- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - Using only their wits, the wind and lots of muscle power, more than 100 of people in more than 50 crafts set off early Thursday on Stage 1 of a 750-mile ocean-going race that weaves its way up the Inside Passage, a treacherous coastal waterway through a spackling of islands known for its dramatic tidal changes and spectacular scenery.

The inaugural Race to Alaska has drawn rowers, sailors, canoers and kayakers from across the country to compete in a contest that only has a few rules - no motors allowed and no help once you start.

Team Golden Oldies, a six-member crew aboard a 38-foot multihull sailboat, were first to arrive at the Stage 1 finish line after about 4 hours of racing. They were followed by two other sail teams - Team Elsie Piddock and Team MOB Mentality. A half-dozen other teams were still on the Washington side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the bulk of the racers were halfway across.

The first to reach Ketchikan, Alaska, will take home $10,000. Second place gets a set of steak knives. Everyone who enters gets a T-shirt and bragging rights.

Racers who must go-ashore along the way must be aware that the region is brown bear habitat. They also are warned that taking a swim for any reason can be deadly - the average water temperature is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and spending more than a few minutes in the water can result in hypothermia.

The vessels entered range from 10-foot row boats to sailing kayaks to a 38-foot catamaran, said race organizer Jake Beattie.

Thursday’s Stage 1 segment takes racers from a northern point on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula across the Strait of Juan de Fuca - passing through two heavily trafficked shipping lanes and the Canadian border — to Victoria, British Columbia. It’s about 40 miles with a lot of exposure and strong currents.

Stage 1 is designed as a shake-down and weed-out, Beattie said. Some who planned to try the entire 750-course may learn quickly their plan was foolhardy. And others who thought they could only complete Stage 1 may learn it’s easier than they thought.

“Some plan to use the first race to decide what they want to do in the next couple of weeks,” Bettie said.

Therefore, the starting list for Stage 2 - the rest of the race — won’t be known until the morning the gun goes off in Victoria.

Beattie said they have about 120 people on about 54 or 55 teams - it’s a moving target.

Some of the racers are serious competitors who have proven track records under difficult circumstances.

Washington-native Colin Angus was named the National Geographic Adventurer of the year in 2008 for his human-powered circumnavigation of the Earth. He’ll be rowing his way north in a specially designed boat. Brothers Nels and Lars Strandberg are skipping the sails and will be paddling their way with Viking oars.

Team Blackfish will compete on a trimaran - three-hulled sailboat - that was redesigned with 14-foot oars. Beattie said sailboats entered in the race will have an advantage when the winds are favorable, but since they can’t use a motor, they’ll be dead-in-the-water without wind unless they are rigged with paddles.

Once the Stage 1 racers finish, they’ll have to wait until noon on Sunday to begin again.

The race has no official course other than two waypoints at Seymour Narrows and Bella Bella.

Since the race has not been run before, no one knows how long it will take. Therefore there is no official cutoff time for the slow racers. But they will have a “sweep boat” - a 30-foot motor boat - that will leave the dock on June 4 and take a leisurely cruise up the route with a plan to arrive in Ketchikan on July 4.

If the sweep boat catches you, you’re out.

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Follow Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle

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