BELFAST, Maine — Leigh Dorsey really likes to row. Good thing, too, because starting later this month, the Belfast woman will be spending an awful lot of time in her boat.
Dorsey, 37, and her sister Clare Dorsey, 31, of Ledyard, Connecticut, are competing in the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile annual ocean race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska.
It’s not just any race — and it won’t be easy. The Dorsey sisters will row in a two-person boat with sliding seats through the Inside Passage, a coastal route that weaves through the islands of the Pacific Northwest coast. Along the way, they’ll camp on the coast and eat food that they packed ahead of time. It will likely take them nearly three weeks to do, along a route that is beautiful but fraught with danger.
Race organizers don’t mince words when they describe the Race to Alaska, which awards the first team to cross the finish line $10,000 and the second team a set of steak knives.
“It’s like the Iditarod, on a boat, with a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter, or eaten by a grizzly bear. There are squalls, killer whales, tidal currents that run upwards of 20 miles an hour, and some of the most beautiful scenery on earth,” organizers wrote on the race website. “This isn’t for everyone.”
The race, which prohibits the use of motors, is much more about fortitude and endurance than prizes. In 2019, the last year the race was held before it went on a pandemic hiatus, 45 teams were accepted, but only 25 finished.
But the Dorsey sisters, racing on team “Don’t Tell Mom,” believe it is for them. They hope to be the first all-female team to finish the race under their own power and without a sail. This year, though, there is another all-female rowing team. The other team, “Let’s Row Maybe?” includes Canadian Olympic rower Carling Zeeman, so the competition to be the first boat across could be stiff.
“I’m really excited just to be out there,” Leigh Dorsey, who raced in 2019 with her partner, Dameon Colbry, said. “But also, I know it’s going to be really hard.”
Don’t worry — their mom does, in fact, know what her daughters are up to. But that doesn’t mean she likes it.
“She’s concerned about a lot of things. Bears, hypothermia, waves, ships and the multitude of things that can go wrong,” Leigh Dorsey said. “She’s supportive. I couldn’t say if she’s glad we’re doing it. But I think she’s proud of us.”
Leigh Dorsey started rowing in high school in the lakeside New York State town of Cazenovia. She had an aptitude for the sport and continued racing for her first two years at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. After graduation, her first posting was in Cordova, Alaska, where she worked on a 225-foot long buoy tender.
It was rugged, and it suited her.
“I was 22 years old, and there were a lot of steep learning curves, but I really felt pretty natural at that,” Leigh Dorsey said.
After two years in Alaska, she moved to Belfast in 2009 for her next post at the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Detachment there. She spent three years inspecting ships, responding to marine casualties and more. After her stint was over, she decided to leave the Coast Guard and stay in Belfast, where she is raising her two daughters, Rose, 11 and Della, 8.
Eventually, she joined Come Boating!, the Belfast community organization dedicated to getting people onto the water. Through the group, she made friends, found a job and met Colbry, with whom she began going on long-distance rowing trips.
“We discovered we both really liked heading off for a long ways and challenging ourselves to see how far we could go,” she said.
The Dorsey sisters will be using what Leigh Dorsey learned during her first Race to Alaska with Colbry this time around. For instance, on that trip, they packed their boat with drybags full of gear and provisions including a locator beacon, a small solar charger, a VHF radio, bear spray, an air horn, a water filter, oatmeal, beef jerky, candy and lots and lots of Clif Bars.
It’s important, but not easy, to eat enough food to fuel their bodies for the race.
“It’s hard to get in enough calories in a day because you’re constantly moving,” she said.
The sisters will also be on the lookout for wildlife, which can be pretty dramatic along the route. Leigh Dorsey and Colbry saw fresh bear prints but didn’t encounter any bears. And they also saw humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, seals, sea otters and even had a sighting of a coastal sea wolf, a rare swimming wolf that lives on the coast of British Columbia and spends much of its time in the water.
And they’ll exalt in the act of rowing.
“That was the best part for me. It felt like living in a way that humans have evolved to live. Just a lot of physical activity and a lot of using all of your senses,” she said. “Feeling the wind and the waves and kind of just being an animal in your environment.”
The race has two stages, with the first a 40-mile open water crossing from Port Townsend, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia. The crossing is tricky, with two sets of shipping lanes, and is a qualifier for the full race. It also requires crossing borders.
In Victoria in 2019, Colbry and Dorsey were met on the dock by a border patrol officer who was a huge fan of the race. He brought them a homemade pie and greeted them with their team name before they went to have their passports checked.
“It was so nice,” Leigh Dorsey said.
After getting home to Maine after the 2019 race, Leigh Dorsey was fired up by the idea of being part of the first human-powered all-female team to finish the race, and began organizing a group of women in March 2020 to do that. But the pandemic halted that plan.
“Through that experience, I started thinking, wait, how about my sister? That would be so much easier than organizing five people,” Leigh Dorsey said.
Clare Dorsey was willing. She is also a graduate of the US Coast Guard Academy, where she works as a professor and rugby coach. Last summer, the two sisters went on a rowing trip together so Clare Dorsey could try it out.
“She was just a natural,” Leigh Dorsey said. “She picked it up as fast as I’ve ever seen anyone pick up rowing.”
During the race, people will be able to follow their progress on Mursu, a custom-built Savo rowing boat whose name means “Walrus” in Finnish. Their website will be updated daily by Clare Dorsey’s wife, Julie Shetterley, and the sisters’ dad, Chuck Dorsey.
Leigh Dorsey said she’s looking forward to the race and to the peacefulness she finds in rowing.
“I think I’m kind of a restless person, my body and my mind both,” she said. “Rowing is so calming for me because I’m in constant motion and my brain is constantly thinking about what the currents are doing, what the waves are doing and following my partner. It just keeps all of my restless parts very busy.”