Photo by Josh Sorenson on Unsplash

I met Henry during a Russian film studies class. We sat in silence, the screen flickering white and grey and blue. We fit together.

Henry had grown up on the water. We read stories aloud and climbed trees. He whispered that I had olive eyes. That I’d reduced him to a fish on a hook. He once told me, “There are three kinds of men in this world: those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are at sea.”

Henry was the one who first told me about the Race to Alaska, the longest human and wind-powered sailing race in North America. It traverses the Inside Passage, beginning in Port Townsend, Washington and arriving 750 cold-water miles later in Ketchikan, Alaska. I was captivated. I’ve been fascinated by the sea for as long as I remember. As a girl, I’d devoured Jack London, Hemingway, Conrad, Jules Verne, Herman Melville, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Through their stories, I’d sailed on The Cruise of the Snark, fished for giant marlin, hunted sperm whales, and explored the ocean depths. The only books I had were about men at sea. I craved their grit.

Henry had run the Race to Alaska for the first time the year before. He told me about the triumph of reaching the dock in Ketchikan. The joy of rest after a long day of work. The men who sailed and fished and smoked. The exhaustion. The jellyfish that sting your face and hands. The boat he’d built to run the race, the Johnny Horton, a hand-welded 20-foot aluminum sharpie. The whole thing is held together with elbow grease and willpower.

In 2018, the same year Henry first ran, the eight-person crew Sail Like a Girl had made history as the first all-women team to win the Race to Alaska. I wanted desperately to join them, and to understand for myself the spirit of their team. And so, a year later, with no experience or seaworthiness myself, I arrived in Port Townsend, a mosaic of pine trees, stained glass, and sea air, and tried to cover their story.

Port Townsend is the kind of town where toddlers learn to swim before they walk and most everyone prefers the company of water to people. The port itself was lavish, separate from town and representative of wealthy sailing culture, with ships only taken out on holiday and photographed for Christmas cards. I wandered it eagerly, noticing each sunbeam and sunburn. Black water churned under the pier, and pools of bilge slithered out across my boots. The smell of iron and mist hung heavy in the air. The salt was thick in my nostrils, but pleasant, too — the tang of rusted metal seeping into wide wet planks glossy with moss.

I made plans to interview Sail Like a Girl at the marina the day of the race’s start. I took my press slot and arrived on time. This was something, then: to simply speak to them, to ask patiently about the ocean’s temperament and marvel at its magnitude. But, amidst the fuss of preparations, the tourists, and the heat, they stood me up.

I agreed to try to meet them on a later leg of the race, where they would hopefully be more talkative, and decided to look for Henry in Port Townsend in the meantime. I knew he was running the race again this year; maybe he’d let me join his team.

The Johnny Horton was docked at the edge of a long, rickety pier in the Port Townsend Marina. A few flags hung from the mast, catching curls of wind, and giving way to their gentle nudges. My boots squelched as I climbed aboard. The ship was narrow, crowded and damp. “This is it. This is my last chance,” I thought to myself. I pitched up at the forward bow, distant from the scene set before me, and conjured up the courage to ask to join his team.

Henry pushed his way over to me and placed a hand on the small of my back. He offered me a ride to Victoria, and the chance to join the crew for at least the first leg of the race. I pretended not to notice the sideways glances from the rest of his team. I agreed, and he kept talking; he already had become my teammate. “You know, in the Race to Alaska, there’s people who scoff at us when we talk about being competitive,” he continued above the rumble of voices, “But my dad still expects to have a chance of winning the race with his boat. He believes that. He believes in his boat. He takes so much pride in the boat that we built. And it’s hard to argue with him.”

Greg Veitenhans, Henry’s father and the most seasoned member of team North2Alaska, sat at the rear. His eyes were withered beneath a wide-brimmed hat. His father fished, as did his father, going back five generations. Greg went on, “When I was a kid, that’s what you did; either you fished, or you were too young to fish, or you were too old to fish.” He’d began fishing at 18, joining the crew of a purse seiner fishing vessel and setting off to Alaska.

“Fishing is cyclic,” he told me. “When it’s good, you make hay, and when it’s bad, you just hunker down because it never stays the same. When it’s good, it’s gonna get bad; when it’s bad, it’s gonna get good.”

Greg first brought Henry to Alaska 13 years ago, when the boy was eight. His younger brother Joey, now 18, began fishing at 10. These days, Joey works on crab boats year-round.

“We were already in Alaska before the race start,” said Henry. “There was a window of time right around January where Dad was telling me, you know, it’s not feasible for us to run the race this year, logistically we can’t pull it off,” he finished, sending a smirk towards his father in the rear. Greg meant that to take a trip to Washington just to run a fancy race would only hurt their profit margin.

Joey, red in the face and smoking like a chimney, butted in, “I was sitting next to my dad at our house, and Henry calls him up, and he says ‘We are doing the race. We are doing it!’”

Greg put up his hands with a relenting smile. “So I told them, okay, fine. It’s gonna be terrible but we’ll do it. It might be the last thing I do, but oh well! I got a new pacemaker a month before the race, so that helps.” He patted his chest with a ragged hand.

Henry hollered back, “Even if it kills you, Dad, we are racing again!”

I was surprised by how quickly they had taken me in, and how easily I laughed with them. Quiet but triumphant, Henry said to me, “I thought you might be crazy enough to do it. And you are.”

* * *

We woke at 4 a.m. to head to the start line. I hadn’t slept much that night; Henry and I slept on a plastic bench in the wheelhouse — a tiny, fogged over compartment at the front of a nearby fishing vessel docked in the marina. Fumbling with my dry-bag I pulled out each item and examined it, as if it were new and prized. I soon realized there was nothing left to do but board. Move onward. Meet up with that dirty horizon. Clambering onto its deck, the air was still. I searched in earnest for something to do, some way to help — anything but stand there, anchored by a cold unknown.

Our first hour out was rocky, the crew getting acquainted with their new home. With no knowledge of their work, I watched the boys tack up the sails. Tacking, or coming about, is turning from one side of the wind to the other. The Johnny Horton is a little thing, so to tack, we ducked under the boom. In sailing, I learned, a boom is a spar along the foot of a fore and aft rigged sail, that improves control of the sail itself. It helps to guide the sails toward the wind, in order for the two to meet and catch one another. This equipment moved fast and swung violently. I learned very quickly to get out of the way.

It was an electric day and the sun shone mercilessly. Waves pushed their way over the side, only to find their way out again, rushing up in full force to douse your hair and seep into your warmest layers. Salt clung to my eyelashes and dried along the ridge of my nose. It was coarse and crystalline. The shore went missing. I stared, at eye-level with the water, searching for it.

I noticed then that each man’s gaze was also fixed outwards. There was a great sense that each man did his thing: each of us, with our tasks assigned, roles to play, kept the ship afloat. We waded into the chop, jolting with each crest. Greg, the ship’s pilot, was at the helm. His belly laugh bounded across the water as easily as we did. It was his job to read the waves, keep us out of rougher tide, and on course.

Henry tasked me with unfastening and retying the rope which held the forward sail in place and enabled us to tack without tipping belly-up. He handed it to me shakily, and silently twisted the line into a square knot. I watched the rope fold over itself, settling to rest around the silver cleat to my right. His eyes met mine, and a small secret passed between us. “That’s it,” I thought. “That’s all the lesson I’ll get.”

Greg bellowed across the water, “Hang on to that line girl!”

I felt self-doubt sneak up my spine. I was the newest one here, the only girl, the smallest, and charged with keeping us out of the frigid water below. My hands were cold and salted over and the line was trying its damnedest to split them open. The salt was invasive now: clinging to my ears, woven into my eyebrows, and harsh on my tongue.

I took hold of the line and took stock of my surroundings. Greg sat at the helm. Henry at my left. The other boys stood in place, ready to cradle the boom and tuck it in gently.

Clutching the rope, I felt my grip falter. I yanked, pulling tightly, conscious suddenly that I could lose it, afraid to fail at this task I had been given. My knuckles whitened. Fiberglass ground into my palms. A small, merely curious woman. A woman. A woman who wasn’t a sailor and wasn’t a fisherman. Who wasn’t girly enough to sail like a girl or loud enough to speak over the men. A figurehead. A mascot. A girl-friend, not a team-mate.

I noticed Greg’s hands at the rudder, determined and steady. They responded to each lurch of the boat. There was strength there, within them, weather-worn and sturdy. It simply was. If only I could channel that knowledge, that confidence into my own movements. Taking a deep breath, I tried loosening my grip. Felt the tension fall away. There, in the grey between certainty and chaos, I held the line — shifted my weight, ducked under the mast, and tied it quick. I exhaled. That was it. We continued on.

Each wave took its moment of sunshine and savored a single, labored breath before ducking under again. We were turned into the wind, moving quickly, enduring on course, whittling down the hours and the sixty miles left between us and our destination.

Inevitably, being on the water, looking at the water, battling the water will remind you of your humanity and your need to piss. The call of nature is resounding when you’re surrounded by it. And, admittedly, it was easy for the rest of them. They were equipped to maintain some privacy. I became acutely aware of our differences in this area.

So, when it was my turn, I scooted my little ass over the side and held on to the forward mast. Though most everyone averted their eyes, Greg’s locked onto mine. It could have been the kind of thing that made you squirm — but he laughed. Not at me, but at the boys who were turning red, and at this moment we’d all found ourselves in. All I could do, then, in that moment, was look that fucker right in the eyes and laugh myself. We laughed at the boys who were suddenly aware of the fabrication of my body in contrast to theirs. We laughed, and that was the end of it.

As the voyage grew longer, the sky spilled over us, so full it was difficult to remember the outline of the shore we’d left. The afternoon sun grew murderous, but we still were constantly damp. Then, the wind shifted. We took the chance to close down to nap, the crew conserving their energy for the days that still lay ahead. We fell into the current, slid towards shore, towards Victoria and the conclusion of our long day. We curled around the mast, huddling over the seats deep in the hull of the craft. At my back, sunlight poked through the cold grasp of my rain gear. It grazed my cheek, leaving a blistering red in her wake. I was burnt to shit.

Is this the time for a declaration of love? A declaration of faith? It’s a funny thing, to be wholly spread before the ocean. For a moment you are purely thus, purely man, purely flesh — and easily broken open. Knowing then, that you are lesser, smaller, and at the mercy of the tide. Gliding across the wide brim of the water. It’s both miraculous and ridiculously stupid.

There had been a moment, somewhere out there, where turning in each direction I saw nothing but the melding of the blue sky and the water, passing through, running over and towards each other in a passionate and breathless reunion. Seamlessly woven into a lacquered blue.

My lips were dry and caked over with salt spray, my hair a tangled mess. I wished desperately to continue. To sail all the way to Alaska. To feel the wind lap at my curls and run along my shoulders. To be tossed by the hull and its course. I am not the first and certainly not the last to fall in love with that mess. It’s the type of thing that makes you feel whole.

I’d found the experience of sailing to be one of abandonment and surrender. An intimate relinquishment of self. Resistant to fables. The sea surrounding me was no woman, no man — I knew it did not see us, the small crew of the Johnny Horton, nor the many years of experience or their absence, not the welds Henry had laid himself to shape this hull, and not the composition of our bodies. It simply demanded we survive, whatever that took.

* * *

At sundown, fourteen hours after we departed Port Townsend, we sailed easily into Victoria’s harbor. She welcomed us with arms outstretched. We drank whiskey in an Irish pub not far from the harbor, the other customers occasionally erupting into drunken shouting. The room was filled with warm red oak, its patrons swaying gently with the pulse of the music. Its walls nursed many a spirited drinker, and we eagerly joined in its practice.

Outside, I ran into the Sail Like a Girl crew. Their first mate, Anna Stevens, tapped my shoulder.

“Hey, so you made it,” said Anna.

“Yeah, I did,” I answered, leaning into the brown rubber xtratufs I’d borrowed from Greg. My hair was tangled, and the salt made it spring up every which way. My cheeks were red and sunburnt. I looked like I’d been struck by lightning.

She was dressed in a miniskirt. Her hair was curled, and her heels were tall. She cradled a pint in her palm. She gestured it towards me.

“Was I, like, rude to you at the dock?” she asked.

“Well, maybe,” I said. The words rushed up, dampening an already awkward moment. I turned back to the men of the Johnny Horton, waiting at our table inside. I couldn’t hide my smile.