How 8 sleep deprived women won this epic boat race to Alaska | KUOW News and Information

How 8 sleep deprived women won this epic boat race to Alaska

Jul 19, 2018

It's an 1,110 mile drive from Port Townsend up to Ketchikan, Alaska.

There is a way to shave 350 miles off the trip, but there's a catch: You have to sail.


Last week, a Puget Sound-area team called Sail Like a Girl won Race to Alaska, the 750-mile adventure race where the only constraint is that vessels must not have motorized power. Some teams opted for rowboats. Others even recruited standup paddleboards.

But Sail Like a Girl souped up a monohull day racer with everything — sleeping berths and two bicycles hanging off the side of the craft.

Three members of the eight-member team — Jeanne Goussev, Allison Ekberg Dvaladze, and Aimee Fulwell — joined KUOW's Ross Reynolds in our studio to discuss the adventure.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Reynolds: How did each of you get involved in this team? Are you experienced sailors?

Goussev: I've been sailing for about 20 years and this idea was concocted after a sailing race with Anna [Stevens]. My friends Anna, Morgana [Buell] and I were all sitting together after that race when Anna asked if we would be interested in doing the Race to Alaska with an all-women’s team.

Reynolds: So you're pretty experienced—you've been sailing for 20 years?

Goussev: Twenty years. I started in Boston and then came out here to the West Coast and have been racing. My husband and I have a boat together that we do quite a bit of sailing on.

Reynolds: And how about you, Aimee? An experienced sailor?

Fulwell: No, not one bit. I've done tons of water sports ranging from rowing to whitewater rafting to scuba diving to swimming to kayaking … but sailing has never been one of those things that I've done in the past, but it is something I've always wanted to do.

Jeanne had made mention of this conversation with Anna and Morgana one night and I said, ‘You know what, even though I don't have the experience, I'm super driven, I'm super athletic, I take direction well, and I do things 150 percent. If you're interested in having someone like that in the crew, I want to be a part of it.'

Reynolds: How about you, Allison? What got you in?

Ekberg Dvaladze: I grew up on Bainbridge Island and was on the water most of my life; I went surfing and sailing as a kid. Then as an adult I lived in places where that wasn't an option. It's something that I always wanted to get back to.

Having met Jeanne a few years ago, I started sailing with her and her family, and just fell in love with it — am still in love with it. So I jumped at the opportunity to do something with a group of women who were all driven and equally committed to the race.

Group photo of the adventure racing team Sail Like a Girl.
Credit Photo by Richard Horst.

Reynolds: Were you guys in it to win it, or was it more to just try it out to see what it would be like, regardless of winning?  

Goussev: We never set out on this race with this singular goal of coming in first place. For us, this was always about the journey. It was always about being out there together, with a group of women, and knowing that we pushed ourselves as hard as we could.

We planned, and then we planned again, and then we checked our plan. Our goal was really to be out there in a deliberate way and have the boat as ready as it could be, have the crew as ready as they could be, and just experience the beautiful place that we live in together and push ourselves; push our limits, find out what our limits are. Seek the warrior inside all of us. That was our goal.

Fulwell: And we're all pretty competitive. I mean, yeah, I make yoga competitive. I don't know about you guys.

Ekberg Dvaladze: Our teammate Kate always said she wanted to be able to look back on the race and be able to say, ‘the girls sailed that boat well.’ And that was a goal for us.

Also the journey — not just what we did on the water — it was a journey from finding the boat, to the strategy, all the way to the end of the race about who is on the crew, what are you taking with you... We took the boat apart ourselves and put it back together, and that was a learning experience as well.

The winner of the Race to Alaska receives $10,000 in cash - nailed to a block of wood.
Credit Courtesy of Aimee Fulwell.

Reynolds: Did you win by a large margin or was it very close at the finish line?

Goussev: The boat that came in behind us was just under two hours behind. 

Reynolds: And they got steak knives, but for winning the race, what did the Sail Like a Girl Team win?  

Ekberg Dvaladze: The winner of this race receives $10,000 staked to a log. And that's sort of how the race began—when the race organizers said, 'What would happen if we stuck $10,000 to a tree in Ketchikan?' 

Fulwell: We tried to deposit the log at the bank. They wouldn't take it, but we did find some lumberjacks in town at the Ketchikan Lumberjack Show who helped us out there... they put it in a vice and were able to pull it out for us.

Reynolds: What are you going to use the money for? Are you going to continue the team and invest in your success?

We carried their names with us down below on the boat on the mast, trying to draw strength from them when we were facing tough times.

Goussev: We’ve committed to first covering some of our race expenses.

But from the very beginning of this race it has always been about something much bigger than us. So the proceeds that we raise beyond those expenses will go to supporting Pink Boat Regatta.

All of us have been affected by breast cancer in some way or another, whether it is through family members or close friends. None of us are survivors but Allison works in breast cancer research and we have all been touched by it.

So we carry the messages of women that have been affected. We carried their names with us down below on the boat on the mast, trying to draw strength from them when we were facing tough times.

So donating those additional proceeds to a Pink Boat Regatta to support the Breast Cancer Research Foundation was a way that we felt we could honor the fact that this was something well beyond just us.

Reynolds: What was the toughest part of this trip for you? Was there a moment when you may have lost confidence?

Goussev: For me, I think the hardest part was actually leaving the dock in Victoria, B.C. It was hugging my family and going into the unknown. There’s so much fear in that.

But we supported each other and we had a singular goal of completing this race as safely as we could. So I was afraid of the unknown, but we stepped into it and did it anyway; we did it deliberately and carefully.

Ekberg DvaladzeThe course of this race is known for having gale-force winds. It's very unpredictable and things change in an instant. 

If I'm to think about one of the moments that was terrifying, it was probably the last night. We had hit a log the day before and we weren't sure of the damage to the boat. We knew we weren't taking water on, but we didn't know if there was any structural damage.

We were in some pretty rough seas and the boat was just slamming down onto the waves and we were on a three-hour watch schedule and often you couldn't sleep. This is really a race of sleep deprivation and endurance. You may have had two three-hour blocks in a 24 hour period to sleep, but that didn't mean you got sleep.

And I had gone down in the middle of the night for a break, took off my wet gear and crawled into the pipe berth — and there really that: little tiny coffins — and I thought, 'Oh yeah, we're way out at sea. If something goes wrong, the chances of somebody getting to us in time are not good. Crawling into that space holding onto my life jacket … that was a scary moment.

We were navigating using charts and sometimes things aren't on the charts; often sailing in the fog in the dark can be eerie and nerve wracking. It’s dark, you can hear sounds, you can hear boats but you can't see them.

We had some fish pens that weren't on the charts show up out of nowhere — these two story buildings floating in the water. Jeanne was driving and she reacted so quickly, and was so smart in her reaction. We tacked away, and we got out, but we didn't know how far they stretched. They really went on for a long time.

Reynolds: It might surprise people to know that this sailing race that you won involved bicycles. Tell us about that.

Fulwell: So we've talked about the wind and Mother Nature. You never know what you're going to get. And so when that wind dies, and you get into currents, you still have to move forward, you still want to get to that dock in Ketchikan.

Teams do whatever it takes to do that. That ranges from just stand up paddleboard oars, putting full on rowing stations on the boats, and then some boats like ourselves have pedal drives.

We had two custom-built paddle drives. Access Marine and Hatton Fabrication helped us out with those. It's crazy, because it looks like you've got a recumbent bike. People see it and are like, ‘What is that thing on the back of that boat?’

But it helped us go so much farther, so much faster. I think we spent almost 75 hours, which is about half the time we were out there, on those bikes because we were determined to keep moving forward to our goal in Ketchikan.  

Ekberg Dvaladze: Any time the boat speed dropped below 5 knots we would jump on the bikes. There wasn't a set rotation, it was just as long as you could go. As soon as you needed fresh legs, you'd say, ‘Tap out!’ and someone else would hop on. But it was also this funny space to be in because it was really like two races.

Reynolds: So is Sail Like A Girl going to retire as victors or will you be going back next year?

Goussev: We're really figuring things out right now. We feel like this has become something beyond us and we want to be good stewards of this message of getting women out there, seeking adventure, getting out of their comfort zone, facing leadership opportunities, and finding wonderful teams to be a part of.

We are really regrouping as a team and figuring out how we steward that message forward.

Produced for the Web by Brie Ripley