only three classes - Go Fast, Go Hard and Human Powered - because I don't do math and thereby have no way to handicap teams.

Once the border reopens, could you envision running the R2AK and the WA360 in the same year? Or is this a one-off?

Oh, the races will run together. WA360 is looking like an every year or every other year kind of thing. And you know, I'm fond of pageantry and confusion, so they will be happening at the same time when they both run.

The Northwest Maritime Center has now run its share of races. Can you tell us about any new or innovative steps that you guys are taking to lower the WA360's environmental wake or otherwise green-up this event?

The three adventure races we run are based on the principle that simpler is often harder. A corollary is a huge reduction in fossil fuels and the development of human-powered propulsion. These races also showcase the ability of humans to engage in a high level of adventure without an overwhelming reliance on tech and machines.

Our innovation is in reminding all of us [that] we can do more than we thought with much less than we believe we need.

We all, the Northwest Maritime Center, believe we have to address global climate considerations, water quality, use of non-durable plastics; really, we believe we need to treat our environment with respect in general.

[The] WA360 brings more eyes down to water level, develops our relationships with the waterways that surround us and thereby helps inform better decision-making regarding our world, that's the hope at least.

Anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

If it's not obvious, [the] WA360 is an attempt to increase the accessibility of epic adventure and offer tests of will, strength, humor, decision-making, compassion and integrity to our maritime community. It is as easily offering a personal watershed moment as it is a tactical race. We hope that [the] WA360 is what people need it to be for themselves.

Personally, I have a longstanding love affair with the Salish Sea, which at times both shuns and embraces me, but it's that relationship that fosters my care and consideration for our environment.

I hope that in all of our adventure races - R2AK, WA360 and SEVENTY48 - others will grow that relationship for themselves and become advocates and champions for our unique maritime way of life.

Oh, and we love a good story. WA360 is like our reality TV dreams coming to life.

You gotta make what you love if you want something nice to look at right!

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