Washington to Alaska: Karl Kruger first ever to finish R2AK via stand up paddleboard

Karl Kruger Paddleboarding
Karl Kruger during his successful paddle in the R2AK. Photo: Katrina Zoë Norbom

June 2017


By Jeff Troupe

Traveling by water is a way of life for Orcas Island residents. This is not a Swiss Family Robinson type of island by any means, as there are roughly 5,000 residents on the pine-covered island, 65 miles north of Seattle. But getting there requires boarding a ferry or your own private watercraft.

Karl Kruger, his wife Jess, and their daughter Dagny greatly enjoy life on Orcas Island, and exemplify self-reliant islanders. They have called it home for ten years now, and operate their own charter sailboat business, Kruger Escapes.

Karl has been paddling since a very young age and discovered stand up paddleboard (SUP) six years ago. “I absolutely love paddling in the San Juan Islands. There are so many microclimates and small rocks and inlets. There is so much to see. I believe this is SUP heaven here on the Salish Sea.”

In 2015, a nearby boat race piqued Karl’s interest— the inaugural Race to Alaska (R2AK), extending roughly 750 miles from Port Townsend, WA to Ketchikan, AK. The race has very few rules but two are very important: motorized boats are prohibited, and teams cannot have a support crew.  The focus is on the spirit of self-reliance. A humorous prize structure awards $10,000 to the winning team, while the runner-up receives “a pretty good” set of steak knives.

Karl decided to participate in the 2016 race, not with a sailboat like you may expect, but by way of SUP. Unfortunately, Karl’s SUP was badly damaged by rough conditions. He was forced to withdraw, spoiling his attempt to become the first ever SUP racer to complete the course.

This early June, however, with a beefed-up new 19-foot board and another year of hard training behind him, Karl again set out to achieve his daunting goal. He circumnavigated the San Juan Islands (36-42 miles) several times in all weather conditions in the months leading up to the race. He also paddled with a friend during the winter, and intentionally chose days with big winds and swells, common in the San Juans.

The R2AK consists of two legs. The first leg is a 40-mile untimed trek from Port Townsend, across the formidable Strait of Juan de Fuca, to Victoria Canada. This section is a proving ground to weed out those who are not prepared for the full journey. The second leg is where the race really begins and takes competitors north as they navigate numerous, channels, straits, coastal inlets, and lastly Alaska’s inside passage on the route north to Ketchikan.

The winning team, a small sailboat crew, finished the race in just over four days. Karl, the only member of team Heart of Gold, finished in the middle of the pack in 14 days, 6 hours, and 17 minutes, achieving his goal of becoming the first ever SUP finisher in the R2AK. He was met in Ketchikan at the finisher’s dock by a group of spectators, most importantly were his wife and daughter, where he rang the finishers bell just over two weeks after leaving Victoria.

Karl’s rigorous physical and mental training schedule, knowledge of the region’s waters, and self-reliant nature were key to his ability to endure the unpredictable waters for that long duration. After a long day of paddling (50 miles a day on average!), nutrition also played a key role. Perpetuem Solids and Hammer Gel provided the bulk of his calories. In addition, Karl would eat Hammer Bars to provide variety, and took Fully Charged to keep his muscles feeling fresh. He would finish his day with four scoops of Recoverite and some Hammer Whey Protein. Karl was able to find some additional solid food albeit not much. “I ate an urchin one day… it was really good!! I also ate some salmonberries too.”

Karl said there were many memorable moments from the race, “I paddled along with a humpback whale for several miles in Johnstone Strait which was amazing. There was also a point where I was 20 miles from land in any direction. The silence was incredible.” There were some less tranquil moments that stood out as well.  He said, “While rounding Cape Caution, there was a 2-3 meter swell running. It was so ALIVE!”

With his amazing journey behind him, and time to reflect on his accomplishment, Karl has also thought about future goals. He would like to sail the 2018 R2AK instead of SUP. He also wants to purchase a powerboat for his charter business to take customers to the choice down-winding spots. “I would love to start an annual event here in the Sound. We have some rowdy good stretches of water here for downwind runs and I would love to create an event for that specifically.”

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