Familiar finish at Fairhaven: It’s a three-peat for top Ski to Sea race competitor

Birch Equipment won the 51st annual Ski to Sea race Sunday, as the team’s sea kayaker paddled to the beach in Fairhaven and dashed ashore to ring the bell for the third year in a row.

Sea kayaker Jeff Hilburn gave the rope a tug and high-fived spectators who flanked the finish line. Birch Equipment’s team finished the 93-mile relay race — which goes from the Mt. Baker Ski Area to Marine Park — in just over six hours.

“Three in a row, baby!” someone yelled from the crowd waiting to congratulate Hilburn.

Hilburn told The Bellingham Herald that his part of the race was “not so tough” as last year, despite an extremely low tide, a 10-mph headwind and intermittent rain showers during his sprint across Bellingham Bay from Squalicum Harbor to Marine Park.

“It feels good!” to win again, he said.

Boomer’s Drive-in finished second this year, with a time of 6:12:25.3, more than five minutes behind Birch Equipment’s time of 6:07:05.3.

Despite temperatures in the low 50s and occasional rain, hundreds of spectators wandered around Marine Park, ringing cowbells and cheering each team as their kayaker landed on the stony beach. Conditions at the race start were a mixture of rain, snow and sleet as temperatures hovered in the mid-30s at the Mt. Baker Ski Area. Competitors battled wind and rain squalls all day.

At the finish line, food trucks offered Mexican, Filipino, hot dogs, pizza and other street fare. Companies such as Puget Sound Energy and PeaceHealth gave away race-day swag. Music blared, lending to a festival atmosphere.

Spectators at Marine Park in Bellingham, Wash., watch for the sea kayakers to approach the finish line for the annual Ski to Sea race on Sunday, May 26, 2024.
Spectators at Marine Park in Bellingham, Wash., watch for the sea kayakers to approach the finish line for the annual Ski to Sea race on Sunday, May 26, 2024.

Marci Bass of Bellingham was watching from the rocks near the waterfront to a cheer a co-worker’s finish.

“It’s all about community. It’s just a fun event,” Bass told The Herald.

Susan Moen and Billie Emert of Bellingham waited near the shoreline for Moen’s granddaughter, Elena Wolgamot, an Olympic contender.

“I watched a lot of these kids grow up,” Moen told The Herald.

“I’m here to share in the sense of community,” Emert said.

At the finish line, volunteers including Joel Rautiloa were raking piles of seaweed left by a minus 2.4-foot low tide away from the beach where the kayakers haul up.

“This is the first time we’ve seen this,” Rautiola said. He’s been helping at the finish line for “six or seven” years.

“It’s just a wonderful thing to do. (Ski to Sea) is a hoot. You can’t do this anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Ski to Sea is a multi-sport relay marathon that’s run on the Sunday before Memorial Day. It starts with cross-country skiing at the Mt. Baker Ski Area and ends with the sea kayakers at Marine Park in Fairhaven. In between, there are legs for downhill skiing or snowboarding, running, bicycling, canoeing and cyclocross.

First run in 1973, the race took its inspiration from the Mount Baker Marathon that was run in 1911-1913. The race was not held in 2020 and 2021, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual event attracts thousands of participants and spectators alike and serves to unofficially usher in summer in Bellingham.

Some 500 teams were registered this year in several divisions to tackle the course that goes from 4,300 feet in the North Cascades to sea level in Bellingham, race director Anna Rankin said.

Competitors were from across the Northwest and more than 20 U.S. states.