Sometime in the early morning of June 1, Kelley Watson sat in her kayak off Foulweather Bluff north of Kingston, straining to see through the fog and darkness and blasting her air horn.
According to her GPS, a small boat was about 150 feet away and on a collision course right towards her. The boat, a small fishing vessel, heard the horn and changed course.
About the same time and not too far away, Steve Goodson was paddling through the thick fog while trying his hardest to stay awake. And Blake Henson and Andrew Palmer, pedaling their tandem catamaran north of Kelley and Goodsen, struggled with the same fog and chop, waiting for sunrise.
They were isolated but not exactly alone, as three of more than 100 Port Townsend-bound vessels in the western Puget Sound that morning competing in the second-ever SEVENTY48 race.
All night, racers battled high winds, rough waves, thick fog, seaweed, darkness and, of course, their bodies’ pleas for sleep. Out of 117 entries, 96 completed the race.
They had taken off from Tacoma at 7 p.m. the night before and had 48 hours to travel seventy miles to ring the finish bell at City Dock in Port Townsend. The rules are simple: no motors, sails, or support of any kind. When darkness fell, many of the racers pushed on through the night, some only taking pauses on the water to eat and/or sleep.
The early finishers were met with a welcoming crowd of about 30 people waving flags and cheering, along with the echoing voice of the announcer.
As the day went on, the crowd grew. By the time the “Educate-Oars,” a rowboat paddled by Chimacum teachers on a boat built by Chimacum students, arrived at City Dock at about 7:40 p.m., they were met by a crowded dock and serenaded by Port Townsend’s own Unexpected Brass Band.
The SEVENTY48 race was created by the founders of the Race to Alaska (R2AK) last year as a way to expand the competition to more racers and types of vessels.
R2AK race boss Daniel Evans counted one more entry this year than last, and noted that this year saw less outrigger canoes and more solo racers - 73 soloists, by his estimate.
Rowboats, specifically rowing shells designed for racing, dominated.
Team Imua took first place, ringing the finish line bell at 5:49 a.m. The team is made up of Greg Spooner, a physical therapist from Tacoma, and Thiago Silva, a dog groomer from San Francisco who originally hails from Brazil. They rowed a Double Maas rowing scull, an open-water shell that self-bails the way a whitewater raft does.
Spooner and Silva have been rowing for 20 and 16 years, respectively. Both have done races much longer than this, including a voyage from New York to London for Spooner, and one from Monterey, California to Hawaii in a four-man boat for Silva. The two only met two months ago, however, through a mutual rowing friend.
Spooner came third in this race last year, and returned motivated to win. “You don’t come back and do this type of race again just to finish,” he said.
After a rough start involving technical difficulties that left them in last place, the duo spent the next three hours passing the 100-plus other racers, taking the lead shortly after reaching Vashon Island. Spooner found this year’s conditions to be far more challenging than last year. “We had a headwind all the way from Point Defiance to Point No Point, 40 miles, whereas last year it was much shorter. And with the headwind came really challenging sea conditions.”
They ended up finishing seven minutes ahead of the second team, Blister to the Moon. “We got far enough ahead where we could coast a little bit,” Spooner said. “Mostly because we were dead tired and ready to go take a nap.”
Race Boss Daniel Evans was thrilled by the close race at the end. “The first place in all the 70 miles was decided in the last 3 miles,” he said.
Blister to the Moon rang the bell at 5:56 a.m., followed by Wave Forager, a one-man team, at 5:58 a.m. The next finisher, MAAS Adventura, another rowing shell, finished at 7:49 a.m.
Not too far behind, coming in at 7:59 a.m., was Team Idea in their tandem catamaran pedal boat, in which their bicycles sat above the platform. The boat is named after IDEA High School, or the School of Industrial Design, Engineering and Art in Tacoma, at which 31-year-old Blake Henson teaches. His teammate, 37-year-old Andrew Palmer, is a long-time running buddy of his who stepped in when Henson’s wife couldn’t make the race at the last minute. The pair practiced on the boat for 30 minutes before embarking on the 70-mile voyage.
They were almost too exhausted to ring the finish bell. “Port Townsend definitely didn’t appear to be getting any closer for about 45 minutes,” added Palmer. “You can see it from too far away.”
Kelley Watson, a maritime career and technical education teacher at Port Townsend High School, overcame her close call to be the first solo woman to cross the finish line. This was her first year in this race, but she has been kayaking for over 20 years and has completed races such as a 450-miler in the Yukon.
“This was challenging because it was so much faster,” she said. “On the Yukon you can take breaks. We had a lot of headwinds here.”
Not all of the journey was a struggle. Goodson said he was able to enjoy bioluminescence north of Kingston during the night.
Platte Canyon High School Yacht Club, an outrigger canoe paddled by 20 students and teachers from Platte Canyon High School, came from 1,441 road miles away in Bailey, Colorado. The yacht club was started in October of 2018 by a couple of teachers who wanted to give their students an exciting new challenge.
“We wanted them to be able to experience woodworking and making some kind of usable thing, and so we came up with this idea,” said Kip Otteson, a special education teacher.
They decided to order a Fisher Cellway forty-foot Dragon Boat kit, a stitch-and-glue craft made of normal plywood.
The students began construction of the boat in January as part of an afterschool club. The construction was completed in March, and the group commenced training runs at local lakes as well as a full week at Dana Point, California, and an all-nighter from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. at a Northern Colorado Lake. The wild waves at Dana Point and the freezing winter temperatures in Colorado greatly prepared the kids for this journey, teacher David Czeiszperger said.
In 30th place, coming in at 2:13 p.m. was Team Valhalla, a.k.a. Inger Rankins of Port Townsend, who was the first rowed dinghy to cross the finish line. There is no prize for this category, but she received cheers as it was announced that she had beaten her time from last year.
The final racer, Team Rogue Kayaker of Tacoma, pulled into Port Townsend at 11:46 a.m. on June 2, over 40 hours after the starting gun went off. By that time, the pre-R2AK “Ruckus” was commencing at Pope Marine Park.