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Sailing like a girl into the history books

The annual Race to Alaska (R2AK) spans 750 watery miles between Port Townsend, Washington, and Ketchikan, Alaska.

But don’t call it a sailing race, Allison Dvaladze says.

“It’s an adventure race. Because in a sailing race, the boat wouldn’t have bicycles on the back.”

Fair enough. The ground rules for R2AK are simple: no support and no motor. So Dvaladze and her seven sailing mates opted for pedal power. They swapped an engine for two strapped-on bikes.

The name of their team, meanwhile, was inspired by girl power. Hoping to encourage more women to take up what they see as a male-dominated sport, they dubbed themselves Team Sail Like a Girl.

Last month, they became the first all-female crew to win the R2AK. The Seattle Times and the R2AK site covered their six-day odyssey in full briny detail. Both are great reads, and The Huddle caught up with Dvaladze – director of strategy partnerships and advocacy for two global breast cancer initiatives (We Can and BCI2.5) at UW Medicine –  to hear a bit more.

Q: 750 miles to Alaska. No motor. Did you hear about this and think, that’s nuts?

A: Oh, I’m a little bit nuts. Two days after graduating high school at 17, I moved to Siberia for a year just to see what it was like. My work involves cancer care in low-resource settings. I think I’m most happy when I’m pushing my comfort zone to see exactly what I can do.

So when I first heard [team captain Jeanne Goussev] mention the idea, I instantly thought, “I want to do this!” For me a big draw was to be on a team of women who had the same goal in mind, the same spirit of adventure and commitment, and the same desire to challenge themselves.

Q: How did you prepare for the race?

A: It took months. The first step was finding a boat. We bought a second-hand Melges 32, which is a racing craft built for speed and maneuverability. Then we gutted it, removing the engine and replacing screws, bolts and wires before finally building our pedal-drive.

Then we sailed, two nights a week and every weekend. The Melges is fast, but it definitely wasn’t designed for offshore racing. Or sleeping a crew of eight. It’s barebones, with no head and no galley.

Q: No head? So…

A: A bucket. Or we’d use what we called the bidet: just hook on and hang off the back. We all got really comfortable with each other.

In that tight of a space, we relied on humor to keep spirits high. There were many, many jokes. Sometimes we’d crack up at how ridiculous things were: the wind dies, and you’re pedaling just to not move backwards. You’d have to laugh. You’re hanging off the back of a “Formula 1” racing boat and you’re biking to Alaska.

Allison Dvaladze (left) and Jeanne Goussev pedaling away

Q: What’s one thing you’ll take away from this experience?

A: I think it will be the value of support and what you’re able to accomplish when people believe in you. Our team was so much larger than the eight of us.

We had so many layers of support, from the team putting sunscreen on each other to our sponsors and the way strangers reached out to encourage us. It’s an incredible feeling. I do research on the value of support networks in cancer care. I see it there, but I felt it myself here.

Q: What’s next?

A: This has always been bigger than us. We’ve had so many women reach out to say, “thank you, you’ve inspired me.” For a lot of them when they get on a boat it tends to be men leading it. So creating more opportunities for women to step up and skipper a boat is something we’d like to do.

When we got to the dock in Ketchikan, there was a little 6-year-old girl who had tried to stay awake to greet us but fell asleep in a dock cart wearing these little rubber boots and a raincoat. That kind of hit us with what we had achieved and how this had grown even bigger than we could imagine. We’re exploring ways to keep that energy going.

Editor’s note: After covering some expenses, the Sail Like a Girl team will donate its prize money to the Pink Boat Regatta, which raises funds for breast cancer research. They’ll reunite and pedal together again at the charity regatta on Sept. 8.

 

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