A father-and-son team from Chilliwack that competed in a 1,200-kilometre engineless boat race in 2019 and had to drop out are now ready more than ever for this year’s Race to Alaska (R2AK).
Three years ago, Randy Jensen and son Lionel Jensen built a pedal-powered paddle wheel and attached it to their MacGregor 26D monohull sailboat named R2Ache.
Staring in Port Townsend, Washington and ending in Ketchikan, Alaska, R2AK is North America’s longest human- and wind-powered boat race. Just finishing the race is a challenge.
Like many other teams in 2019, the Jensens didn’t finish even though they had a good start.
“The first day of the race when we were going across to Victoria, there was a lot more wind than we’d ever planned to be in,” Lionel said. “The first leg of the race is the ‘proving grounds’ and you only have 36 hours to get to Victoria, and after that it’s just a free for all.”
After the ‘proving grounds’ portion there’s a break for a little more than a day and a half before the teams leave Victoria for the full race.
About two weeks in, and over a treacherous 24-hour period, the Jensens encountered more than one issue back in 2019.
They had a mechanical problem with their paddle wheel and also heard two maydays over the radio. One boat in the race had capsized while another got swamped, which is when large waves come over the side of the boat filling it with water.
“That spooked me,” Randy said about the maydays.
He recalled how choppy the waves were when they heard the maydays.
“We got knocked around a couple of times really bad. It was dicey,” Randy said.
Additionally, they only had their boat for six months before the race and spent all of that time getting it ready for R2AK, so they spent very little time actually on the water with R2Ache.
Lionel said because of those three factors, it was unanimous between the two of them that they wanted to quit the 2019 race when they got to Port MacNeil.
They had gone 491 kilometres of the 1,200-kilometre race (more than 40 per cent) when they pulled out.
But even with the harsh weather and maydays, they both wanted to give it another whirl. Two weeks after leaving the race in 2019, they were already talking about what they would do differently next time.
Turns out “next time” would be in 2022 as the pandemic cancelled R2AK for 2020 and 2021. Both are now very eager for June 13 when this year’s race will start.
“We’ve been waiting for this since 2019,” Randy said.
Both agreed they are so much more prepared.
First, they’ve had a lot more time on the water in R2Ache.
As far as changes to the boat to make it easier to sail, they added a third reef point in the main sail so it can be shortened, giving them less power and more control in strong winds.
They also adjusted the pedal-powered paddle wheel – the seat can be removed and stored away more easily and it’s faster to put the chains on. It used to take five to six minutes to switch from sailing to pedalling, and now they can do it in less than one minute.
Randy built a fancy stove with a gimbal so they can cook while sailing, and instead of canned food, they’re bringing dehydrated food which means the boat will be 100 pounds lighter.
They have a drying locker and have installed a heater, plus both will be wearing one-piece flotation suits, similar to a wetsuit, in case they end up in the water. They’ll even be tethered to the boat and will have whistles if they fall in.
And for the 36 hours to complete the ‘proving grounds’ portion, they’ll have family member James Laton on board. Randy calls him their “secret weapon.”
Randy is 73 years old and has decades of sailing experience.
“The division of labour is very clear. I’m the pedal meat, Dad is the skipper – I do what I’m told,” said 31-year-old Lionel. “I’m a sober second thought, but at the end of the day, Dad makes the calls.”
Randy said it’s “pretty amazing” how well they get along.
“Overall it’s a lot of fun being on the boat together and it’s terrifying,” Lionel said.
Lionel monitors their location on their chart plotter, keeps an eye on the weather on their VHF radio so they have an idea of what’s coming, and is constantly calculating the effect of the tide on their boat speed.
“Everything he does allows me to focus on the sails and boat speed, my favourite parts… (and) steering which is my favourite favourite part,” Randy said. “Steering is key to boat speed.”
Their name is Team Stern Wheelin’ and they are one of 11 teams from B.C. There are 38 boats in the full 1,200-kilometre race and an additional 12 that will only be tackling the ‘proving grounds’ portion.
“We won’t be racing for the win. There are much faster boats going for that. We are in awe of those boats,” Randy said. “However, there are four other boats similar to ours that we will be trying to beat.”
If they do happen to win first place though, they’ll take home $10,000 USD. If they finish second, they get a set of steak knives.
The 2022 Race to Alaska starts at 5 a.m. on Monday, June 13 in Port Townsend, Washington. They have 36 hours to get to Victoria and then the full race, which ends in Alaska, begins at noon on Thursday, June 16. For more, including race updates and a bio on the Jensens, go to r2ak.com.