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Utah deaf, blind students’ 70-mile boat race cut short by rough water, weather

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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 March 27 during training for a 70-mile boat race. The race in Washington state was cut short by rough water and weather.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After paddling an adventure-filled 50 miles of a 70-mile boat race across the Puget Sound this weekend, a crew representing the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind withdrew from the race Saturday night.

“It was almost like we didn’t even have to make the decision. It was like nature made it for us,” said Adam Billings of the Utah School for the Deaf, who has 25-plus years experience as a mariner.

The crew made it to Point No Point on the northeastern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula where they were warned by a race official about the conditions ahead, which included 6-foot swells and whitecaps.

Ryan Greene of the Utah School for the Blind said the race official told them if they proceeded from Point No Point to Port Townsend, where the race concludes, it could potentially become a Coast Guard emergency with 12 people in the water.

“So we’re saying ‘Are you officially telling us to stop? Are we out?’ “ Greene said.

The race official said it was the crew’s call but added “we’re really worried for you,” Greene recounted.

Pulling out of the race wasn’t the outcome the crew had hoped for but Billings, who is a tall ship captain, said the decision was “prudent and right.”

The same race officials who had warned them about the conditions ahead told the crew that they had “made it farther than any of us thought that you would.”

Kahnrad Koontz, a pre-k student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, puts his handprint on All Hands on Deck.

Kahnrad Koontz, a pre-k student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, puts his handprint on All Hands on Deck, a boat built by students and staff, outside of the Openshaw Education Center in Millcreek on April 20. The school’s yacht club took part in the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, Washington, but was unable to finish the race Saturday night.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The USDB Yacht Club, aboard their self-built 36-foot Dragon boat dubbed All Hands on Deck, traveled farther than many teams in the race. More than half that entered either didn’t finish or start the race, according to the Seventy48’s race results.

The weather and rough water wasn’t the crew’s only challenge. About 20 miles into the race, a student crew member experienced intense back pain. He and an adult chaperone were taken to the hospital.

The crew radioed for help and the decision was made to take the student, who has progressive hearing loss in both ears, and a chaperone, who is blind, off the boat and ferry them to a hospital. The student suffered a muscle strain and is OK, Billings said.

Once the medical evacuation was completed, the remaining crew members resumed the race.

“I think it was the race chairman who said ‘You know, the fact that you’re getting back out on the water after all that, we didn’t even expect you to do that so good on you for continuing to go,’ ” Billings said.

At times, All Hands on Deck moved efficiently through the water, at some points clocking 18- to 19-minute miles and the crew had the opportunity to enjoy the sunrise over Seattle.

At other times, the tides worked against them and it took 45 minutes to paddle 1 mile.

The conditions were challenging, too, between the humidity and night chill on the water and later, getting drenched with rain and water slopping over the sides of the boat.

“We were hungry for real food. We had wind, and it was like we had pushed our students as much as we could safely. If we went on, it would be another 11 hours into the night without sleep, without decent food, without warmth and trying to keep a boat afloat. That’s just imprudent,” Billings said.

Some students wanted to finish the race but once the decision was made, the superintendency of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind ferried the group to a restaurant for a hot meal.

When the group returned to the point to break down the boat, the vessel’s two pontoons were swamped.

“They were filled with sand and water and I thought ‘OK, we’re really done now.’ It was just a Herculean effort just to get the boats out of the sand and you know, that was a great finish to a great race,” Billings said.

The race itself was part of a longer journey, which started with the nascent USDB Yacht Club building its own boat with the help of Colorado’s Platte Canyon High School, which entered and completed the race in 2019, and finished this year’s race in 13th place.

The two teams trained together on Lake Powell in March, and the USDB crew also took trial runs on Willard Bay and Utah Lake.

“We’ve really accomplished everything that we set out to accomplish. We have fought through these hard, hard things,” Billings said. “We have a sturdy boat that made it where it needed to go.”

Greene said he was moved by the resilience of the student crew members, who after enduring horrible weather and water conditions, watching the Coast Guard remove contestants suffering hypothermia from the course and the medical evacuation of one of their crew members, they still wanted to finish the race.

Before departing on what turned out to be their final five miles on the course, the crew huddled together for a prayer, he said.

“It was really moving, just having a moment where we were asking for strength and then for the clarity of mind because we didn’t know what the next few hours was going to hold. Are we going to keep going or not? We asked for clarity of mind to be able to make a good decision and to keep people safe,” Greene said.

Despite the early exit, the team made believers out many of their fellow contestants, race organizers and spectators.

“We turned a lot of heads showing up here in Tacoma and racing as far as we did and having such memorable adventures all along the way. It’s been amazing,” Billings said.

“We blew (away) everybody’s preconceived notion of what our experience was going to be. Everybody at that race knew that we had earned our stripes and we had earned our salt so that that made me very proud. As a mariner, we did what we could and our students did what they could and they did awesome.”

The crew has unfinished business and intends to return next year to finish the race, he said.

“I just see this as kind of an ongoing narrative,” Greene said. “I can’t describe it any better than this, it’s kind of like a Rocky III situation. Rocky goes down and then he goes back to the drawing board and trains up properly and ends up taking it. It’s a good comeback story coming up next year.”

Billings said after all the small group had been through this year, capped by the worst weather in the history of the race, “I really thought that at the end of this, I’d be like ‘I never want to see this body of water again or this boat again.’

“But not being able to finish, it’s left a taste in my mouth like we need the opportunity to see this through.”