Four island kids chase an 'impossible' dream - Salish Current
June 11, 2024
Four island kids chase an ‘impossible’ dream
Toby Cooper

Team Juvenile Delinquents pause for a selfie on a training run, with friendship and a love of sailing on display; from left, Willow Gray, Dagny Krüger, Bryce Lutz and Else Ranker. (Courtesy)

June 11, 2024
Four island kids chase an ‘impossible’ dream
Toby Cooper

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750-mile boat-without-engine R2AK Race to Alaska set to start

“Since time began, teenagers have found ways to push the limits, and cause heartburn and anxiety for their parents.” North to Alaska GoFundMe

The opening line of a GoFundMe page previews the eternal dilemma faced by parents who find themselves astride potentially high-risk capers chosen by their offspring. Do you cheer their gusto or worry in fear? 

Calling themselves Team Juvenile Delinquents, four teenagers — Dagny Krüger (17), Willow Gray (18), Bryce Lutz (19) and Else Ranker (16) — will push off Wednesday from Victoria, B.C., point the bow of their 29-foot secondhand sailboat north and race 750 cold-water miles to Ketchikan, Alaska. 

Parental heartburn and anxiety are sure to follow. So will pride, adulation and enviable bragging rights.

But these are internet kids whose stated goal, in Else’s words, is to “have fun and remain friends.” They successfully crowdfunded their own financial war chest. Their phones will be aids to navigation. Their progress will be tracked by satellites. Why, they wonder, are the parents so anxious?

R2AK: the Race to Alaska

Race organizers have said that the R2AK requires “physical endurance, saltwater know-how, and bulldog tenacity” to complete — let alone win. They boast that the course notoriously features raging tidal rapids, killer whales, the occasional grizzly bear and some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.

Open to any boat without an engine, the R2AK attracts accomplished and would-be adventurers as well as skilled sailors. Solo kayaks and pedal boats may enter but suffer the disadvantage of having to camp overnight. Crewed sailboats run with watch systems, typically two-on-two-off for four hours at a time, around the clock. 

Emulating the spirit of the Klondike gold rush, the race offers a $10,000 cash prize for first-to-finish, without regard to any form of handicapping. 

Second prize? A set of steak knives — revealing more about the origins of the race as a bar bet during Port Townsend’s 2014 Wooden Boat Festival.

Team Juvenile Delinquents (Else Ranker, Dagny Krüger, Bryce Lutz and Willow Gray) gather on the deck of Loose Cannon in Victoria after sailing Sunday’s 40-mile qualifier leg from Port Townsend. (Courtesy)

The R2AK has run seven times since inception in 2015, missing two years for COVID-19. Given the colossal challenges of the course, the typical fleet of 30–40 entrants are promised “cathartic elation” by organizers, for finishing successfully. Historically, only about half reach Ketchikan.

Against this backdrop, Dagny, Willow, Bryce and Else have chosen to put their faith in a 1993 boat, their hope in the wind gods and their trust in each other to fulfill an improbable, impossible, but totally achievable dream. 

A mariner’s race

On May 18, Dagny Krüger’s diminutive sloop was snugged up to Karl Krüger’s hulking 65-foot, steel-hulled Raven, riding at anchor in Blind Bay off Shaw Island. 

Raven is Karl Krüger’s floating home, charter business platform and, for this day, mothership for work on the race boat. Together, the two boats become a metaphor for the underlying parent-child kinship supporting Team Juvenile Delinquentsas the elder Krüger serves as volunteer coach and mentor to the team. 

All hands are working separately and quietly on parts of the boat. Dagny is finishing the netting that will keep the jib from sliding overboard during sail changes. Willow is tensioning the stainless lifeline wires. Bryce is below deck, working electronics. Else is on Raven helping Karl splice halyards, who in turn is teaching Else something of his considerable marlinspike skills.

“The race has always been there for me,” said Dagny. It is her dad, after all, who famously became the first — and to date only — competitor to conquer the R2AK on a stand-up paddleboard. “One day a couple of years ago, I woke up and said, ‘It’s time. I can do this’,” she said.

Karl knew this day would come. He has watched his daughter begin to emulate his own chiseled pathway in life — pro sailor, athlete, adventurer, wilderness guide and marine business owner. He knew she would make her own way.

From childhood, Dagny became a working partner in the family charter business and transited up and down the Inside Passage to Alaska 10 times before high school. 

“She’s ready today,” said Karl.

Karl said that when Dagny was the tender age of 13, Karl took her on the 2021 Washington360, one of Puget Sound’s increasingly popular adventure races — long distance contests potentially requiring survival skills — for paddle craft and sailors. 

“What was I thinking?” he asked at the time on a blog post. But he said his doubts vaporized as his daughter “rose to the challenges with an iron will.”

“I have stopped doubting how we have raised Dagny,” he posted later. “The competence, tenacity, friendships and skill gained during events like these will serve her all her life.”

Still, Karl’s respect for the challenge ahead motivates him to confer every possible ounce of preparation in his daughter’s direction. 

As the afternoon of May 18 wore on, the crew wrapped up their several projects and, after cleaning up the boat and tools, Karl sent them on a training run around Shaw Island. 

“The R2AK is a mariner’s race,” Karl said. 

As they sailed up Cayou Channel, the afternoon breeze faded and died. The Shaw tour would take them all night.

Pride … and terror

Else Ranker, who just finished her freshman year at Spring Street International School on San Juan Island, is at home surfing and swimming in the ocean. 

Else learned sailing from Orcas Island’s Sail Orcas program, which teaches youth and adult sailing classes and serves as the Orcas schools’ platform for varsity sailing. 

Her sailing experience is less on the open ocean than the others, but she brings valuable racing and boat handling skills to the team.

“The point of this race is it throws everyone together,” she said. 

Else remembers the moment she decided to join Team Juvenile Delinquents. “We said yes to a decision which a lot of people would say, ‘why the hell would I do that?’”

Else’s mother, Tina, said she initially found herself trapped somewhere between “heartfelt pride” and “abject terror” at the thought of her daughter sailing north in wilderness waters.

“My feelings have shifted as I have seen how hard they have worked,” she said in early June. “They have proven to us that they are ready for it.”

Tina feels the time and energy Karl and the team have invested in preparations is impressive, leading her to feel more confident. 

“Of course,” she added, “a mother’s protective instinct is going to weigh in to the difficult balance every parent faces. We are all learning where to hold on and where to let go.

“The best we can do is prepare our children, let them face their challenges, and be there when they need us.”

In the end, Tina simply said, “let’s just get them home safely,”

Speaking to Tina’s mood, Else said one of Team Juvenile Delinquents’ strengths has become their regular Tuesday meetings among the team and parents.

Trust and confidence

At 19, Bryce is the oldest team member and, thanks to his work experience at Pacific Marine Yacht Systems in Bellingham, he will have a key role in maintaining the rigging and sail handling systems during the race.

Bryce’s mom, Samya, said she sees the R2AK as a “logical trajectory” of her son’s passion for boats and sailing. “He is competent,” she said. “He has been this way since the age of 10.”

Like Bryce, Willow grew up in a boat-owning family and learned racing fundamentals in Bellingham’s scholastic varsity sailing teams. 

“We have had boats as a family,” said Renee, Willow’s mother. “They have been training so hard, it’s impossible not to trust their preparation.” Willow, too, works in the marine industry on the Bellingham waterfront.

After the race, both Willow and Bryce have plans to travel and, eventually, start college. 

Samya said Bryce wants to backpack in Europe, then will “start as a social science major at the University of Victoria in B.C.” Renee said that Willow might travel “for a couple of years.”

For both Samya and Renee, trust and confidence may outweigh terror, but they and all the parents cannot forget that the sea is an uncompromising playground. 

Horizontal mountaineering

Orcas Island residents Justin and Chris Wolfe sail together — and win — races all over the world. They specialize in designated double-handed races, in which two sailors manage boats that normally require a larger crew. Chris is the 2024 women’s recipient of the prestigious Rolex Sailor of the Year, a worldwide recognition award.

Speaking at an event for the Orcas sailing community in late May, Justin compared long ocean races to “mountaineering on the water,” given the logistics, preparation and grit required to compete. 

“If climbing the Matterhorn is the pinnacle of technical mountaineering,” he said, “then climbing Mount Everest is more of a logistical challenge. Quite different.”

Else, Willow and Bryce of Team Juvenile Delinquents, he said, know the technical side of racing from their years with high school teams and Sail Orcas. “That’s the Matterhorn,” he said. “You learn technical racing skills just like a climber learns to use ropes pitons, and tiny handholds.”

But the R2AK?

“That’s Everest!” he said, referring to Dagny’s deep-blue-water skills: “You trudge for days, ferrying supplies up and down to base camps. You push to your limits. But in the end, you are on top of the world.”

— By Toby Cooper

Track the racers’ progress here.

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