A new race emerges for 2021- A first look at WA360

Well, I hadn’t thought that I would have have much to say till spring. However, we have some news.

First, R2AK is cancelled for 2021. I have mixed feelings about this. The silver lining to this is that while R2AK is off the menu, the NW maritime center will be running Seventy48, Salish 100, and a third, new race this year.  I always enjoy working as a volunteer at Seventy48, and really look forward to the Salish 100; however this third, new race really peaks my interest. I’ve taken a bit of a a look at it, with some speculation thrown in for good measure, and here’s my thoughts on it. Feel free to give me your take on my evaluation in the comments: these are my own opinions, and they might be wrong.

It is called the WA360. it’s a 360 mile long race in Washington’s inner coast, the Salish sea. Details are thin as it was just announced in the last few days, but it appears to be a cross-breed of the Seventy48 and the R2AK.

Here’s the basics of what we know:

  • No outside support, unless available to all. Nothing pre-arranged.
  • Unlike R2AK, motors can be carried. (however, you are disqualified if you start one.)
  • Classes like the last Seventy48, consisting of a ‘go fast’ class, a ‘go hard’ class, and a ‘human powered’ class.
  • spot trackers and online tracking.
  • a two week time limit
  • The course is a giant loop with required waypoints, scattered between Olympia and Point Roberts at the Canadian border.
  • The waypoints are, in order: Port Townsend – Port Ludlow – Olympia – Tacoma – Seattle – Oak Harbor – Anacortes – Bellingham – Point Roberts – Port Townsend

I have a few thoughts on the course; there are some clever bits and decisions that it will force teams to make. Here’s a waypoint-by-waypoint walkthrough of the race.

Start at Port Townsend. go to Port Ludlow

This gives you the interesting choice of the long way thru Admiralty inlet, or the shortcut thru the Port Townsend canal, or the brand new for this year third route thru Killisut harbor.  I love this wrinkle. Admiralty inlet has sea room and wind for sailboats, but is longer by a fair amount. It’s also the only option with unlimited air draft; the other routes have bridges limit a vessel’s overall height. The Port  Townsend Canal is significantly shorter than Admiralty Inlet, but I’ve always found Oak Bay to be a hole with little to no wind.  The canal is also a tidal gate; it is far, far to narrow to short tack up and I wouldn’t even think about it in a sailboat without a good source of human powered propulsion. it also has a bridge in the 55-60 foot height range. The third route is really only an option to very small boats; Recently a bridge replaced the causeway at the south end of kilisut harbor as part of a habitat restoration program; this is a low bridge. I can’t get solid data but I believe the air draft is in the 15-20 foot range. it’s Navigable by rowboats and probably most of the human-powered fleet, some of the smaller sailboats might be able to make it under as well.  I’ve talked to a friend that explored it not long after it opened, and the new channel has a decent tidal current, supposedly not in sync with either the Port Townsend Canal or Admiralty inlet.  That’s another interesting consideration to this leg. The currents. The Port Townsend Canal is known to reverse direction almost like a light switch, and to do it about two hours before the south end of Admiralty inlet, and the tidal flow on the western side of Admiralty inlet can switch up to an hour or more before the eastern side. add the relatively unknown killisut harbor route, and this will truly be interesting to watch, depending on how the start time syncs up with the tides.

Port Ludlow is also an interesting waypoint because it forces two crossings of the hood canal outlet; it also makes the choice of the Canal Vs the inlet more attractive. The area around fowlweather bluff can be rough, and with decent current as the flows from hood canal and the rest of the sound meet.  Southerly winds also tend to turn Eastery around Point No Point/ Foulweather bluff. I suspect the entrance and exit to Port Ludlow will also show the value  human power.

Port Ludlow to Olympia

From Port Ludow, It’s a free-for all to Olympia.

After getting back across the mouth of the Hood canal, the currents could come into play. Skunk Bay is known for it’s back eddy, flowing counter to the main channel for certain parts of the cycle. Smart racers will recognize these conditions and look for the scum line that dives the flow and choose the appropriate side for a 2-5 knot speed differential.  From there, one must round point no point. Tidal rips in this area can create some really lumpy conditions; on an outflowing tide the rips are more south of the point while they are more north east of it on an incoming tide. On an outgoing tide back eddies can also form south of the point. at this point I expect the pack will still be fairly close together and it will be interesting to watch them deal with this fairly complicated and nuanced stretch of water.

In the Seventy48, there’s always one nutter that goes inside Bainbridge island; I suspect one of the smaller boats to do this. Not that there is any real advantage; it is longer and has more complex currents. True, it is more sheltered and if it is blowing like stink out in the main channel it might be worth taking, however in those conditions the passage around point no point will be difficult and may cause some of the smaller boats to wait for better weather anyway. It’s also worth noting that in theory if one could average 2-4 knots on this route and time it right,  you could catch favorable currents at both agate passage and rich passage, possibly making up for the longer route. It’s definitely a more difficult route to sail, so if anyone does this to advantage I expect it to be a human-powered craft.

Another wrinkle for this stretch is that there may be further constraints placed by Raceboss; In Seventy48 to enter a shipping lane is immediate disqualification and in the R2AK one must pass additional requirements to go outside. This race may attract everything from paddleboards to TP52’s; I doubt a blanket rule is likely but I could possibly see the Coast Guard requiring human powered or smaller boats to not cross the shipping lanes. Perhaps one must have a motor on board to cross a shipping lane? While it is speculation, I would not be surprised if something like this was announced that could also segregate the fleet a bit, forcing smaller boats to stay o the banbridge side while the larger boats take advantage of the widest parts of the sound for long tacks and the possibility of finding better weather on one side of the sound or the other.

Once south of Bainbridge,  One must decide what side of Vashon island to go. Colvos passage, to the west is shorter, but narrow and always either has no current, or current flowing out of the south.  If shipping lane restrictions are in place, I expect some to take Colvos to save the six or seven miles, but also expect most larger boats to go to the East passage where there would be most likely better wind, a possible favorable current, and a wider channel.

Depending on when exactly the race starts, I also expect some of the human powered craft to stop for rest at Blake island, familiar grounds for a lot of the Seventy48 alumni.

Next up is the Tacoma Narrows. The Narrows is another notable tidal gate, the second most powerful on the course. Over a roughly 7 mile stretch, the currents max at between 2-5 knots, and it is under a mile wide. While not as insurmountable as the mighty Seymour Narrows of the R2AK, I expect some of the boats to wait for favorable currents rather than challenge, especially if that particular cycle tops out closer to 5 rather than 2 knots of current.

The south sound will be a challenge; I expect success to go to sailboats with good human-propulsion systems. The narrow channels, stronger currents than the central sound, and prevailing wind conditions will be a challenge for a lot of boats.

Once past the narrows, the next choice is how to get past Anderson island. The northern route thru Balch Pass is shorter, but narrower and with stronger currents. The Nisqually reach is longer, wider, more open. I expect a fair number to take Balch Pass to the north of Anderson island.

From there it will be the fight into Budd inlet, and to Olympia. Dana Passage may be a slog for some depending on timing. With the 20-25 mile distance between it and the north end of Tacoma Narrows, I expect any boats waiting for favorable current at the narrows to get caught in less than favorable current in Dana Passage unless they can average over 6-7 knots. While possible for the larger boats, it will be a pile-on on those boats unable to make it thru quickly.

Olympia to Tacoma

On the return trip, the one-two punch of Dana Passage and Tacoma Narrows will be waiting again. From the Tacoma Narrows to Olympia is around 30-35 miles. If a boat can make it in six hours, it is possible to have favorable current the whole way in and out, reaching Olympia as the tide switches from flow to ebb. If a boat can’t make this pace, the current will multiply their woes and it will definitely be a case of “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”.

From the Narrows to Tacoma is a short hop, ending this leg.

Tacoma to Seattle.

What exactly the waypoints will be may make a bit of a difference; dragging the fleet to downtown Tacoma and Seattle may be an effort by Raceboss to influence the choice of course around Vashon Island. I expect more to choose to go via the East passage on the way up than on the way down, depending on what winds we get.

Seattle to Oak Harbor

The first half of this leg will be a grind for the human powered fleet, and a comfortable rest for the sailing fleet. Long tacks or runs in fairly open water that many of the boats and crew based out of Seattle will be very comfortable and familiar with. Straight forward water to cross with little current. Once they clear the south end of Whitbey island and enter Possession Sound, the tacks get shorter, and the wind less reliable. There will be little current to fight, at least.

Oak Harbor to Anacortes

Here, we find the biggest fork in the road of the race: Take the inside route up Swinomish Channel, or go outside to the straight via Deception Pass.

Swinomish channel is a long, shallow, channel with hard to predict tidal flow. It’s also the shorter option by about ten miles. it also would mean around 10 miles of human powered propulsion to get thru the channel and the mud flats leading up to and leading from the channel.

The Deception pass route is longer, with an intense current in the narrow pass. It also exposes you to the straight of Juan De Fuca, which can be pretty rough at times. Timing of the currents also makes this tricky. Hitting the pass at ebb before flow would set you up to catch favorable currents into Anacortes.

If I had to guess, I’d put money on almost all of the human powered class going thru the channel, and the other classes to split, with the R2AK-style pedal drive powered boats taking the channel and the more traditional racing sailboats to take the pass.

Anacortes to Bellingham

So, I believe the Bellingham stop was included to keep the fleet out of the shipping lanes of Rosario strait.

the choice for this leg will be which side of Guemes island to go. Unless you can time it so the current is favorable in the Bellingham Channel until you get in the neighborhood of Vendovi Island, I would go east into Padilla bay where the current is weaker.

If we look closely at the map that has been released showing the waypoints, it looks like the Bellingham waypoint is off Portage island. I believe this may mean they spare the fleet a trip into Bellingham bay.

Bellingham to Point Roberts

This leg is an open crossing. Not a lot of tricky currents or choices to be made; it is 20-25 miles as the crow flies so we may see some of the smaller craft hug the coast before striking off from Birch Point. The open water can also mean larger seas than most of a lot of the course, so this leg will not be a cakewalk.

Point Roberts to Port Townsend

This is the home stretch, and also the most complicated and treacherous leg of the entire race. It starts with an open water crossing to the San Juans, across the southern edge of the strait of Georgia, covering a distance of between 15-20 miles. Smaller boats might want to rest up in Point Roberts to time their departure to catch favorable tides, as well as to rest before attempting this last leg.

You’ll need to navigate the San Juan islands, then cross the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The San Juan islands form a strainer for the tidal flow between the Pacific and the Strait of Georgia as well as the outflow from the Frasier River. There are three main routes thru the San Juans; Rosario strait, San Juan channel, and Haro strait. They are all surprisingly similar in straight-line distance, and I must confess I have little direct experience to compare them. Personally, my gut tells me that it would be wise for smaller craft to take an eastern approach, along Rosario strait, to make the trip across the Strait of Juan de Fuca shorter.

favoring a shorter crossing across the strait of Juan de Fuca may just be due to my own personal past experience. I was in the infamous first leg gale of the 2017 R2AK and I can tell you first hand that the straights are not to be underestimated or taken lightly. I’ve heard from other R2AK racers that this stretch of water is right up there with Dixon Entrance and Cape Caution as far as waters to be feared and respected. One crew once told me that the 2017 first leg to Victoria was the most terrifying part of their entire R2AK. At any rate; a wise plan to would be to reach the middle of the crossing at low tide; this provides you with advantageous current in both directions. If taking an eastern route across, the tide station at Smith Island is a good datapoint to reference.

Once across, the Point Wilson tide rips are the last real obstacle before the finish.

In summary:

This is a challenging course. Just because it is not in the backcountry does not mean it should be undertaken lightly, especially shorthanded or in smaller craft. A good method of human propulsion is arguably more important than in the R2AK. This will be one to watch.

I expect a field of 75-150 boats might not be outside of the realm of possibilities. This race has broad appeal; I know a few people from Seventy48 that I suspect might try and apply, and some of the regular R2AK crowd are already talking about it online. I would not be surprised to see some local former R2AK teams field an entry, nor would be surprised if this became a preview of some teams destined for the R2AK start line in 2022. Because this also allows engines to remain installed, I would not be surprised to see some local racers come from the local more traditional sailboat racing community; though they should recognize that strapping oversize oars to a keelboat may be under thinking it. It is both long and difficult. The city lights along the way will definitely become more and more of a siren’s song as the race progresses and luring participants to bow out.

I’m very interested to see what other details come out; if I know the guys at the NW maritime center expect some details that will make you chuckle and other wrinkles to come out as more details are announced.

The day Raceboss announced the race, I placed an order for a new spinnaker to fill out my sail inventory on the Lady Jane. I’ll be submitting an application to race on day 1. I think a two-person team would be best, so if anyone is interested in joining me, get ahold of me and we’ll talk. Unless I hear from someone, I’ll be applying as a one-man-one-monkey team.

The application period opens January 15th. The gun goes off June 7th.

Think I’ve gotten something wrong? Let me know in the comments!




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