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Landon Pearce, a visually impaired 10th grader at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, paddles with his team on Lake Powell.
Landon Pearce, a visually impaired 10th grader at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, paddles with his team on Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. They are training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile-human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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The inspirational story of how 7 blind, deaf Utah students get ready to do the ‘seemingly impossible’

Race challenges teams to pedal, paddle or row 70-mile course on Puget Sound in 48 hours

It was the All Hands on Deck’s maiden voyage and the crew was struggling to keep the self-built vessel on course on Lake Powell.

It was the first time the crew from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind had paddled together on a boat, any boat. The weight distribution on the two pontoons crafted in Salt Lake City was off and the relative paddling strength of the crew members was still unclear.

So the crew had to devise a solution on the fly.

“So we had to switch places in the middle of the lake, jump from one boat to the other and it was pretty interesting,” said Noah Mason, 17.

Considering the chill of that late March morning on Lake Powell and the slippery, narrow boards that connect the boat’s two pontoons, the walk would be treacherous for the most experienced boater.

Mason, a kid from landlocked Manti in Utah who is legally blind, traipsed across the board without hesitation.

Noah Isaac Mason, who is legally blind due to retinoschisis, crosses a slippery, narrow plank to change positions and redistribute weight in the boats as members of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind Yacht Club train on Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. They are training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash.
Noah Isaac Mason, who is legally blind due to retinoschisis, crosses a slippery, narrow plank to change positions and redistribute weight in the boats as members of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind Yacht Club train on Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. They are training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Then again, Mason and other student members of the newly formed Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind Yacht Club, have varying degrees of sight and hearing. They problem-solve to overcome barriers every day.

On June 4, the 14-person crew will take part in a next-level challenge: competing in the Seventy48, a boat race between Tacoma and Port Townsend, Washington. All boats must be human powered, which means participants must pedal, paddle or row the 70-mile course in 48 hours.

“It’s not something you would really think a bunch of hearing impaired and visually impaired kids could do, but we’ll figure it out. We’re going to go there and finish the race. I just wanted to not only inspire us but inspire other people to know that they can do crazy things, too,” said student crew member Ashton Hintze.

Hintze said the challenge of training for and participating in the Seventy48 particularly appealed to her as she prepares to graduate from Brighton High School this spring.

“I was definitely planning on this being like my big finish,” said Hintze, 17, the only female student crew member.

“Yeah, that’s why I joined. I kind of need something like that right now in my life,” said Hintze.

Ryan Greene, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind principal and director of blind campus programs, left, Brandon Watts, the school’s director of outreach visions services, and Ashton Hintze, a 17-year-old who is legally blind due to Stargardt disease, practice using metronome bracelets to sync up their paddling strokes as they train for the SEVENTY48 at Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. The SEVENTY48 is a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Ryan Greene, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind principal and director of blind campus programs, left, Brandon Watts, the school’s director of outreach visions services, and Ashton Hintze, a 17-year-old who is legally blind due to Stargardt disease, practice using metronome bracelets to sync up their paddling strokes as they train for the SEVENTY48 at Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. The SEVENTY48 is a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Entering the Seventy48 was the brainchild of the Utah School for the Blind’s Ryan Greene, who heard about the race during an episode of the Dirtbag Diaries podcast.

“Ryan showed up in my office and said ‘Hey I just heard about this high school that built a boat and they went and did this race. Can we do that?’” said Adam Billings, of the Utah School for the Deaf.

But it wasn’t just training for a marathon boat race, it would also involve building a wooden boat with deaf and blind students using hand and power tools.

Greene said it was the sort of challenge that drew him and Billings into teaching deaf and blind students.

“We love to seek out opportunities for experiential activities that you know are seemingly impossible. Given proper training and scaffolding, instruction and support, we know that our students can do this. They may not think they can do it right now. We know they can,” Greene recently told members of the Utah State Board of Education, which is also the governing board for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind.

Greene knew he’d find a willing partner in Billings, who is a tall-ship captain and has extensive experience sailing and building boats.

After getting the OK and funding from administrators, Billings told Greene “we have to build some boats.”

They reached out to the teachers at Platte Canyon High School, which competed in the Seventy48 in 2019. The crew from Bailey, Colorado, which is about 35 miles southwest of Denver, finished 23rd among 109 entries in their self-built boat. The team completed the course in 17 hours and 42 minutes.

Adam Billings, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of deaf outreach and online programs, right, hugs Ashton Hintze, a 17-year-old who is legally blind due to Stargardt disease, telling her how awesome she did after a long day of paddling at Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. They are part of the school’s yacht club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Adam Billings, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of deaf outreach and online programs, right, hugs Ashton Hintze, a 17-year-old who is legally blind due to Stargardt disease, telling her how awesome she did after a long day of paddling at Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. They are part of the school’s yacht club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Greene and Billings found willing partners in the Colorado crew, which will compete in this year’s race, too. Last year’s race was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PCHS Yacht Club helped the Utah club obtain boat plans and provided technical support, labor and moral support throughout.

“They donated about a third of our boat because they weren’t using the stern and the bow from their boats,” Greene said.

The Utah crew’s boat, christened All Hands on Deck, was constructed at the Openshaw Education Center in Salt Lake City, where a few students from Jean Massieu School of the Deaf worked on it during lunch periods and after school.

“They’ve seen these pieces of wood that we got from the hardware store turn into an actual boat,” Billings said.

Ali Al-Saeedi, who is hearing impaired, helps build a boat that students from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind will paddle from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash., in the SEVENTY48 race, at the Openshaw Education Center in Millcreek on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.
Ali Al-Saeedi, who is hearing impaired, helps build a boat that students from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind will paddle from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash., in the SEVENTY48 race, at the Openshaw Education Center in Millcreek on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

One student, Ali Al-Saeedi, became fully immersed in the boat building knowing he would not be participating in the race.

“That kid was here every day,” Billings said.

Student crew members Benjamin Lehnig, of Cache County, and Landon Pearce, of Summit County, occasionally traveled to Salt Lake City to work on the boat, too.

Pearce, who is home-schooled, learned about the boat build and the Seventy48 race through school’s outreach program. The project sounded like a fun way to learn new skills, make friends and learn more about boating, he said.

“There’s a lot to learn about the boat, like what goes into it and being able to say, ‘No I built that’ and know what went into it. Once you get it out on the water, it was really cool to actually see it float and work well,” he said.

Pearce, who has low vision, said he is accustomed to using power tools from working with his father and older brother on their family farm outside Kamas.

One exception was a power planer.

When Billings asked Pearce if he knew how to use it, Pearce replied: “I haven’t used it. How hard can it be?”

After about two minutes of instruction from Billings, Pearce was planing wood.

Brandon Watts, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of outreach visions services, left, helps Isiah Smith feel how pieces of a boat built by fellow students are joined together on Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Friday, March 26, 2021. Smith, who is 17, was born completely blind with bilateral retinal detachment. They are part of the school’s yacht club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash.
Brandon Watts, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of outreach visions services, left, helps Isiah Smith feel how pieces of a boat built by fellow students are joined together on Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Friday, March 26, 2021. Smith, who is 17, was born completely blind with bilateral retinal detachment. They are part of the school’s yacht club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Helping hands

In addition to weekly phone calls between the educators, the Colorado crew and some of the students’ parents traveled to Utah in early February to help teachers and students build their boat and more recently, train with them on Lake Powell.

Seventeen Colorado teens, who are regular education students from a school of about 225 students, pitched in with open hearts and minds, said Platte Canyon High School teacher Steve Hanford, who along with fellow educator Kip Otteson founded the school’s yacht club in 2019.

“When we went to Utah, I’d never seen them work so hard. They were so excited to just give to them and get as much done as they possibly could, which was really fun to see because students don’t often think outside of themselves. They really did and to see them do that was cool,” Hanford said.

The Utah crew had the plywood and other lumber cut according to the boat plans in advance of the Colorado team’s arrival.

“They helped our students stitch and glue all the components together and we had boats by the end of the day. It was a really fun experience, and we’ve loved just kind of interacting with them,” Billings said.

Platte Canyon student Bryce Kunkel, 17, said working with the deaf and blind students was “probably the most humbling experience I think I’ve ever had. You have these preconceived notions of people with disabilities and like, you know, they need a bunch of help and stuff, and that’s just what people think. That’s totally wrong.”

As he worked with a blind student building the boat, Kunkel observed that “he’d just feel everything with his bare hands. You’d be like, ‘Move 2 inches over’ and he’d move exactly 2 inches over. It’s just so humbling.”

Superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind Joel Coleman said the collaboration between the two schools has been one of the most gratifying aspects of the experience.

“There’s so many good things, but we have kids teaching kids, and they’re not even our kids in the state. They’re from out of state and that, to me, is just awesome,” he said.

The teacher leaders of both teams envisioned that building boats, training and participating in the race would give the students many practical skills such as using tools, measuring, following plans and working as a team.

Kunkel said the race taught him a lot about himself, particularly as his team paddled across the finish line at Port Townsend in 2019.

“It was kind of life-changing. I mean at the end of it you were so tired you just wanted to stop and just sleep,” he said.

“Looking back on it, it’s very powerful. You rowed 70 miles. I mean rowing even 10 miles is a crazy thing to do and it’s so hard on the body. Seventy miles, that’s crazy.”

Ashton Hintze, a 17-year-old who is legally blind due to Stargardt disease, warms up after a sunrise polar plunge on Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Sunday, March 28, 2021. Hintze is the only female student in the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind Yacht Club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Ashton Hintze, a 17-year-old who is legally blind due to Stargardt disease, warms up after a sunrise polar plunge on Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Sunday, March 28, 2021. Hintze is the only female student in the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind Yacht Club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In her element

Seventy48 is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on June 4. That means the teams will depart a couple hours before sunset and paddle through the night.

Hintze said starting the race as the sun sets may be an advantage for her with her particular vision impairment.

“I don’t see that well during the day, but I see much better at night.” she said. “I’m kind of excited for the nighttime because I’m in my element. That’s when I can see best. That’s when I excel at everything, so I’m pretty excited thinking about it.”

Kunkel said the race is grueling because the boat needs to stay in constant motion. When paddling for hours on end in the heat of the day and in the dark, keeping rhythm becomes a steep challenge due to the physical exertion and waning concentration, he said.

“It’s hard to stay in sync when you can hear and you can see,” he said.

A boat full of people paddling is loud, Kunkel said. For someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, “it might not be as distracting and you could focus a little more.”

Platte Canyon’s strategy was to rotate short breaks among the paddlers so they could snack, get something to drink, adjust their layers and resume paddling. Then, every three hours, everyone on the team would get a full 20 minutes to rest. Anyway, that was the plan.

But the changing tides meant the crew had to paddle against the tide in the dark, and to start, the students weren’t consuming as much fuel as they needed, Hanford said.

“Almost to a T, everyone just curled up and went to sleep on the bottom of the boat,” Hanford said on Dirtbag Diaries.

Change the narrative

Aside from boat building and team building, Hanford said he and Otteson had another motivation when they entered the race in 2019.

“We wanted to make some news that was positive,” he said.

If enough people learned about their students building a boat and taking on a grueling 70-mile race, maybe when they Googled Platte Canyon High School that the top 10 results wouldn’t all be about a group of female students who were taken hostage and sexually assaulted by an armed intruder at the school in 2006. One student was shot and killed by the gunman, who died by suicide.

Peyton Benjamin Koehl, a student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, stands behind Adam Billings, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of deaf outreach and online programs, as Billings laughs giddily when he realizes they are far behind schedule and don’t even know where their life jackets or paddles are on Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. They are part of the school’s yacht club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Peyton Benjamin Koehl, a student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, stands behind Adam Billings, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of deaf outreach and online programs, as Billings laughs giddily when he realizes they are far behind schedule and don’t even know where their life jackets or paddles are on Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. They are part of the school’s yacht club, which is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The boat race presents an opportunity “to kind of change that narrative a little bit,” Hanford said.

This year, the team will compete in a catacanoe with a pedal drive that has proven to be much faster than their inaugural vessel named Credimus, which roughly translated is Latin for “We believe.”

“We’re hoping to finish fast and keep an eye on the blind and deaf school and be on the pier to cheer them on when they finish. The kids are really excited to do that,” he said.

Getting it together

When All Hands on Deck arrived at Lake Powell for its trial run and training, the boat had never been fully assembled.

The final construction was rushed due to the bad weather and because the stench of epoxy used to seal the pontoons was starting to overwhelm other users of the Openshaw Education Center, so the crew had to wrap up its work in a hurry.

The crew quickly drilled holes to attach akases, the long boards that connect the two pontoons, painted it and “let it sit and and bake in the cold underneath the carports for two days before we put it in a trailer to haul it down there,” Billings explained.

When the crew arrived at Lake Powell’s Lone Rock Beach, they discovered the drill holes didn’t line up correctly.

“Luckily we had some tools there and we got together as a team and that helped us gel. I think that was the first time, besides the car ride down, that was where were we like, ‘OK this is what we’re going to be riding on and let’s do it right,’ ” Billings said.

Adam Billings, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of deaf outreach and online programs, sprays sparkling cider over his teammates as they get ready to launch their handmade boat onto the water for the first time at Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. The school’s yacht club is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Adam Billings, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind director of deaf outreach and online programs, sprays sparkling cider over his teammates as they get ready to launch their handmade boat onto the water for the first time at Lone Rock Beach at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. The school’s yacht club is training for the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Colorado crew brought the akases “because we didn’t have time to make them” and helped the Utah team attach them to the pontoons, he said.

One Colorado crew member, who hadn’t been part of the boat build, approached the Utah crew to ask, “Can I help you guys put these on?” Billings said.

“He led that project with the other students that whole night. He just stayed up with them and they were drilling holes in our boat. We just kind of let him go at it. It was really neat to see our team come together and their team come and help us. ... That was a good unifying activity for us all to see our boat go together and then the next day to take it out on the water was awesome.”

Finding their stroke

Once on Lake Powell, the USDB Yacht Club crew struggled for hours to find its stroke, said Peyton Koehl, who attends Canyon View High School in Cedar City.

Koehl, 17, said he watched the Colorado team paddle in unison and he attempted to copy their technique.

The Utah team tried metronome bracelets that emit a vibration to help the team keep rhythm. Otherwise, deaf and hard of hearing students followed visual cues, some counting strokes and then moving their paddles to the opposite side of the boat. One crew member tapped another teammate on the shoulder when it was time to switch. Blind and visually impaired student followed voice commands.

Ryan Greene, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind principal and director of blind campus programs, shows a metronome bracelet to help sync paddling strokes for students and staff as they train for the SEVENTY48 at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. The SEVENTY48 is a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Ryan Greene, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind principal and director of blind campus programs, shows a metronome bracelet to help sync paddling strokes for students and staff as they train for the SEVENTY48 at Lake Powell on Saturday, March 27, 2021. The SEVENTY48 is a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Wash. Members of the yacht club built their boat for the race by hand.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“You don’t really know how to work with each other or communicate, but you find a connection and it feels like you can do anything,” said Koehl, who has progressive hearing loss in both ears.

Cache Valley’s Lehnig, who has a visual impairment, said he learned a lot about working as teammates.

“You’ve got to be patient with other people. We had to learn how to be in tune with each other because when you’re rowing, you can’t just be off on your own. You know, you have to get in the rhythm,” he said.

After the team’s first training run at Lake Powell, Lehnig feels stronger mentally and physically.

“I feel like I can actually do this now instead of just like randomly doing 70 miles for 48 hours,” explaining that prior to this experience, he had only paddled a few miles on Boy Scout trips.

“This is going to be a real challenge, you know.”

Whether the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind students contributed by building the boat or training to paddle it 70 miles in the Puget Sound, Greene said he hopes all experience personal growth and stretch beyond their perceived limits.

The school system wants all of its students to have some ownership in the project. Earlier this week, every educator, staff member and student from preschool on up was invited to press their painted handprints on All Hands on Deck.

“The main point that we’re driving home is, that no matter what you want to do or where you want to go, it’s possible. It takes hard work and dedication and a plan. But I want every single person on this boat with me afterward to look at any other mountain they have in their life and go, ‘It can’t be as hard as the Seventy48,’” Greene said.

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