Diving Into the Deep

When Kelly Danielson M.O.T.’12 joined an all-women sailing team on the 750-mile Race to Alaska, she had little experience and never expected to win. As the adventure unfolded over six epic days, team Sail Like a Girl took the world by storm.

The sound last summer was like a car crash, but Kelly Danielson M.O.T.'12 and her crewmates were on a sailboat in the middle of British Columbia’s Laredo Sound, about a mile from shore. It was 2 a.m. and dark. Clouds erased whatever moon hung in the sky, and the sea was black. Land formed inky humps in the distance. Everything was quiet, and then the noise—a double thud. Kelly was knocked to the deck when the 32-foot daysailer, which had been clipping along at 7 knots, stopped dead in the water.

“But there are no rocks here! There are no rocks here!” Kelly remembers Jeanne Assael Goussev, the captain, shouting. Jeanne was looking at charts of the waters off B.C.’s Aristazabal Island, a wild scrap of land along that wild, ragged coast. Kelly’s first thought: How far is the swim to shore? If she could see land, she was pretty sure she could make it.

They had hit a log, Kelly and the rest of the crew realized, a massive log about 20 feet long and thicker than any of them could put their arms around. They’d not just hit it, but heaved up onto it, and the huge, sodden tree trunk was lodged under their keel. The crew began a mad inspection of the boat in the dark. Had the hull been breached? Were they taking on water? 

Losing their lead in the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile competition that has been described as the Iditarod of the sea, wasn’t foremost on their minds. Not ending up in Davy Jones’ locker was.

Kelly was intimidated by the open ocean. The sheer, dark blue immensity of it. The fearsome distance to a faraway shore. Its cold, cold depths. So a little over a year ago, in October 2017, she approached her fear head-on and planned a nighttime swim in the Puget Sound—not far from her Bainbridge Island home—on the evening of the harvest moon. She invited her friend Jeanne along. Both women had kids at the same elementary school. Kelly is a triathlete and Jeanne had been a competitive swimmer for most of her life, but parenting and work duties had taken her away from that in recent years.

At 10 p.m. the night of their swim, a full moon laid a glowing stripe across the black water. Wearing wetsuits, and with a friend following along in a Boston Whaler, the two women entered the water and swam along the moon’s illuminated path. Phosphorescence streamed off their fingertips as Kelly led Jeanne to a navigational buoy a mile out. That was Kelly’s first long-distance swim in the ocean, and it would turn out to be the first of many.

For Jeanne, that nighttime swim rekindled a sense of adventure that had gone dormant in her since having children. Two months later, Jeanne—a competitive sailor for about 20 years—made up her mind to assemble a team of women to take on the wildest sailing challenge in the region.

When Jeanne approached Kelly about competing in the Race to Alaska, Kelly couldn’t imagine how she could pull it off between her work as a pediatric occupational therapist at two Bainbridge elementary schools and her family duties—she’s the mother of twin 9-year-old girls. Not to mention she didn’t know how to sail.

But Kelly did know how to push her body to its limits. Jeanne knew that Kelly was physically strong, but the night of the swim, she also noticed how Kelly didn’t hesitate to get in the 50-some-degree water. “Nothing fazed her. She just got in and went. She never stopped.” And by leading Jeanne along that moonlit path, Kelly had pushed her. “She brought out the best in me,” Jeanne explained. And Jeanne could see how Kelly could do that with others.

The crew of team Sail Like a Girl hopes to inspire more women and girls, like Shylah and Linnea, Kelly's twin 9-year-old daughters, to get into sailing.

The team came together over a few months—Jeanne and Kelly, as well as Aimee Fulwell, Allison Dvaladze, Anna Stevens, Haley King Lhamon, Kate Hearsey McKay, and Morgana Buell—eight women, all from the Seattle area, representing careers in law, public health, business, therapy, and more. Although not all of the crew had sailing experience, Jeanne saw that they had the most important quality in common: grit. “I could teach them sailing,” Jeanne said, “but not how to live together on a small boat for a week, how to deal with rough seas, boredom, fear, and sleep deprivation.”

The women called their team Sail Like a Girl, and shared a goal of inspiring more girls and women to get into sailing, which is the oldest international trophy sport, and also one of the most male-dominated. Crew member Haley, who has been sailing competitively since she was 8, had noticed over the years that only a tiny percentage of skippers in adult sailing races were women. And even when women were racing, they were typically on the foredeck, rarely in crew positions requiring physically demanding work.

Although one of the most prestigious sailing races in the world—the Volvo Ocean Race—recently began promoting mixed-gender and all-women teams by allowing them the advantage of an added sailor, competitive sailing remains dominated not just by male sailors but also by male team owners and male CEOs of corporate race sponsors. Gender equality in the sport remains an upwind battle.

With a lead sponsorship from First Federal Savings and Loan secured, the women of Sail Like a Girl recognized that they could work well together and that they’d likely form friendships for life. But with varied sailing experience among their ranks, they didn’t know if they would be competitive.

Before they could figure that out, they needed a boat. Jeanne found a used Melges 32, a monohull daysailer known for its speed and responsiveness. Over the winter of 2017, the women made it a family affair to overhaul the boat. Kelly’s daughters helped remove old hardware, and her husband installed safety equipment. The team repaired leaks and shored up the boat to turn the light-duty vessel into a craft capable of hauling its own weight through rough seas. And, for the doldrums, they mounted two pedal-drive bikes in the stern, capable of propelling the boat forward at about 3 knots even when there was no wind at all.

When the team put the boat in the water last March and began to train up to five days per week, Kelly had a lot to learn. She learned how to tie sailing knots and how to maneuver the highly responsive boat. She learned about tacking and about wind. She kept a copy of The Complete Guide to Sailing and Seamanship next to her bed.

Memorial Day weekend before the Race to Alaska, the team signed up for the Swiftsure International Yacht Race, a two-day, overnight, 117-mile competition from Victoria, B.C., to the Olympic Peninsula’s Neah Bay and back again to Victoria. Swiftsure would be their shakedown race. On the way to the start, the wind howled at 30 to 40 knots across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, kicking up 15-foot waves that were breaking on top. These were some of the biggest seas that some of the most experienced in their crew had ever seen in the Pacific Northwest. Half the team got sick. Kelly vomited bile for eight hours. And she was terrified. “This is what it could be like the entire time,” Kelly remembers thinking. The team limped to the finish line in 54th place.

Here we are," Kelly thought. "We're going to do this."

Still image from video of Sail Like a Girl's route to Ketchikan, Alaska
Follow along as Kelly and team Sail Like a Girl make their historic run to Ketchikan. WATCH THE VIDEO: See their route on R2AK's official race tracker.

The Race to Alaska isn’t so much a sailing competition as it is a soul-searching slog at sea. The starting point is Port Townsend, Wash. The finish line: Ketchikan, Alaska. That’s about the distance between Seattle and San Francisco. Racers can use any kind of vessel they wish, as long as it doesn’t have a motor. There are no course markers, no resupply stations, and no safety boats. And aside from two checkpoints along the way, there is no specified route.

During the four years since the race’s inception, there have been the expected single-and multihull sailboats. But racers have also used kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards, and rowboats. Some craft are homemade. Some are snagged off Craigslist. Some racers never make it past the starting line. 

Without a designated course or support services, competitors must rely on their own smarts, careful planning, and strategy not just to be competitive or merely finish the race, but to keep themselves alive in some of the wildest waters in North America. Navigational hazards are many along the Inside Passage, including commercial fishing boats, aquaculture pens, loaded barges, and submerged rocks. Currents run like rivers, and storms can be savage. First-place winners earn $10,000 nailed to a log. Second-place finishers, a set of steak knives.

The race began on June 14, 2018, with the 40-mile first stage between Port Townsend and Victoria, B.C., a watery proving ground to weed out the unserious and unseaworthy. On June 16, Sail Like a Girl lined up with the other racers on the sea wall at Victoria’s Inner Harbor to wait for the noon starting horn to signal the start of the final, major stage. Kelly’s family had joined the throngs of spectators. At the sound, 100-some racers sprinted down to their vessels. 

With little sailing experience, Kelly had worried about whether she’d be able to pull her own weight. But immediately, she jumped on one of the pedal-drive bikes to power the team out of the harbor. Her daughters ran along the shore, cheering her on. Whatever anxieties Kelly had felt about taking on the challenge, about not having enough sailing know-how, melted away. At that point, she felt calm and ready. “Here we are,” she thought. “We’re going to do this.”

Sail Like a Girl chugged north those first few days, into the Strait of Georgia, where Douglas firs edged rocky coastlines off their gunwales. Now the team was living the limitations of their Melges 32, a vessel designed for daytripping. Their galley was a Jetboil stove strapped to the mast. The head was a bucket with a toilet seat perched on top. And berths? The women had managed to create two coffin-like sleeping spaces below decks into which they’d wedged cots. The team worked and rested in three-hour shifts, grabbing snatches of sleep between the creaking of winches, the sound of rubber boots on the deck above, and the crash of waves against their hull. “We were all in this strange survival mode. We were fuzzy but all in the moment,” Kelly explains.

The women had packed about a ton of gear—including 45 gallons of water, food, and clothing. Their appetites were strange. From time to time, one of the women would cook up a dehydrated meal and everyone would have a mouthful or two. Kelly subsisted mainly on Swedish fish and peanut-butter pretzels.

After dark, when the crew often couldn’t see more than 10 or 20 feet off their bow, the team sailed by GPS. Despite her keen hearing and excellent night vision, Kelly found nighttime sailing disorienting. She could sometimes make out the sounds of vessels in the distance that didn’t appear on their electronic vessel-tracking system. “You just had this sense that there could always be something right there in front of you,” she says.

Three days into the race, the winds died and the current turned against them in Johnstone Strait. While some of their competitors waited out the conditions, the women of Sail Like a Girl pedaled their hearts out, advancing only one mile in three hours. But their efforts paid off. They hit 35-knot winds before the other racers.

The next day, the team neared the second checkpoint, Bella Bella, B.C., a little more than halfway to the finish line. A southerly breeze blew about 8 knots. Kelly sat in the bow watching for rocks as the team made the run through a narrow channel outside the small Heiltsuk First Nations community. She was relieved to be close to land again. Having been out of cellphone service, their phones now pinged, and the team saw that they were in the lead on the race tracker. The women were thrilled. “At that point,” team member Allison recalls, “we realized it was our race to lose.”

The women also discovered that a huge community of followers had sprung up around them. Videos they had posted along the way had been viewed more than 9,000 times, and people all over the world—in England, France, Australia, Texas—were sending them words of encouragement. Coming in first place hadn’t been the team’s main goal. But now they realized the impacts their potential win could have on women across the sailing world and beyond. “This is way bigger than us,” Jeanne thought.

The excitement of their fans was wind in their sails. But it was also an enormous source of stress. And with one of their competitors coming up on their stern, they had a decision to make: head to open water—where winds could be fresher but conditions rougher—or stay in the Inside Passage, where they could take advantage of currents but might suffer less wind and fewer possible navigational hazards. It felt like a make-or-break moment.

Allison asked Kelly, who is a yoga instructor in addition to being an occupational therapist, to lead the team in a guided meditation. The crew gathered in their foulies on the deck. Kelly directed the women to focus on their breathing. She told them to acknowledge their fear and set it aside. Remember our goal, she instructed them, and the passion that had led to that moment.

“We all got to a really good, balanced place,” Kelly explains. And then a pod of about a dozen orcas glided by through the water. “All right, we’ve got this,” the team agreed. They decided to stay inside.

It's exciting to see the overall empowerment of young girls—my own included."

– Kelly Danielson M.O.T.'12

The sun set that solstice night at 10, and light leaked slowly from the sky. Sail Like a Girl headed along the west coast of Price Island, B.C., and then into Laredo Sound. Winds were from the south around 8 knots. Clouds had come up, and there were no stars. The women could barely see off their bow, and the on-duty crew called Jeanne out of slumber to help with navigation.

Then they hit the log.

In a frenetic search, the crew realized they weren’t taking on water. So they heeled over, and the tree trunk bobbed out from under their keel. Sail Like a Girl puttered north with just their mainsail until daylight, when they made a more thorough inspection of the boat. Finding no damage, they hoisted sails and continued on, hugging the shore just in case.

At that point, they figured they’d lost their lead. They didn’t have cell service, so they couldn’t check the race tracker. There was nothing to do but sail on.

Then, about 24 hours after their crash, a middle-of-the-night text came in—“Keep going, Mom!”—from Anna Stevens’ son. They were still in the lead. The women couldn’t believe it. Now all they wanted to do was win.

All that day, the team biked and sailed and dumped surplus drinking water to reduce their load. The wind quit and rose and quit again. The sun set gorgeously over the water, and a muddle of harbor, boat, and street lights from Ketchikan, Alaska, appeared in the distance.

A few minutes after midnight—six days, 13 hours, and 17 minutes after setting out—Sail Like a Girl entered the Ketchikan harbor, becoming the first all-women team and the first monohull to win the Race to Alaska. Amidst a flurry of fans, the women stepped off their boat arm in arm and rang the finish-line bell together.

In the months since the race, the women of Sail Like a Girl have been deluged with media attention and requests for appearances. The city of Seattle even issued a proclamation in their honor. Their victory has resonated with people all over the world, sailors and landlubbers alike. And their efforts raised more than $12,000 in support of breast cancer research in honor of loved ones whose names they had scrawled on the mast of their boat, as well as strangers affected by breast cancer.

For Kelly, the win was personal. And it has meant a lot to her girls. “It really has made a shift for them,” she says. Now when people ask her daughters who is stronger, their mom or their dad, they answer “my mom,” says Kelly. “It’s exciting to see the overall empowerment of young girls—my own included.”

With months of preparation and training and six and a half hard days of adventure, Race to Alaska was one of the biggest challenges Kelly has ever taken on. “Not quite as challenging as having twins,” she adds. She plans to keep pushing herself to new challenges, including swimming year-round in Puget Sound. “One thing I’ve taken from this,” she says, “is how important it is to say yes.”


By Miranda Weiss
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Jan. 28, 2018