Orcas Island teens to compete in Race to Alaska

While most high school students will be preparing for their final exams and wrapping up their school year this June, Orcas Island teens Dagney Kruger and Elsa Ranker will be sailing in the Race to Alaska (R2AK) competition. Joined by Bryce Lutz (19) and Willow Gray (18) from Bellingham, the team of four will compete in the first leg of the race on June 9, sailing 40 miles from Port Townsend to Victoria B.C., crossing two sets of shipping lanes and an international border. From there, the team will aim to complete the 710-mile journey from Victoria to Ketchikan, Alaska, starting June 12. The team, which is officially named the “Juvenile Delinquents” in reference to their plans to skip their final weeks of school, are excited for the multi-day journey and to go above and beyond high school dinghy racing.

For Kruger, much of her life has been spent on the sea. She began living on a boat with her parents at just five months old, sailing up to Alaska and spending her second birthday in Ketchikan before sailing back down. Her father Karl Kruger began a chartering business, Kruger Expeditions, taking guests around the San Juan Islands and up to Canada and Alaska, and Dagny would spend her summers sailing thousands of miles with her father. She joined the Orcas High School sailing club as a freshman, and now as a junior, she has been the team captain for the past two years.

Participating in the R2AK has been on Kruger’s radar since 2017 when her father completed the race as the first contestant on a paddleboard, finishing in just two weeks. She met up with her father in Ketchikan and met many of the competitors that year as well as the race master, increasing her already-growing interest in racing.

“[The race] was sort of on the back of my mind since then, but more of like this vague concept of something I could do eventually,” said Kruger. “A few years ago, there was a youth team from Seattle that did it, and I was like, ‘Hey, that could be me, I’m in high school. They’re in high school and they did this race, and that’s pretty darn cool.’ So we started trying to pull together a team of my own.”

Kruger initially looked to one of her close friends in the sailing club but was met with hesitation from their parents. While at a high school regatta in Bellingham, Kruger met Lutz and they began talking about the R2AK and Lutz was as eager as Kruger to make it happen. Lutz brought on board Gray, one of his friends from Bellingham High School where he graduated last spring, and Kruger approached Ranker, who is also in the Orcas High School sailing club, to round out the group.

Ranker, a freshman at Spring Street International School on San Juan Island, expressed her family’s initial fears yet overall support of her competing in the race during a team interview with the R2AK race boss on their podcast, Race to Alaska.

“When I was offered to be on this team, I asked [my parents] and my mom was like, ‘Yeah, I’m terrified, but this is going to be one of the best experiences of your life so far, so I’m not stopping you from doing this,’” said Ranker.

The first R2AK took place in June 2015, and was born in “the spirit of tradition, exploration, and self-reliance,” the passage having been paddled by native canoes since time immemorial and by sailing craft for centuries. It is the longest human and wind-powered race in North America and currently rewards the largest cash prize of $10,000. Although any boat without an engine is allowed to enter, the race is not for everyone, as the R2AK website warns of the “chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter, or eaten by a grizzly bear… There are squalls, killer whales, [and] tidal currents that run upwards of 20 miles an hour.”

In order to compete, applicants have to pass a vetting team, which examines the resumes of all participants, as well as learn about the team’s vessel. Kruger mentioned that despite her and her teammates’ young age, the vetting process went rather smoothly, as each team member has extensive experience in sailing.

The race is self-supported, meaning pre-arranged food and supply drops are prohibited while on the water, but racers are allowed to make stops on land if they so choose. The R2AK sweep boat – the grim sweeper – will set out on June 21 and travel 75 miles a day from Port Townsend to “tap out” any racers still heading north. Kruger’s personal hope is to complete the race in five days if weather permits but estimates it could take up to a week or longer.

The Juvenile Delinquents began training for the race in late August, and later purchased their boat, Loose Cannon, in Astoria, Oregon. Lutz explained in the podcast interview that he found the boat on Craigslist for $3000 after searching the site for an affordable vessel within the team’s budget. Kruger described the boat, a Carrera 19, as very shallow, low to the water, sled-shaped, and on the delicate side. Since then, the team has continued to outfit the boat, having recently put in bunks and a working pedal drive. As for training, they are currently focusing on crossing shipping lanes and sailing past dark, having recently completed their first overnight trip.

“Any weekends we all collectively have off, of course, we’re [on Orcas] doing training. And beyond that – we’ve sailed on boats other than our boat. Basically, any weekend that people have free, even if it’s not all of us, even if it’s just two of us, we’re out working on it together,” said Kruger.

Despite the potential dangers and harsh conditions of the journey, Kruger believes the team’s biggest challenge will be overcoming the monotony of life at sea: waking up, keeping watch, eating freeze-dried food, going to sleep, and repeating the cycle for several days in a small, enclosed space with the same people.

“There’s definitely a mental block to get over. I think the first two days are usually the hardest, so once we fall into a rhythm, it will definitely be easier,” said Kruger.

As captain of the crew, Kruger has focused on strengthening the group’s dynamic and building relationships with one another before putting their friendship to the ultimate test during those days at sea. One of the ways Kruger does this is by making sure everyone still has the opportunity to express their opinions, such as which route to take or who should take the first break, while still deferring to the captain in an emergency situation.

There will certainly be upsides to the expedition as well. Kruger is most looking forward to the beauty that awaits the group as they travel through the passages to Ketchikan, mentioning the gorgeous sunrises, towering cliffs and serene wildlife that will provide a break in the monotony and make their struggles worthwhile.

While they still have more money to raise, the team is extremely grateful to the many sponsors and supporters who have assisted them in fulfilling their dream to compete. As of late April, they have received over $14,000 in donations through the team’s GoFundMe fundraiser, and have received sponsorship from organizations like Waypoint Outdoor, who provided each member of the team with Helley Hansen dry suits and other critical gear to protect them from frigid waters and weather, and Supply Fisheries, who completely covered the R2AK application fee and is providing a large discount for the team to stock up on supplies, as well as Bacon Sails, who is providing generously discounted sails from their loft for the team’s boat.

Going forward, Kruger hopes R2AK is just the beginning of a long sailing career, and she expressed her interest to the Journal about participating in the Pacific Cup – a 2,000-mile yacht race from San Francisco to Oahu, Hawaii – with her father next summer. With her final year of high school around the corner, Kruger is considering a career in maritime transport and captaining cargo vessels.

For those interested in supporting the Juvenile Delinquents’ R2AK expedition, you can donate to their GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/f/R2AK-Juvenile-Delinquents, and stay updated on their progress by following r2ak_juvenile_delinquents on Instagram.