Students representing Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind complete a 70-mile boat race in 36 hoursJul 01, 2022 09:08AM ● By Lizzie Walie
By Lizzie Walje | [email protected]
After a prolonged battle spanning more than a year in the making, a group of students sanctioned by the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind finally made landfall at Port Townsend, Washington, after an impressive 70-mile trip in the Puget Sound.
The team consisted of eight students: Landon Pearce, Josh Taylor, Dillon Dodge, Tyler Workman, Hannah Hart, Ashton Hintze, Erica Emory and Emily Groves. The team also had eight adult chaperones: Alex Westergard, Vince Dimov, Matt Houston, Ryan Greene, Rikki Meyers, Michelle Ward, Keri Ostergaard-Welch and Liz Wood.
“We were the biggest crew out there at 16 participants,” said Greene, who is the director of Blind Campus Programs at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, in addition to crew leader of the expedition. “We really were just a big lawnmower out there, at many points during [the race] we were just pushing right on through.”
The story of this achievement began back in 2021 when Greene came across a story on the Dirtbag Diaries Podcast, where a team of students from Bailey, Colorado’s Platt Canyon High School, recalled their journey navigating the Seventy48 race.
The Seventy48 race, aka 70 miles in 48 hours, first debuted in 2018. Since then, contenders from across the country have tried their hand at navigating the Puget Sound course that begins in Tacoma, Washington and ends in Port Townsend, Washington. According to the official Seventy48 website, “The rules are simple: No motors, no support and no wind.”
Greene began running the idea up the flagpole to superiors, quickly gaining approval to start building a team, a boat, and subsequently training for the 2021 race. “It’s important to note that while all of the students who participated in the race [both in 2021 and 2022] are students with visual and hearing impairments, they are not all students from Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind,” Greene said. “They come from all across the state of Utah.”
After a training schedule that included mentoring from the Platt Canyon Crew, sourcing boat materials, and practicing on Utah lakes, the team embarked on their inaugural journey to participate in the 2021 event. However, due to unforeseen conditions, their dreams were prematurely shattered. “We were highly encouraged by volunteer boats to forfeit the  race,” Greene said. “We were up against 50-degree water, constant 6-foot swells. The students were eager to continue anyway, but it just wasn’t conducive to safety.”
Despite the setback, Greene attributes the forfeiture of the 2021 race as the impetus for coming back stronger to tackle this year’s excursion. “We were let down, but we took it in stride and redoubled our efforts.”
This time around, the team made significant changes in how they approached the task. For starters, they got creative with their mapping capabilities, finding more ways to integrate systems that were friendlier for students with visual impairments. Unlike the 2021 team that featured students with both visual and hearing impairments, the 2022 team was comprised solely of students with visual impairments.
Keri Ostergaard-Welch, a teacher at the school, makes accessible materials as a part of her job. She provided the team with both high-contrast maps and 3D-printed maps featuring Braille. In addition to refined mapping changes, major planning efforts helped make this year’s attempt a success, by including the tracking of currents and tides and planning out places to rest, before the journey.
“This year we were way more organized,” Greene said. “We also made some changes to our boat, making it a little bit longer and a little bit wider.” The boat in question, a catacanoe, was also customized by the team to bolster accessibility. “We had LED lights for those times when we were paddling in the dark. And because this year’s team was strictly visually impaired, we were able to use music to help synchronize our strokes.” This year’s team was also impressively balanced in terms of gender representation. “We had equal parts men and women on the team, that was important to me, to us,” Greene said.
Finally, following hours of training and preparation, the team embarked on this year’s race which began at 7 p.m. on June 10. While the conditions surrounding this year were notably better, there were still plenty of challenges for the team to overcome, including a record-breaking 24-hour rainfall that hit the Seattle area a day before the start of the race.
At certain points energy and morale were high, yet the combination of large swells, lack of sleep, paddling in the dark, and consistent rainfall, plagued the 70-mile journey. In fact, two students had to be evacuated after showing signs of hypothermia. (These students were later able to join their peers at the finish line loop). Despite these challenges, the team prevailed, and after regrouping at their final stopping point, they hit the water, at dawn under the cover of rainfall, before landing shortly after 7 a.m. in Port Townsend. At the finish line, they were greeted by loved ones, food and warm soup. The team completed the 70-mile journey in 36 hours.
“As wonderful as it was to hit that finish line, this is one of those experiences I believe you keep processing for a long time after the fact. What we learned, and the brightest parts of this experience, are yet to come,” Greene said. “Nature doesn’t care who you are, what your abilities are. It’s a very raw and organic experience to be in a place that doesn’t feel like a vacuum or contrived. These kids performed admirably and demonstrated just how truly brave and hardworking they are. We had to fight for every inch of water out there, but we never gave up, and I’m so proud of what we were able to accomplish.”