A year ago, Ashton Hintze attacked the Seventy48 full throttle.
She was the only teenage girl on the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind Yacht Club crew and she was highly motivated for the challenge of paddling a boat 70 miles across the Puget Sound in 48 hours.
Hintze was well prepared for the challenge but admits she was “super anxious,” heading into race day.
“I was like ‘What did I get myself into?’ But when I was actually out there, it was like the best experience for me. I had the best time. I barely felt tired. It was really nice. Then after we didn’t finish, I was like ‘I have to do this again, like no choice. I’ve got to do this again,’” she said in a recent interview.
Hintze, who has a genetic disorder that causes progressive vision loss, is one of two student crew members and a handful of adult leaders who will return to Tacoma, Washington, for their second attempt at the race that organizers say strips away excuses and introduces “difficult beyond the daily concept of difficult.”
Last year, the crew of students, some with visual impairments and others deaf or hard of hearing, and their adult chaperones paddled about 50 miles before having to pull out of the race.
While the USDB Yacht Club was stopped at Point No Point on the northeastern tip of Kitsap Peninsula, they were approached by a race official who warned the crew about the treacherous conditions ahead, which included 6-foot swells and whitecaps.
They were not told they had to exit the race but the conditions were such “we didn’t even have to make the decision. It was like nature made it for us,” said Adam Billings of the Utah Schools for the Deaf, one of the adult leaders of last year’s attempt.
After enduring rough seas, bad weather and the physical demands of paddling a wooden boat some of the crew members had built themselves, students were spent and seemingly relieved when the USDB Yacht Club pulled out of the race, Hintze said.
For Hintze, quitting was profoundly disappointing. “I put so much into this. It really mattered to me to reach that finish line,” she said.
Hintze, who just completed her freshman year of college and is recovering from an appendectomy earlier this year, is resolved to finish what she started.
She’s part of a crew of four boys and four girls, most of whom are new to the challenge. Landon Pearce, who is from Summit County, is also returning to compete a second time. All of the students have visual impairments, although one team member is also hard of hearing.
They will be accompanied by eight adult chaperones also evenly split male and female.
“We are truly balanced from start to finish with our boat,” said Ryan Greene, principal of the Utah Schools for the Blind, who along with Billings led last year’s entry in the Seventy48.
Greene said he has unfinished business from last year, too.
“It’s like a ‘Rocky III’ movie. You know, we’ve been knocked down, knocked out and we’ve been waiting a whole year to get back in that boat and then get from Tacoma to Port Townsend. That’s exactly what we’re gonna do,” he said.
Last year, the adult leaders based their expectations around the experiences of a crew representing Platte Valley High School in Bailey, Colorado that competed in the race in 2019. The Colorado students and teachers helped the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind build their boat and trained with them on Lake Powell in spring 2021.
Their advice was helpful “but nothing is a replacement or a substitute from actually being there and doing it yourself. And so, we have gone through with a fine-tooth comb and looked at all of our processes involved, all the mistakes we made last year and made adjustments and discussed it as a crew. ... We are very ready for the race this year,” Greene said.
This year, the crew is using Platte Valley High’s boat, gifted to them after the school decided not to enter the race. The hand-built wooden boat is named Credimus, which is Latin for “we believe.”
Keri Ostergaard-Welch, a teacher of the visually impaired and an adult crew member from last year, said one significant change in the club’s approach to the upcoming race is it will not try to push through without stopping.
“If we need to stop, we can. We have bivy sacks so if the kids need a rest, we’re going to rest. We’re going to take advantage of the full time window. We want to do it safely and we want to do it successfully. If it takes us a little bit longer, so be it, but we’re gonna finish,” she said.
Ostergaard-Welch, who is an endurance athlete, said whatever the endeavor, a competitor might not finish a race or a competition on their first attempt but keeps trying.
“So I guess personally, I am invested in finishing it because I’m that kind of a person. I want to finish what we start. At school, I feel like it’s important to really keep trying, especially because the kids that we work with, especially those that have visual impairments, it’s double hard anyway,” she said.
Ostergaard-Welch said she believes that perseverance is not only a lesson for the students participating in the Seventy48, but for fellow USDB students who will be following the race, which starts on June 10.
“I feel like students that are even just looking on need to know that you may not always finish things the first time, so you just keep going,” she said.
New to the race
Erica Emery, who is a student at Salt Lake’s East High School, is new to the crew and looking forward to the race in June, she said.
“It’s a kind of a relatable group because we all have visual impairments. I think I speak for all of us when I say that it’s a place where we can be ourselves without having to be shunned or have to make adjustments for other people because of being visually impaired,” said Emery, whose visual impairment is linked to albinism.
“So I think it’s just a really great thing that we’re doing right now is just to show other people that, like, we might be visually impaired, we can still do the same things that people can do,” she said.
Emery said training on the boat — the team has paddled both Lake Powell and, more recently, Willard Bay this spring — has taught her that she’s stronger physically than she had imagined and has helped her sharpen her communication skills.
Dillon Dodge, who attends Cyprus High School in Magna, started losing his vision three years ago due to a genetic condition.
Now 16, Dodge said training for the Seventy48 has introduced him to a new hobby that he enjoys and he said he is benefitting from the intense challenge of preparing for a race that pushes the limits of all participants.
“That was like the first time that I learned that I really like to push myself,” he said, adding, “It’s a huge goal and I can’t wait to go out next month and complete the race.”
Recently, the USDB Yacht Club met at Willard Bay’s Pelican Beach for an overnight training run. After assembling the catacanoe and carrying it to shore, which some crew members say is the most taxing aspect of the activity, they gathered in a circle for a prayer before launching the boat as the sun set.
Greene prayed for their strength, safety and for their families waiting for them at home.
Then the circle closed in tighter for a cheer.
And what did they cheer for as they prepared to shove off for an overnight journey on the lake with temperatures expected to dip into the 40s?
“Let’s stay warm!” they shouted in unison.