Documentary Review: A Gonzo sail, Paddle or Pedal dash North — “The Race to Alaska”

There’s something about Alaska that welcomes the quirky and celebrates the extreme.

It’s where The Iditarod was born, after all. But I used to live on remote Kodiak Island, where the locals would invent drunken DIY river raft races, bizarre footraces and no-holds-barred golfing challenges — there is no golf course — up the mountain overlooking the town of Kodiak. Every corner of Alaska is overrun with such oddities. Screwballs congregate there.

And sometimes, they invent a new race to lure more of them north.

“The Race to Alaska” is a goofy, lighthearted documentary about the R2AK, The Race to Alaska — scores and scores of boats without engines — racing sloops, catamarans and trimarans to dinghies, beach cats and the occasional paddle board — dash and endure the 750 miles from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska via “The Inside Strait,” a quest that can take from 3-13 days.

“Sounds like a good way to die!” one participant laughs. And he’s not wrong.

When you’re pedaling, paddling, or sailing through some of the most stunning seaside scenery on Earth, the Johnstone Straight, Seymour Narrows and “Cape Caution, which was NOT named by somebody who hadn’t been there,” are trying to kill you.

Giant waves, sudden changes in weather, vast tidal rapids, huge whirlpools, rocks, loose logs and shipping traffic — the occasional giant cruise ship looms up behind you — break gear, swamp boats and test experienced sailors and novices alike, every year since 2015.

“How do I avoid icy death?” becomes everyone’s motto.

But it’s also treated as something of a joke, even by the participants. They begin with a “LeMans start” (racers racing on foot onto their boats) accompanied by the Red Army Chorus’s booming rendition of the old Soviet National Anthem. Yes, in formerly Russian Alaska and environs, that’s still funny.

Filmmaker Zach Carver uses interviews and on-board video diaries from solo sailors and crews ranging from privileged bros to “blue collar” sailors, feminists, sourdoughs, eccentrics and adventure athletes to paint a fun picture of a character-building boat race peopled by genuine characters.

They are “someone who has the ability to push themselves beyond” their abilities, and beyond the expectations of others,” organizer Jack Beattie waxes lyrically.

“We have about 70 miles to smoke all the weed,” one crew decides as they hit the home stretch.

The boats can be customized to suit the conditions, or disposable yard sale purchases, with names like Sail Like a Girl, Freeburd, Fashionably Late, Grace B, Ptarmigan, Soggy Beavers and Jungle Kitty.

Crews rough it with DIY toilets, catching sleep where they can –on board in the rain and spraw, or in tents or homemade shelters along the undeveloped shore, where the Alaskan brown bears roam.

All are tested, some have to quit and some find themselves beaten down by the grind and exhilarated by the awe-inspiring views, joyous porpoise encounters and the thrill of the chase.

“We intentionally made a really frustrating race” with that in mind, Beattie admits with a cackle.

It’s a playful movie, very much in the spirit of the engine-free race it documents, with the various boat crews producing the memorable moments — knockdowns (when wind or wave slaps a boat onto its side, or worse — brilliant bits of ingenuity, sight-seeing ashore, meeting locals and Native Americans, and um, bonding as a crew.

“We’re brothers, working on being enemies. It’s a small boat.”

Sure, bragging rights enter the picture, but just getting to the finish line is achievement enough for most. Of course, somebody turned her race into a TED Talk. That’s how the attention economy works.

But what’s striking about these folks is the ingenuity mixed with idealistic naivete that so many bring to this bucket list adventure. As an experienced sailor who lives aboard a sailboat in Florida, I was amazed at some of the gadgets people invented to move even big boats when the wind or the tide are against them. Take away the easy “engine” answer to everything and people get creative.

“Gas is what we use now in place of intelligence,” one old salt opines. And he’s not wrong, at least in this case.

Beattie gets the last word on all this, a chamber of commerce/town promoter type who knew “the best bad idea” he and race coordinator Daniel Evans had ever heard, and ran with it. He should put this on a T-shirt as the motto of this good time/hard time once a year regatta.

“Be safe, be bold, do something incredible. And get over yourself.”

Rating: unrated, profanity, drug references

Cast: Jack Beattie, Daniel Evans, many others

Credits: Directed by Zach Carver, scripted by Zach Carver and Greg King. A Freestyle Release.

Running time: 1:37


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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