R2AK: Exhilarating, terrifying and empowering as first all-female team declares victory

Team Sail Like A Girl wins Race to Alaska (KOMO News)

Picture this; you’re on a small, 32’ sailboat, on your way to Alaska and in the darkest moment of the night, in the middle of wide open water and you hit something hard! Really hard. This, the members of Team Sail Like A Girl now say was their scariest moment during R2AK, the Race to Alaska.

They had just crossed one of the waypoints in Bella Bella in R2AK, in first place and were moving on, trying to keep their speed and pace, on their way to potentially win the race at its finish in Ketchikan.

What is the Race to Alaska? It is a true test of physical endurance; no motors, no support.

These women say it’s about getting way, way outside of your comfort zone. When they formed Team Sail Like A Girl, nine months earlier, some of them had never met before. At least one, had never sailed before! But they came together, because they each shared a determination and a goal to empower each other and other women, in what they call a rather male dominated sport.

They bought a boat designed for day sailing, so this boat does not have a head. There’s no galley and it’s small, just 32 feet long and for this race, now crammed with a life raft, 45 gallons of water, food, warm clothing and survival suits for 7 women. They described it like being in a spacecraft, completely self-contained!

They knew they couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to sail all the way up, so came up with another way to power the boat without a motor. Bicycles! They spent months designing, building and welding two bicycles onto the back of the boat, each attached to a propeller under water, so they could pedal when there was no wind to lift their sails.

“It was sort of like two different races going on, on one boat, because when you were on the bikes you could help laughing,” said team member Allison Ekberg Dvaladze.

There was no laughter, that scary moment, in the middle of a dark night, when they hit something big.

“pitch black, little-bit foggy, no moon, um, couldn't see the water, we're navigating through a narrow channel with rock kind-of formations in the center of the channel so I was standing there with the GPS in my hand and it was a car-crash. I mean, we came, we were going 6 knots and we went to an abrupt stop, and I thought we hit rocks,” said Captain of the boat, Jeanne Goussev.

But she said she had the GPS in her hand and it showed no rocks. They scrambled around in the dark to see what they hit and they discovered that they were on top of a log!

“And the log was 20 inches wide, it was pinned against our keel, and it was leaning off the stern, so we figure it was somewhere from 15 to 20 feet long, and we didn't know what kind of damage we had, we had flashlights out on deck, we had all hands on deck” said Goussev.

I was terrified, I heard this loudest noise I'd ever heard in my life, it felt like because you feel it in your soul right like 'oh my god' who knows what's going to happen and where's the lifeboat?” said team member Anna Stevens.

They figured they were at least 30 hours away from any kind of Coast Guard rescue if it would come to that.

“And uh, then looking at the log as I saw it underneath the boat and I was like, this is like looking into the eyes of a lion that's about to attack me, this is the thing that's trying to take us down,” said Stevens.

They freed the boat of the log, but didn’t know if it damaged the hull, if they were taking on water so they pumped the boat dry of water and kept a close eye on everything, taking it very slowly for hours, until daylight. When the sun came up they realized they were in good shape, but feared they had lost their position in the race, that is until they suddenly got cell service again and family members, following the tracking of the race, texted them that they were still in the lead!

“Never in my wildest dreams, you know I'd hoped that; I didn't know that we would place first so that additional just exhilaration, to have so much energy it was wonderful. and to have the love and support of everyone chiming in from home. It was just so special,” said Goussev.

They sailed into Ketchikan and gathered as a team to ring the winning bell together as one!

“So much perseverance and courage in this team. I really hope that we can encourage women to step up and step up outside of their comfort zone and tackle things they’re afraid of and do it with grit and determination,” said Goussev.

They won $10,000. Whatever is left over from paying their bills, Team Sail Like A Girl will donate to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

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