Karl Kruger: Stand Up Paddleboard
(Article from June 2017 DC)
There’s a new word in the language this week. It is ‘Kruger,’ a noun, meaning an accomplishment commonly considered to be physically impossible—done with style, alone, in a big landscape. A Kruger is in the realm of free climbing El Capitan or finishing the Barkley Marathons*. A Kruger is also a yardstick, as in, “You say you just finished ‘Hell Week’ in Navy SEAL training? Well, that’s real impressive, son. It’s not a Kruger, but hey, pat yourself on the back.”
People laughed when Karl Kruger entered the 2016 R2AK as Team Heart of Gold with a Stand Up paddleboard. A paddleboard?! Racing to Alaska?!! You’ve gotta be kidding. Karl tapped out after 100 miles last year due to a problem with his board. He came roaring back in 2017 and made the first qualifying leg Port Townsend to Victoria in ninth place before the big afternoon winds hit. He’s the main reason I looked up R2AK’s race tracker twenty times a day for two weeks.
In addition to showing where racers are, the tracker lets you click a mouse icon to view the racer’s entire route so far, and also see what time they were at various places. One night I checked the tracker after midnight when a storm was moving into Johnstone Strait. Most of the small boats were tucked away but Heart of Gold was traveling. Fast. Imagine blasting down the Strait. Alone in the dark, with weather moving in. Spirit paddling. Boom, Boom, Boom.
Here’s an R2AK ‘clip of the day’ interview with Karl at Bella Bella. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GulLaPe5la8 . The background song is ‘Season of the Witch’ by Donavan Leitch, which is great because the refrain is, ‘You’ve got to pick up every stitch, You’ve got to pick up every stitch, You’ve got to pick up every stitch, Must be the season of the witch.’ Karl paddles up and down, up and down, up and down stitching water regular as a sewing machine. He averaged fifty miles a day and had one day over seventy miles. If the race committee had put a spool of thread on him at the start he could have made enough R2AK hats and T-shirts for everyone in Port Townsend.
How about this? Pull up a map of Dixon Entrance to follow an epic Kruger run more than 650 miles into the race. At 10 p.m. Friday, June 23 Heart of Gold left the north tip of Porcher Island. By noon he was off Dundas Island. By 4 p.m. he’d crossed into Alaska waters. By 7:30 p.m. he was on the beach near Tree Point. If the tracker’s right, Kruger went forty-five nautical miles (51 statute miles) between landings, one shot, mostly across big open water. Next morning, at 3 a.m. Alaska time he was paddling again—not along shore—but on a diagonal right across Dixon Entrance straight for the Gateway City.
On June 25 Team Heart of Gold rang the bell in Ketchikan at 5:17 p.m. just thirteen minutes behind the Tricat Phocoena crewed by French adventurers Bruno Froideval and Regis Lamarche. The two teams had raced down Tongass Narrows with Heart of Gold gaining on the lulls and Phocoena gaining when she caught a breeze. Of 34 teams leaving Victoria, Karl Kruger took seventeenth place in 14 days, six hours, 7 minutes: and so became a new definition of skill, endurance and cool in the world of ocean racing minimalism.
Oh, and that wonderful name…it’s not from Neil Young’s song. Karl’s website says, ‘The Heart of Gold’ is a fictional spaceship conceived of by author Douglas Adams and powered by The Infinite Improbability Drive.’
Some other 2017 Race Highlights
The third annual Race to Alaska, a 750 mile run from Port Townsend to Ketchikan began June fifth. In this event you can enter whatever floats your boat—big, small, state of the art or 1800’s retro—but no motors and no caches allowed. There’s a checkpoint at Seymour Narrows and another at Bella Bella, BC. In between you’re on your own. You have to ring the bell at Thomas Basin dock in Ketchikan in under thirty days. First prize is still ten thousand dollars. Second prize is still a set of steak knives.
A windless 5 a.m. start hard followed by a fifty knot slammer that same afternoon got everyone’s adrenaline going. Fifteen teams tapped out before Victoria, BC. The race organizers have done their usual great job with daily updates documenting people, regular humans a lot like all of us, shining through an immense wilderness panorama of ocean, forests, sleep deprivation, exhaustion and weather.
Three brothers: Tripp, Chris and Trevor Burd, aka Team Freeburd, from Marblehead, Massachusetts (pronounced MAHbelhed) won the overall race in a 28 foot trimaran named Mamma Tried in 4 days, 3 hours, 5 minutes. Six minutes later (!) was team Big Broderna. Those two boats passed each other four times in the last few miles of the race. There’s a hilarious clip of race maestro Jake Beattie laughing his head off as the lead boats sail into Ketchikan after 750 miles with their crews paddling and peddling bicycle driven propellers to the finish line.
Dire predictions from experts aside, Team Northth2Alaska: one dad and four guys (including his son) 17 to 21 years-old, made it to Ketchikan in under ten days rowing/sailing an open, self-built, 25 foot aluminum Maryland fishing Sharpie with spruce masts they cut from their property, sails they sewed themselves and leaded groundline for rigging. An 18 year-old taught them how to sail it. I think the 17 year-old is this year’s youngest racer. The oldest contestant is probably Ernie Baird in the Grace B, a beautiful, lapstrake 26 foot Crotch Island Pinky. In one of the race interviews Ernie says, “I’m 70 years old. I was slowing down. I wanted a challenge. I wanted something to make me engage. To make me focus and…Son of a Gun…it’s doing it!” Grace B’s average crew age is 62.
Speaking of older guys, grandfather and epic solo sailor Roger Mann, Team Discovery in a 19’7” trimaran, got blown up onto Vancouver Island on Day One after he hit a log and snapped a rudder shear pin. He still made it into Victoria in time to continue the race and, eventually raised Ketchikan in nine and a half days. In spite of the rough start Roger had an easier time than he did in 2015 when he was washed overboard in Seymour Narrows—after midnight, in six foot seas (he was tethered with a surfboard leash and climbed back aboard). This was all in a 16’ 7” Hobie Mirage that weighed 142 pounds. A few days later, he pitch poled coming into the beach near Cape Caution and got churned around so much his dry suit filled with water. He had to cut the legs off the suit to crawl ashore. Roger still finished that race in just over 13 days. His time was three days faster this year and he’d do the race again but next time wants a boat with a cabin.
To see the tracker, broken stuff, hero shots, daily updates, Australians drinking beer at the Ketchikan Yacht Club, who’s still in the race, a sailboat crew mooning the race coordinators, and other things you won’t find in the America’s Cup check out: https://r2ak.com
*The Barkley Marathons is an annual multi-marathon ultra with 60,000 feet of elevation gain that 15 people have finished since it began in 1986.