She was bored. Routine and security were killing her spirit of adventure, and she didn’t like it. This changed in February 2015. Michelle Boroski stumbled upon a flyer while visiting her old stomping grounds in Port Townsend, WA. The pamphlet described the upcoming Race to Alaska (R2AK), a 750-mile boat race up the Inside Passage with no motor, support and few rules. She knew the race directors, Jake Beattie and Dan Evans. All three had worked together for Outward Bound when they were younger. “Leave it to these guys to pull off such an outrageous boat race,” she thought.
By the time she returned home to Ventura, California, the seed was already planted. The idea of doing such a daring adventure was just what she needed to shake up what she refers to as her “sanitized life.”
Why Women Over 50?
Michelle was glued to the race tracker the first year and weeks later, decided she would enter the next year. At 58, her approach to the competition was different. Her priorities had changed since her mid 30’s and 40’s. This race wouldn’t be about winning, it would be a proving ground to see if she still had what it took. Michelle knew other women felt as she did, and she invited them to join in the challenge. She would have an all-women crew over 50, and the name would be Sistership.
Was It Easy To Find Crew?
“The first year, I had visions of having four experienced female sailors, all over 50, to be on my team,” Michelle explains. “But finding women of over 50, fit and willing enough to go to Alaska on a boat with no motor, or support, proved to be a lot harder than I thought,” she chuckles.
The first year, two of her original teammates quit with two months to go. Michelle had to scramble to find others to fill their seats. She was able to find one experienced SF Bay sailboat racer, Sheri Smith and another experienced sailor, Renee Fields. Renee was a sailor but sailed land yachts in the desert. “This was good enough,” Michelle thought, “she understands the wind.” She also invited Janice Mason, a hardy former Olympic rower with no sailing experience, whom she initially turned down, to be the fourth team member.
“Finding women over 50, fit and willing enough to go to Alaska on a boat with no motor or support, proved to be a lot harder than I thought.”
Just when she thought her crew was set, Renee had to pull out due to medical issues, three weeks before the race. Michelle was then able to convince her team administrator to fill in the open spot. She had listed her as an alternate, just in case, but seriously doubted she would need her. Johanna Gabbard wasn’t a sailor, but, was fit enough to help with rowing and was eager for adventure.
When describing her crew search for her second time around, Michelle relays similar difficulties. “I knew if I did this race again, I would try to find strong sailors, but again, none of them were volunteering. I talked to many women over 50. The problem I found was that they were day sailors and cruisers, not adventurers. Most admitted their fears and lacked confidence in their ability to do a race of this nature. So, I ended up with a crew of three enthusiastic and gutsy women with some recreational sailing experience, but not as much as I had hoped.”
“…I talked to many women over 50. The problem I found was that they were day sailors and cruisers, not adventurers..”
The Challenges of Living A Far.
Preparing for the R2AK presents incredible behind the scene challenges. The logistics are intimidating. It takes a ton of patience and organization to navigate the details of obtaining a watercraft, making sure it’s safe enough to get to Alaska, transporting both crew and boat to the starting line and then bringing them back home from Alaska. The logistics of this race are a daunting undertaking and enough to make many rethink their dream of signing up. Orchestrating all of these moving parts have undoubtedly been the cause of many last-minute cancellations for would-be-racers.
The logistics of this race are a daunting undertaking, enough to make many rethink their dream of signing up.
Michelle purchased Sistership, a Corsair F-27 trimaran in Port Townsend. She opted to leave the boat in Washington. But to get work done from afar while working a full-time job as a Physician Assistant, was very difficult. She took multiple flights to Washington to work on and oversee the retrofit. This became extremely stressful and costly. “In retrospect, I should have had the boat transported back to CA, work on it at home, then transport it back up to WA before the race,” she says.
Why Did You Do It A Second Time?
“I was exhausted. The preparation and the race itself were so intense I couldn’t begin to think about doing it again. But there were things I would’ve done differently. We already had the boat, the gear, and the know-how, so this was a chance to do better the second time around. It took about 8 months before I was really on board to do it again.”
The 2016 Race
Team Sistership ’16 completed the race in in 11 days. “We had hoped to make it in seven days or less,” Michelle explains. “It was grueling. We literally rowed for 65 hours in the first 4 days. We fell just behind the wind window and kept trying to find wind.” The crew redefined the R2AK acronym to “Rowing to Alaska” and jokingly sent a note to the Race Boss during the middle of the race, demanding a refund for false advertising. Despite the disappointment, they made it across the finish line as the first all-female crew to complete the race.
The 2017 Race
In 2017, Michelle and her crew repeated the race. Team Sistership ’17 finished again in 11 days and 15th place, the same showing as the year before. They were more prepared in every way this time around, but the conditions were very different. “Big wind, angry seas. It was a whole different race,” Michelle explained. She described four episodes of gale force winds that really shook the boat and crew. The worst happened on the first day to Victoria when they tore their jib and lost steerage in 50-knot winds in Haro Strait. Another time, the boat took off under full sail in Fitzhugh Sound. “We passed an open channel and the winds picked up instantly. Our boat speed hit over 20 knots, it was crazy.”
Michelle summarizes the race as “one problem-solving challenge after another. We tore our sail, broke our centerboard, took on a leak and one crew mate left in Nanaimo. With only three of us onboard, our sleep schedule changed from three hours to one hour. It was exhausting, but still so amazing! After all the mishaps, we were more determined than ever.”
Any Chance of Doing It A Third Time?
Michelle admits, “it’s hard not to be in the middle of it again. There’s such a rush to be around the community of people, like a drug – you keep wanting to come back for more,” she explains. “I think it’d be cool to have a “masters” all-women team of 50 and 60+ year-olds. “I’m 61 and have no doubt that women of this age and older are capable of doing this race. It’s just a matter of convincing them to redefine their own limits.”