Diane Cordrey stands in front of a colorful row of kayaks lined up in the grass.

Bellingham Squadron member Diane Cordrey helps prepare the sea kayak storage area at Squalicum Harbor.

Ski to Sea race

Squadron supplies safety during race

Each year in northwest Washington’s Whatcom County, Memorial Day weekend is the scene of the Ski to Sea race.

Beginning with a handful of competitors in 1911, this seven-leg race now draws nearly 4,000 amateur and professional athletes on more than 400 teams.

This year, 29 members of Bellingham Sail & Power Squadron logged 260 hours to help keep sea kayakers safe during their leg of the race.

The race began at 0830 Sunday. Nordic skiers raced around a winding four-mile course on Mount Baker before passing computerized timing chips to downhill skiers and snowboarders, who made a two–and-a-half-mile run.

After the skiers finished, runners sped eight miles down Mount Baker Highway. At the end of that leg, bikers took over for a 36-mile course through towns and forest and over a small mountain pass.

As bikers finished, two-person canoe teams got ready for their 18-mile runs on the Nooksack River, but difficult weather conditions led race organizers to cancel this leg.

After the nine-mile cross-country bike portion, sea kayakers took over for the final five-mile leg, and Bellingham Squadron members went to work.

The kayakers would paddle from Bellingham’s Squalicum Harbor to the middle of Bellingham Bay, make a 330-degree port turn and head toward the old Georgia-Pacific harbor facilities. They would then make a 300-degree starboard turn just off the harbor before cruising along the shore and ringing the finishing bell at Marine Park in Fairhaven.

Competitors’ skill levels varied. A five-mile race across an unpredictable, choppy bay was potentially dangerous, but the Bellingham Squadron volunteers’ careful monitoring helped allay concerns.

Squadron leader Andy Backus stationed five boats, each with four to six members, at key points along the circuit. Their job was to account for all kayakers as they passed each point. Members worked with the local sheriff’s department, the U.S. Coast Guard, USCG Auxiliary, U.S. Border Patrol and NOAA Fisheries Service. These agencies used high-speed boats and personal watercraft to quickly reach boaters in trouble and to keep non-participants out of the area.

Bellingham Squadron members gathered at 0900 for a briefing on race rules, communications protocols and procedures, and station assignments. The boats received floating buoys to mark the course.

One squadron couple was stationed at the ramp heading down to the water. As competitors carried their kayaks down the ramp, the team noted the numbers and broadcast them to the chasers. Another squadron group at the finish line closed out each team, ensuring that everyone was accounted for.

Gusty 15- to 20-knot southerly winds kicked up a 2- to 3-foot chop on the bay. The highest waves were just outside the harbor breakwater. After a test ride, squadron member Larry Bussinger, part of the event organizing team and a strong competitor himself, decided that the open-water portion of the course might be dangerous, so he suggested a shortened three-mile course. Once this suggestion was accepted, Backus changed location and moved Erik Senuty, on Donna Jean, closer to the breakwater as an interim course marker. Changing course mid-race required considerable cooperation and communication between officials and racers.

At 1315 the first cross-country bike rolled in the Squalicum Harbor area and passed the chip to the kayaker. As shouts of “Runner coming!” echoed across the area, the kayaker sprinted to grab his or her boat, carried it down the ramp and entered the water with help from Sea Scout volunteers. By 1400, kayakers were streaming in every minute or two. At the peak, 30 racers waited in line to get down to the water as their numbers were quickly broadcast and recorded. All kayakers had left the hill above the ramp by 1615.

By 1900, all teams had finished or quit, and another safe, successful Ski to Sea was over. Squadron members look forward to participating in this extraordinary event next year.