Kriska crew claims Yukon 800 riverboat victory

Danny Martin

The Yukon 800 Marathon wasn't kind, not even to the two entries that managed to the finish the 800-mile out-and-back riverboat race between Fairbanks and Galena.

The 55-year-old event is considered the toughest and longest event of its kind in the world, and the boats of winning captain Tom Kriska and runner-up captain Clinton Huntington were the only ones up to the challenge.

Kriska's Be-Bi-Bones Express and Huntington's Rivers Edge were the only boats among 14 entries to finish the race on the Chena, Tanana and Yukon rivers. The two crews are scheduled to share in a record $30,000 purse.

Kriska and his crew of navigator Leslie Jones and engineer Vern Stickman arrived at the Chena Pump Campground finish line at 12:56:56 p.m. Sunday. They recorded a two-day total time of 13 hours, 45 minutes, 31 seconds.

"I stayed away from all the shortcuts and I ran the boat consistent and fast on the outside. It just brought more fuel,'' Kriska, a 14-year Yukon 800 veteran who also won in 1996, said at the ceremonial finish at Pike's Landing on the Chena River.

The Rivers Edge crew of Huntington, navigator Joe Cleaver and engineer Dewayne Drake crossed the finish line at 3:07:53 p.m. with an elapsed time of 17:46:12.

Huntingon and Kriska's boats were among six that on Saturday reached the halfway point at Galena, where Huntington has several relatives. The boats departed Galena in a mass restart early Sunday morning.

Kriska's crew completed the final 300 miles with three small holes in the boat's hull, the results of hitting driftwood, which was plentiful in this year's race.

"Coming back from Tanana, Tommy said we're going to have to slow things down but I don't think he slowed down,'' Jones said with a smile.

Two holes were side by side near the middle of the boat and the other hole was near its rear. The latter hole was significant because it brought water into the boat.

"I didn't know we had the hole in the boat until we landed in Tanana,'' Kriska said.

"... When we got to Tanana we just pulled the whole thing out. In one minute, it took on about 30 gallons of water. I looked down and I said, 'What the hell?' It was over my lower unit (of outboard motor).''

The boat, said Kriska, ran fine for the rest of way Sunday despite the holes.

"I think the whole game plan was just go fast enough so no water could come in,'' she added.

The Rivers Edge crew also survived a few disasters during the weekend.

On Saturday, it was running about 65 mph when it encountered nearly seven-foot waves on the Yukon River near Galena, filling the boat to fill and tipping it over. The crew stayed with the boat for about 25 minutes before it was rescued by a race safety boat.

"It was like we were on a surfboard in Hawaii,'' Huntington said.

On Sunday on the Tanana River near Manley, the Rivers Edge hit a log that was hidden by natural foam in the water.

"We were going full blast and we hit it so hard that the motor hit the back of my helmet and it completely knocked the hood off the motor,'' Huntington said. "We regrouped and we kept on going."

Later Sunday, the crew was about 1.5 miles from the Chena Pump Campground when it had to stop to repair the outboard motor's drive shaft. The crew had five tools to use, including an axe and two open-end wrenches -- all of its other tools were lost in Saturday's tip-over.

"I couldn't believe we finished in second place," Huntington said.

"Our motor was under water (Saturday) and when we pulled it out, it was sandy. We never gave up, it was not happening."

Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner