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Four people plucked out of Juan de Fuca Strait after boats overturn during race

The sailors were participating in the opening leg of the 1,207-kilometre Race 2 Alaska competition. 

The gruelling Race 2 Alaska competition got off to a rough start Monday after the U.S. Coast Guard had to rescue four people from Juan de Fuca Strait when their small sailing vessels were overturned.

The sailors were participating in the opening leg of the Race 2 Alaska competition, where participants use non-motorized vessels in a 1,207-kilometre race from Port Townsend, Washington to Alaska via Victoria. 

A gale warning and small-craft advisory were in effect for the area when some of the boaters left about 5 a.m., despite a start extension from organizers because of the weather.

Forty-six boats were participating in the Race 2 Alaska, which is considered North America’s longest human- and wind-powered race and offers $10,000 to the winner, but teams from Seattle; Savannah, Georgia; Forestville, California; and Palm Bay, Florida all required rescue and returned to shore.

Seven boats have now dropped out of the race, said organizers.

The boats ran into trouble during the first stage, the 65-kilometre crossing from Port Townsend to Victoria. The second stage, which is scheduled to start Thursday at noon from Victoria after competitors clear customs, runs 1,142 kilometres from Victoria to Ketchikan, Alaska.

U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier said the coast guard was notified around 7:30 a.m. that four boaters had ended up in the water due to the rough conditions.

“We launched one of our helicopter crews and they were able to rescue two people and bring them back to medical personnel in Port Angeles,” Strohmaier told Glacier Media. Others were pulled out of the water by rescue-boat crews.

All of the boaters were showing signs of hypothermia.

Race 2 Alaska organizers say competitors face “a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter or eaten by a grizzly bear. There are squalls, killer whales, tidal currents that run upwards of 20 miles an hour, and some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.”

Any boat without an engine can enter the race, which includes “no supply drops and no safety net.”

In 2019, the last time the race was staged, 25 of 45 teams finished. This is the sixth edition of the race.

Strohmaier said while the coast guard issues marine-event permits for races and certain other activities on the water, race organizers are responsible for the overall safety of the event, including cancellation if weather conditions warrant it.

“A permit does not absolve an organizer and the individual operators of the overall responsibility for safety,” said Strohmaier.

Race organizers said competitors were given a 24-hour extension at the Port Townsend start, so they could make “prudent decisions based on conditions.”

But several boats still attempted the crossing in rough seas and gale-force winds. Racers normally have to make the start within 36 hours.

The first team to reach Victoria was Seattle-based Pure and Wild, using a Riptide 44 Monohull, followed by five other teams before 11:30 a.m. Monday.

Lionel Jensen of the Chilliwack-based team Sternwheelin said the crew sailed a third of the way to Victoria before returning to Port Townsend.

“We just started slamming into waves … steep-faced waves that stacked up with the wind over tide,” he said. “We were just worried about breaking the boat. The race organizers gave us an extra 24 hours, so why not use them?”

In a statement Monday, Jake Beattie, executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center and co-creator of the race, said the organization strives to ensure high safety standards, with measures including a team vetting process, GPS monitoring, required onboard safety equipment and partnerships with emergency response agencies in the race-course area.

Beattie said organizers have worked closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canada in the creation of safety management plans, and both agencies are invited to address racers at skippers’ meetings in Port Townsend and Victoria.

Canadian Coast Guard spokeswoman Michelle Imbeau said participants are ultimately responsible for the safety of themselves and their crews, and a decision to go out when conditions exceed the capacity of a vessel can potentially place racers, and also first responders, in dangerous situations.

Imbeau said the Canadian and U.S. coast guards will respond to calls for assistance, but there are several remote stretches of the B.C. coast where help may be several hours away.

She said representatives from the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, have been engaged with race planners and are aware of the race schedule.

dkloster@timescolonist.com