BELFAST — In 2018 Leigh Dorsey was looking for a challenge. The Belfast resident, an avid rower, craved something more after paddling the Maine coast from Kittery to Lubec with partner Dameon Colbry.

“We were sad when it was over,” Dorsey said of their coastal voyage. “We were looking for the next big thing.”

Dorsey found the next big thing, and completed it, vowed never to return, and then did return to make history in The Race to Alaska.

The Race to Alaska is a 750-mile adventure race up Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. Any form of boat is allowed with one significant exclusion: None of the boats can be powered by a motor.  Support crews are also not allowed. Racers, quite simply, are on their own. Nearly half the field fails to finish a race that takes nearly three weeks to complete. Most of the competitors race in sailboats.

“Dameon saw that someone was racing in a kayak,” Dorsey said. “So, we thought we could do it in a rowboat.”

The pair entered the 2019 Race to Alaska and completed the race, with Dorsey coming away with mixed emotions surrounding a significant achievement.

“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Dorsey said. “To be honest, it wasn’t much fun and I was unhappy a lot of the time, but the scenery, wildlife and being out in nature was amazing.”

With The Race to Alaska checked off her list of “next big things,” one might assume Dorsey’s Alaskan Odyssey was complete.  Dorsey also felt that way.

“I said I’d never go back,” Dorsey said.

That sentiment faded.

“I saw that no completely human-powered (row) team that was all-female had ever finished the race. So I wanted to be the first all-female, human-powered team to finish.”

Leigh reached out to her sister Clare, who agreed to join her in the 2022 Race to Alaska.

“I trust her,” Leigh said of her sister. “She’s tough and she never gives up. She didn’t really know how to row, but she’s in great shape and she had the right attitude.”

With the new partnership cemented, they began working out some not-so-minor details.

“She lives in Connecticut,” Leigh said. “We didn’t row much together.”

Leigh gave her sister a crash course in rowing during a four-day, three-night camping trip in the summer of 2021 where the pair traveled from Jonesport to Machiasport and camped each night. They followed that with long rows whenever they could get together.

On June 13, the pair set off from Port Townsend in their 23-foot row boat named Mursu (Finnish for walrus) at 5 a.m. with a large field of competitors. One team, however, caught the sisters’ attention.

“There was another human-powered, all-female team in the race,” Leigh said. “To do what we wanted to do, we had to beat them.”

They, and every other team, were tested early.

The Race to Alaska is divided into two parts. The first portion of the race is a sprint across the Strait of Wanda Fuca, a 40-mile stretch of open water that extends from Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia. This part of the race is called the “proving grounds.” Racers must make it across this section in 36 hours. Those who do not are removed from the race. This year, as racers entered the “proving grounds” the wind began to blow, and the waves began to swell.

“The weather was terrible,” Leigh said. “It’s the toughest rowing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Race officials granted a 24-hour weather reprieve for crossing the proving grounds and the sisters made it by rowing 19 miles on day one and 24 miles the next day.

“It was a good way to break Clare in,” Leigh said. “We had a couple of rest days in between, so it worked out great.”

The second stage of the race traces the coastline from Victoria Bay to Ketchikan, a 700-mile journey that requires careful planning and observation.

“We took enough provisions for 21 days,” Leigh said. “We estimated that we’d need to have 5,000 calories a day. We planned to row 12 hours a day and camp, and then leave early the next day.”

After half a day of rowing up the Alaskan coastline, the pair had to carefully consider where to camp for the night.

“We used a couple of actual campsites the first few nights,” Leigh said. “After that we camped along the shore wherever we could.”

Camp site selection relied on two critical factors.

“The site had to be protected for the boat,” Leigh said. “The high tide line ran up to the rainforest, so we had to find a space for the tent.”

Another, no less significant, factor was the absence of wildlife.

“It’s bear country,” Leigh said. “The last time I did the race, Dameon and I saw a fresh bear print. Clare and I had a bear sighting — biggest black bear I’ve ever seen — but luckily, we were out in the water and the bear was on the shore.”

When camping for the night, the ladies checked the progress of the other all-female, human-powered team, Team LetsRowBaby, on a tracking system provided by the race.

“They were always just a little behind us,” Leigh said. “But, the tracking system requires you to turn it on when you leave and some people don’t turn them on, so it’s hard to trust sometimes.”

The pair settled in for 12 days of 12-hour rows. In the early days of the race’s second stage, both Leigh and Clare developed blisters on their hands. Soon, Clare’s forearms began to swell.

“It didn’t look good there for a few days,” Leigh admitted, “I’ve been rowing most of my life, so I’m used to the blisters. Somehow, Clare rallied, and we moved on.”

Blisters and bears were just a few of the hazards posed during the race.

“I think the marine traffic is probably the most significant hazard,” Leigh, a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard, said. “I know that, sometimes, those boats don’t see you. It was up to us to stay out of their way.”

During their 12-hour rowing sessions, the pair took turns eating and tried to remain focused.

Leigh and Clare Dorsey paddle during The Race to Alaska. Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Ross

“We didn’t talk much when we were rowing,” Leigh said. “We’re both introverts. We had to stay synchronized and that takes a lot of focus. The world is so full of distractions, so it was pretty nice to be quiet and watch the world go by.”

Rowing sessions were punctuated with occasional breaks along the shore.

“The breaks were key,” Leigh explained. “It was something to look forward to, and it got you off your seat, allowed you to move around, snack, change, and be ready for what was next.”

Perhaps just as critical was the inclusion of the other all-female, human-powered row boat team.

“It totally changed the race for us,” Leigh said. “We’re both very competitive. We wanted to beat them.”

Beating that team might be considered a bit of an upset.

“We got to know them a bit when we were waiting out the weather during the first stage,” Leigh said. “One of them was a rower on the Canadian Olympic team and the other had been rowing for a long time.”

Leigh and Clare settled into a pattern of rising at 4 a.m., on the water at 6 a.m. each day. Their competitors chose to rise later, but then row a few more hours than Leigh and Clare.

“There was a temptation to row a little longer,” Leigh said. “We decided that would alter everything else we did, and the water in the early morning is calm, so we just kept doing what we were doing.”

Leigh and Claire Dorsey made history in The Race to Alaska. Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Ross

Each day Leigh and Clare rowed earlier than Team LetsRollBaby, and each evening the other team would shorten the distance.

As the finish approached, Leigh began to distrust the tracker and called an audible, squeezing two days of rowing into one and camping with just 25 miles remaining.

“We couldn’t trust the tracker,” Leigh said. “So, I set an alarm for two hours and we got up and finished the race.”

Leigh and Clare pulled into Ketchikan ahead of Team LetsRowBaby by about 12 hours, becoming the first all-female, human-powered team ever to do so. In total their race lasted just under 16 days.

“For the most part I had fun,” Leigh said. “It was tough and challenging and frustrating, but it was fun. I think Clare was just happy to be done. I’m so proud of her — she didn’t complain at all.”

Leigh is considering another run in The Race to Alaska; who her teammate might be is an open question.

“Clare says she’s done,” Leigh said, “but I said that after my first race, so maybe….”

A movie about The Race to Alaska will be shown at the Colonial Theatre in Belfast on Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 4 and 7 p.m. Between the showings, Leigh Dorsey, accompanied by Mursu, will speak about the race.

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