With the upcoming R2AK challenge, there has been a lot of speculation as to what types of boats will be entered, and potential speeds and finishing times. I’ve spent a bit of time contemplating these questions myself, and will share my thoughts on this blog. The race is open to all types of motor-less boats from SUPs to higher performance multi-hull boats. While all boats are welcome, it is obvious that the organizers have an emphasis on smaller and/or home built craft.
Overall consensus is that a performance sailing craft is the most likely candidate for hitting the finish line first. If this is the case, we can make some fairly accurate guesses on speed by looking at the results of the Van Isle 360.
The Van Isle 360, a sailing race conducted in stages around Vancouver Island, is an excellent source of information to predict potential speeds for the R2AK. Half of the Van Isle 360 route (the course along the inside of Vancouver Island), overlaps the first half of the Race to Alaska, so Van Isle 360 participants are encountering very similar conditions to the R2AK. The Van Isle Race attracts some of the(if not the) fastest sailing vessels in the Pacific Northwest, so they provide a clear indication of the very top speeds possible in R2AK- like conditions.
Looking at the 2005 results (these are the only results I could find online, however, the fastest boats then are still the top contenders in recent years, so results probably haven’t changed much), the fastest boats complete the race with a total elapsed time of about 100 hours. There are two anomalies – Dragonfly and Cheekee Monkey, which are extraordinarily high-performance multihulls which completed the race in 79 and 86 hours respectively. The two other high performance multi-hulls competing – Bad Kitty and Blue Lightning finished in over 100 hours. We will leave Dragonfly and Cheekee Monkey out of our equation, as the likelihood of a boat of their caliber competing in R2AK is highly unlikely.
So let’s take 100 hours as the time it takes for an extremely high end racing boat to circumnavigate Vancouver Island. The circumference of Vancouver Island is 593 nautical miles – so the faster boats are moving at an average of 5.93 knots.
For the caliber of boats in the Van Isle 360, this is a very unimpressive speed, and speaks volumes about the winds they are encountering.
There are several other factors to consider when applying this comparison to R2AK. The Van Isle 360 is raced in stages and is not unsupported. This contributes considerably to overall speed for several reasons. The crew are able to rest, conduct repairs, strategize, etc during their rest stops and the boat is able to travel lighter. Additionally, night sailing is minimized – a time when winds are at their lightest and more prudent courses need to be followed due to reduced visibility. Additionally, the crew motor through Seymour narrows during one of their layover periods, so they don’t need to worry about being stuck waiting for favorable currents.
I think we can safely assume that VanIsle 360 average top speeds would be cut by at least half a knot if it were a non-stop unsupported race that also required sailing through Seymour Narrows. This brings the speed of the fastest boats to 5.43 knots.
Finally, there is one more factor to consider when applying the Van Isle 360 race to R2AK. Contestants in the VanIsle challenge clock their fastest times on the west coast of the island and in the Juan de Fuca Strait where winds are more consistent and in their favor. At this time of year winds come more frequently from the north. Undoubtedly, winds will be less favorable for a boat heading north from the tip of Vancouver Island to Ketchican, rather than a boat heading south on the western side of Vancouver Island. At a very rough guess, I would estimate another half knot average would be lost if the VanIsle 360 boats kept going north along the R2AK route, rather than the more favorable route they follow.
So according to my estimates, the top boats from the VanIsle 360 race would likely average a thoroughly unimpressive 5 knots if they were to enter the R2AK.
Realistically, however, none of these quarter to half million dollar racing sailboats will be entering R2AK. The R2AK is a grassroots race catering to creative home builders and small boat enthusiasts. In the spirit of inclusivity, it is open to all boats, but like Usain Bolt competing in a small community track meet, the question to be asked is what’s the point? It is not worth their time and resources to compete in a race that means very little in the competitive sailing world.
So, that brings us to the more likely top candidates for the race. The fastest sailing vessels that have so are entered are a handful of home-built multihulls – from an F-32 to one of Richard Wood’s designs. There’s even talk of a Corsair 32, but 20 knot fantasies will quickly be brought into perspective by multi-day straight line averages.
I have no idea how much slower these types of boats are compared to the likes of “Bad Kitty” (a performance multihull used in the Van Isle 360), but a very rough guess would have the fastest contenders going at about eighty percent. Even though contestants of R2AK have the added advantage of being able to augment their speed by human power, this will only be nominally beneficial (from the perspective of a standard multihull sailboat). My guess is that a laden 3000 lb. trimaran will be lucky if it can sustain 1.5 knots through a sustained calm.
In summary, after crunching the numbers and making educated guesses for many of the variables, my estimate is that the winning boat for R2AK will average about 4 knots. This means the 675 nautical mile distance for the race will be covered in 169 hours or 7 days if all goes well. Due to the high likelihood of breakdowns, sustained poor winds, etc., my guess is that 169 hours is probably optimistic, with it likely taking up to 9 or ten days for the winning boat to finish.
So, what about human power you may be wondering? From what I’ve seen in the forums, it appears the multihull sailing enthusiasts believe human power has no chance. I don’t share this belief, and I think it stems more from a lack of information on the potential of human power, rather than the reality of the situation.
As with sailing speeds, we can come up with fairly accurate human powered speed estimates by looking into the history books.
A good example providing insight into potential speeds of by human power is the human powered Vancouver Island circumnavigation challenge. Believe it or not, the fastest time ever clocked circling Vancouver Island by engineless boat is not one of the carbon fiber rockets from the Van Isle 360, but lone Kayaker, Russell Henry who circumnavigated the Island in 12 days. Of course, this is total time from start to finish, not just elapsed time on the water, but it gives a good idea of what can be achieved by raw human power.
I broke this record myself in 2011 circling the island in 14.5 days (including 1.5 days off due to injury) in a rowboat. My average speed while on the water was just over 4 knots. I am guessing Russell Henry’s speed was probably 4.5 knots.
Of course, just as with applying the speed of the Van Isle 360 sailboats to R2AK, you can’t assume speed on water with rest stops applies to 24/7 voyaging. By travelling around the clock with human power, more than one crew member is required, adding weight and other factors that will reduce average speed. In other words, because Henry Russell can maintain a speed of 4.5 knots for half the day, two Russell Henry’s taking turns in a larger boat will not be able to maintain the same speed continuously.
So how fast can you travel continuously by human power? Another good example to look at is the non-stop self-supported rowing race around Britain. The distance for this race is almost two and a half times as far as R2AK, and sea conditions make the Inside Passage look like a mill pond. Wind and currents come from all directions. The fastest team to row around Britain non-stop, a team of four, completed it in just over 26 days, averaging a straight line speed of just over three knots.
Considering conditions off the coast of Britain are much more challenging, and the race is more than twice as long, it is feasible that the speed could be significantly faster in the relatively calm waters (and much shorter distance) faced in R2AK. The boat that they used is also a relatively inefficient design, designed more for rough oceans than speed. For the Inside Passage, a much lighter and lower profile vessel could be used. It is not inconceivable at all that a strong crew in an intelligently designed vessel could sustain 4 knots entirely by human power. It might be a rowing boat, or some other type of craft.
It is unlikely that a human-powered craft will win this year, since no likely candidates have entered. To me, it seems the Holy Grail of the Race to Alaska isn’t just to win it, but to win it by human power. It is possible to win by human power, but it won’t be easy, and to do so would be one of the greatest accomplishments. A combination of strength, design and luck will need to come together to make it happen.
A friend of mine Greg Kolodziejzyk, is pondering entering R2AK 2016. Greg is not just a phenomenal athlete, but a genius in designing fast human powered vehicles. He holds the world records for both the greatest distance travelled by human power over land in 24 hours (over 1000 km), and the greatest distance over water (without current) in 24 hours (242 km - that's one man propelling himself continuously propelling himself at 5.5 knots for 24 hours!). Greg’s designing a radical new boat which he feels will be perfect for R2AK. If anyone has what it takes to properly pit human-potential against wind, it’s Greg. Should be an interesting one!
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At Angus Rowboats, our passion for adventure naturally draws us to the mystique of the Northwest Passage – one of the world's most captivating and perilous waterways. Historically, this elusive passage promised a shorter shipping route, spurring early navigators to fervently chart and struggle through its icy intricacies.
The summer of 2023 saw three audacious teams, including one using our very own RowCruiser boats, aiming to be the first to traverse NW Passage solely by human power within a single season. As the season concludes, we've chronicled these attempts, and catalogued past human-powered endeavors to navigate the Northwest Passage.