Racing to Alaska: Nick Schwenger

750 miles of cold water, a sailboat and a goal of reaching Ketchikan, Alaska. Sounds like a great way to spend your free time, no? Okay, maybe it’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but for some this is exactly their cup of tea; embarking on a rugged adventure where the risks are plenty and the rewards are well, rewarding.

This week’s interview subject is one of those such people; 4th-year mechanical engineer, model (for those who saw Vogue Charity Fashion Show a few weeks ago he may look familiar) and an intrepid sailor…you might even call him a model sailor (see what I did there?) But, you could also just call him Nick like I do.

I sat down with Nick this week to get the full scoop on his plans to race to Alaska in June, because even if I wouldn’t do it myself, it does sound like quite the worthy adventure and something I want to hear all about.

Starting with something easy, what exactly is the Race to Alaska?

It is advertised as a human powered race from Port Townsend to Victoria, B.C. and on to Ketchikan, Alaska. Given that it’s a human powered race there are no motors allowed, you can paddle, swim, sail or peddle…or any other innovative form of non-motorized transport you can dream up. This is the 2nd year it’s happening and last year it had a lot of locals but this year there’s more of an international audience. According to the Race to Alaska website, it’s North America’s longest human and wind-powered race and currently the largest cash prize for a race of its kind.

How is it different from other sailing races, aside from the distance?

Primarily, it’s different because it’s human powered, so if there’s no wind you paddle, it's not limited just to sailing. Most sailing races aren’t inland either so you don’t have to worry about strong currents, rapids, and stuff.

Why did you decide to take part in it?

We [my brother, teammates and I] saw that it happened last year and it’s a really cool idea; the organizers are really involved and unlike other sailing races it has a small feel to it. It was also a good excuse to buy a boat because we didn’t own one until we decided to take on this challenge.

Your team is called Team Hot Mess where did that name come from?

It’s my brother’s personal motto, to get it you’d probably have to know my brother; he’s a crazy guy who likes to do lots and break lots of things (a bit like a wrecking ball). I guess that was the main inspiration.

What’s your role on the team?

All four of us have the same job and we share all the work. We will sail in shifts (two at a time) and between the two someone will steer and the other will supervise and look after everything else. In light wind, the two will paddle. The two that aren’t on shift will be around (obviously we’re confined to the boat) so they can help with major stuff if we need them to.

You’re an engineer, are you using any of that knowledge to help with modifying the boat?

The boat that we are using is an Olson 30, with a carbon bow sprint to hold extra large asymmetrical spinnakers (that’s the modification because these aren’t usually found on stock Olson 30s). We might get fancy and create a peddle mechanism (for when the wind dies down) but that’s still to be decided.


You’re a member of the Queen’s Sailing Team, right? Do you think any of those experiences have helped you prepare for this?

Yeah, I am. I think they have to some extent, just time on the water helps, and I’ve sailed lots of big boats with QST so that will transfer over to this.

It’s not exactly the easiest terrain to race, do you have any prior experience in these kinds of conditions? With endurance racing?

This will be the longest I’ve been on a boat continually and it should take about two weeks. I’ve been sailing for 20 years (everyone on the team has lots of experience). I’ve never sailed in B.C. so it’s new water for me, and most of it is inland (between islands), not necessarily open ocean. Because of this there are sections that you sail through rapids, strong currents and whirlpools, it will be a new challenge.

Sounds dangerous?

It’ll be fun, that’s what makes it fun (he says as he shrugs nonchalantly). The point of the race is to face the elements, and the danger.

What are the logistics like for this kind of race?

Well it will take about two weeks, the winning team last year did it in 5 days and the second place team did it in 8 days; we are budgeting 2 weeks. There isn’t much of a support team like other sailing races, they offer some safety (not sure about the specifics) but we don’t have our own support team. We will only stop at the checkpoints (Bella Bella and Seymour Narrows). In terms of food supply, we are trying to determine if we can get food to the checkpoints with a ground crew but otherwise we will have to carry enough for the whole race (basically we’ll be eating lots of freeze-dried food).

Are you training for it? How?

Yes, I am training, and the rest of the team is already out in B.C. sailing the boat now. I’m heading out there about a month before the race to do some practicing with them.

You mentioned that your brother is your teammate, how do you feel about sailing with him? Have you two sailed together before?

We’ve sailed together a lot, and we’re mostly a good team, naturally we’ve butt heads a couple of times. Once, I jumped off the boat sailing with him and tried to swim home, but he ran over me with the boat. Generally, though, we get along and make a good team.

How do your parents feel about you guys doing this?

My mom is willing to let us go, and I think she’s quietly excited for us. My Dad is very excited and a little bit jealous because he’s a sailor as well, so he wishes he was coming with us.

What about your return trip?

We plan to take our time coming back, maybe sail a little further north and do some sight seeing before returning.

What are the winnings? What would do you with them if you win?

For first place, it’s $10,000 but there’s no prizes for second place etc. (the website says second place gets a set of steak knives). If we win (a big if) then I think we will probably just invest it in the boat.

How are you affording all the equipment/your boat? I can’t imagine it’s a cheap race.

The cost of the boat was split by my brother and teammates (I’m lucky cause I’m over here). It wasn’t that expensive a boat. We also have a sponsorship from Ocean Rodeo (they gave us discounts on some sick dry suits) but for the most part it’s coming out of our own pockets and I personally need to buy lots of equipment before we race.

Final Question, when you make it to Ketchikan, Alaska what’s the first thing you’re going to do?

Realistically, I’ll go and eat some real food. (simple, I like it)


For more information on the Race to Alaska visit the race website at: and to support Nick and Team Hot Mess visit their website to learn more about how you can help their cause.


 I know I’ll be cheering from here when the race starts on June 23rd, how about you guys?