Even people who have never stepped foot on a sailboat, let alone braved wind and waves in a grueling endurance race, will be captivated by the thrilling documentary, “The Race to Alaska.”
Director Zach Carver makes strong use of racer-shot footage that puts the viewer right inside the non-motorized vessels that undertake the daring 750-nautical mile course along the coast of Canada, from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.
“The Race to Alaska,” which screens at the Jane Pickens Theater on June 10, deftly mixes impressive footage and interviews from five years of the event, from the inaugural race in 2015 through 2019. Founded by Jake Beattie of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend as a way to attract new, youthful energy to sailing, the unusual race drew far more interest than he could imagine.
The lure doesn’t seem to be the $10,000 first place prize or the tongue-in-cheek second place prize of a set of steak knives. Adventurers of all stripes come for the challenge that demands seamanship and resiliency; the stunning beauty of the Canadian coast; and a one-of-a-kind experience. The sole stipulation of the race is that no motors can be used, and each vessel must be self-supported. Besides relying on the wind, the sailors must row or pedal their vessels for many hours at a stretch.
The film follows the free-spirited style of the race as it introduces assorted characters and unfolds in a loose, engaging manner. Some of the participants are solo sailors, such as triathlete Roger Mann, who says his rowing/pedaling strategy is simply “don’t stop.” Karl Kruger sets off alone on a paddleboard, approaching the vast, unpredictable waters with a Zen-like focus. There are duos and larger teams, such as the all-women crew of “Sail Like a Girl,” who took part in the race in 2018 and 2019. Ernie Baird participated in 2017 “to celebrate my 70th birthday,” he says.
Carver deftly balances humor as we get to know the various characters who undertake the challenge and endure some harrowing moments during the race. There’s footage of experienced sailor Randy Miller’s catamaran flying above the water as it’s whipped by waves and winds.
The most treacherous part of the course is through Seymour Narrows, where whirlpools 30-feet wide and 10-feet deep capsize many boats. Out of 45 boats that start the race, this is where half are forced to quit. If the racers make it that far, there’s still Johnstone Strait, with its swirling currents, and Bella Bella in British Columbia, where more will drop out and must find a way home.
But the film captures other moments of serene stillness when there’s little wind, and the sailors row and pedal through calm waters with snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The photography and scenery are stunning, as dolphins suddenly appear and cavort alongside a boat and a sunset turns the sky and open water a hazy pink, so “The Race to Alaska” is best experienced on a big screen.
Crew members explain that for much of the race, they never even see another boat, so there’s no clue what position they hold. There’s edge-of-the-seat footage of one vessel pushing ahead in a pitch-black, nighttime storm and experiencing, as one crew member says, “Exhaustion, adrenaline and fear, all at once.”
The film builds suspense as the race approaches Ketchikan. There’s footage of the winners over several different years, some of which are surprising. The fastest boats usually get to the finish line in less than a week reaching the stash of cash nailed to a log, and cheering onlookers. Others can take several weeks to arrive, but when they do, the joy and sense of accomplishment is just as thrilling and the reception just as welcoming. As one sailor says, “It’s all about pushing yourself.”