After making history by successfully skiing across Antarctica five years ago, North Bend couple Chris and Marty Fagan turned their adventurous spirits toward the cold waters of the inside passage to Alaska – attempting the 750-mile Race to Alaska last month.
The race is the first of its kind and North America’s longest human and wind powered race. That’s right. No motors – and no support teams following those attempting the journey. Humans and natural power are all that’s allowed to propel teams from Port Townsend, WA to Ketchikan, AK. This year monohulls, catamarans, trimarans, kayaks, rowboats and even paddle boards gave it a try.
Chris and Marty and their longtime friend, fellow adventurer and experienced sailor Danny Geiger – along with their 30 foot Hawaiian outrigger sailing canoe – made up Race to Alaska’s Team Holopuni.
The team name was inspired by the company that built their sailing canoe. In Hawaiian, Holopuni means ‘to sail everywhere’ and Holopuni Canoes has been manufacturing three-person outrigger canoes capable of handling extremely difficult inter-island travels for thirty years.
Chris said their boat arrived in Seattle via freight ship from Kauai in mid-January and they immediately began preparing for the race – sailing and paddling all through the cold winter.
She commented, “In basically four and a half months, we learned all about paddling, sailing and living on our unique outrigger sailing canoe. We made many first-time adaptations to turn our day sailing boat into an expedition vessel.”
After that relatively short training time, the team headed up to Port Townsend and on June 3rd launched on the first, 40-mile phase of the race to Victoria, B.C. Teams were allowed 36 hours to make the journey called ‘The Proving Grounds.” Only if completed could they then embark on the 710-mile phase to Ketchikan.
On June 4th at 7:30AM, Team Holopuni successfully arrived in Victoria after high winds forced them to spend the night in Gonzalez Bay. They spent a couple of days making last minute boat repairs and readied themselves for the long journey that awaited.
On June 6th at noon they were off. Sailing when winds were favorable. Paddling when they weren’t. They maneuvered through coves and straights. They pulled all-nighters paddling hard. They sailed amongst barges and cruise ships and had near misses with logs, a medium-sized cruise ship and even humpback whales. They camped on beaches and slept very little. Chris and Marty even celebrated their 20-year wedding anniversary at sea.
Ten days in, on June 15th, the team started its 48-hour push toward the finish in Ketchikan. By the next day they were working their way up north of Stephens Island, sailing in strong winds throughout the night as they experienced rising swells, waves and wind.
Then early on June 17th, a 7-foot waved crashed over the stern, ripped Marty’s glasses from his head and bashed his spray skirt. The boat became half-filled with water.
Chris said they tried to pump the water out, but waves just kept coming – filling the whole canoe. They made the decision to hit SOS and call the Canadian Coast Guard on the VHF radio. They were about 45 miles short of the finish line.
Chris described the experience via email:
“Once the boat swamped and we hit the SOS button, my mind became completely focused on the moment at hand. The chill in my body replaced by warm adrenaline. Our team went into rescue mode, gathering key safety gear (VHF radio, GPS, flares), making the mayday call to the Canadian Coast Guard, wrapping ourselves in soaking sleeping bags and bivy sacks to avoid hypothermia, and holding tight to each other until the Canadian Coast Guard arrived”.
Two hours later, at 7:30AM, they were rescued. They left SPOT on the boat in hopes of recovering her later since she did not sink. By 10AM Team Hopoluni was in Prince Rupert.
Race Boss Daniel Evans wrote, “Holopuni suffered a crippling and confused sea strong enough to rip off their hatch cover, flood the boat, and turn the race into a rescue.”
Once the team was safely on land, Chris said the gravity of the situation and all of the “what ifs” and associated emotions came rushing in. She added, “After so many years of adventuring and lending a hand to others in need of help, it was humbling to the be ones accepting help.”
The following day the team caught a ferry to Ketchikan to find their boat. The SPOT had died, but they searched based on the last reported coordinates. Right as they were about to give up, she was spotted. After towing her to Lee of Duke Island, the boat was dewatered…basically back to new and ready to go.
After towing her to Ketchikan on June 19th, Team Holopuni climbed aboard and symbolically paddled the last mile to the Race to Alaska finish line. On June 20th, the boat was tucked into Ketchikan Harbor and Chris and Marty flew home to North Bend. In mid-July they plan to head back to take her apart and ship her home.
So will they try the race again? Chris said maybe in 2021, but not next year since their son will be graduating from high school.
She explained, “There is just something about this race that is so enticing. The people who run the race have created a one-of-a-kind experience to challenge the most adventurous, inspire fans and “tracker junkies” to follow along, and build camaraderie among disparate teams. Hats off to Danial Evans (Race Boss for Race to Alaska at Northwest Maritime Center) and Jake Beattie (Executive Director at Northwest Maritime Center, creator of Race to Alaska) for the leadership and spirit they bring to this amazing race.”