You, too can race against Olympians and become an insufferable badass zombie kayaker. Let me tell you what it takes…
I tied for last place (Lanterne Rouge) with my wife and our paddling partner in the inaugural Seventy48 race. Seventy48 is a human-powered-only boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend (70 miles), and you have 48 hours to get there.
Other than not having a sail or motor there are very few rules to this race. That first year, there were no classes of boats, no limit on size or crew – if you had a 150 oar trireme, you would have been in the same class as everyone else.
In preparation, we paddled around 100 nautical miles, mostly on the race route, in all weather conditions we could manage: there are no weather delays for Seventy48. We planned, poured over current charts, and played the “what if” game over and over. We made sure to paddle the entire race route by race day, but since we were fitting training around our work schedules, this involved a lot of dropping off a car somewhere, driving back, and kayaking to the car.
Sometimes the extended forecast would be wrong. We’d drop off the car, but the conditions would worsen and we couldn’t cover that distance in the time we had available. That happened several times, so we had plans B, C, and D. We had friends pick us up, we used Uber a couple of times, and once we even called it before we launched and drove back to get the car.
We bought gear. We bought a lot of gear. I mean, there are several companies I think we single-handedly supported prepping for this race. Some of the gear didn’t end up being as useful as we had hoped and it didn’t get used. We did kayak camping training runs and timed ourselves setting up camp, cooking food, tearing down camp, and loading and unloading the kayaks. We added a time margin so we wouldn’t get behind. We used this information to make a detailed plan (well, my wife and paddling partner did; I’m more of a, “grab your gear, let’s go” kinda person). Our plan had primary stops, stretch stops if we are faster than average, stops if we are slower than average, and emergency stop areas where we could retire from the race and get picked up.
We had a system of colored paracord with knots to distinguish what dry bag went where (what hatch and what kayak). We used a different color for each boat, and the number of knots told us which hatch. The first drybag in the bow and stern had extra long cords so we could easily bring everything to the hatch without tipping the kayak or laying prone to shove an arm in to grab something.
So, what do you need? Planning, training, gear, the will to paddle, the ability to keep your mouth shut when you’re tired and cranky, the ability to cheer on your friends no matter what, and trust in your friends and yourself.
We sorted out what charts we would need, figured out where this mountain of gear was going to go and got ourselves to the start line. The goal was to finish, without my wife hating her life the entire time (her words). At no time did we consider paddling through the night. The race started at 5:30 p.m. on June 11, 2018. None of us has ever been a kayak racer. We knew it was going to be difficult, but it was something to reach for, with the currents in the Puget Sound and the combined average speed of our training paddles, we figured 30 hours of paddling to get to the finish in Port Townsend. If we stopped for the 5 hours of darkness each night in early June, we would have 8 hours to spare. That was the plan, anyway.
The first leg of our journey went better than planned. We arrived at Lisabeula park 20 minutes ahead of schedule, set up camp, had dinner, and got to bed only an hour late. I’m still not sure where we lost that hour. We got up with our alarms at 3:45 a.m. and set about repacking the kayaks. We had practiced this, but not in the dark, while sleep-deprived. That was an error. We launched a bit more than an hour late for our only full day of paddling during the race.
The sun was up, the air was crisp, and there was a light wind out of the Northwest – not strong, but going the wrong way. We crossed Colvos passage to try and duck out of the wind a bit and made our way to Blake Island, our scheduled snack and potty break where we heard the winners were already done. They obviously neglected their beauty sleep.
We left Blake island and headed towards the southern tip of Bainbridge Island. The crossing was a bit choppy, but not bad. We rounded the point and discovered that we had been in the lee of the island and we were now facing a fairly strong North wind, with miles of fetch to stir up the water and nowhere for us to hide. We decided to head towards the shore to our West, it looked slightly less choppy and has the additional psychological effect of being able to tell that you are moving when you are so close to shore.
We pulled into Eagle harbor to have lunch and another potty break. We all felt defeated; we were now more than 3 hours behind schedule. None of us said anything like that – we kept our negative thoughts to ourselves and tried to cheer each other up.
After a longer-than-planned stop, we had to motivate ourselves for the upcoming slog into the wind. As we exited Eagle Harbor, we discovered the wind had dropped. The water was calm, and it was time to cover some distance. We headed to our next stop, Fay Bainbridge park at the north tip of the island. On our way to Fay Bainbridge, we were stalked by a harbor seal. At one point, it was swimming in formation between my wife’s kayak and our paddling partner’s, and was so close they could see it had claws on its flippers. When we stopped at Fay Bainbridge park we snacked, stretched, and discussed our options. While we were there I noticed it was 5:30. We had done our first 24 hours.
Crossing from Bainbridge Island to Jefferson Point, I had a harbor porpoise that was on an intersecting course come up to me, parallel me, then go under my kayak and along its merry way, I’m certain that it knew I was a bit loopy from sleep deprivation and more than 12 hours of paddling that day alone and was messing with me. They usually don’t get that close… usually.
We reached Kingston where we had planned to stop, but we decided to bypass Kingston and head to Eglon beach. We had never landed at Eglon beach before. We had paddled past it, and my wife and I drove to it to check it out, along with other alternate landing areas. We decided to go for it. Somehow it ended up being a lot farther away than we had anticipated; it took until 11:00 p.m. to get there. We had started paddling at 5:30 a.m. and we were now very tired. We decided that we didn’t want to cook dinner, we just wanted as much sleep as we could get, so we were in the tent by midnight. I was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
We had planned on our sleepy selves not wanting to get up, so we had set a series of alarms to allow us to wake up enough to realize we had to get moving on time. As dawn broke, we were almost finished packing up. The morning was cloudy and very windy, but at least the wind was out of the Southeast. We launched into the 3-foot surf and headed out. Because there was only room on the beach for one kayak to launch at a time we were strung out about a ¼ mile, and tacking to keep the kayaks from being pushed ashore.
We had managed to regroup by the time we got to Point No Point and we got to do a little surfing as we rounded the point. Then we tucked up near the beach to get out of the wind and headed to our next stop at Hansville.
The beach at Norwegian Point County Park in Hansville was already occupied when we arrived. Another racer had broken his oar and was out of the race. We talked for a while as we snacked and picked up his tracker to return it for him. Then we were on our way. We paddled towards Foul Weather Bluff, the landmark, fortunately, didn’t live up to its name. The wind died down, the sea calmed, and we embarked on the largest open water crossing of the race, approximately 6 nautical miles. At the other end, it is time for a much-needed break. We’re running late, so it’s the necessities and back in the water, that is all the time we can afford. The tide will not wait, and there is a canal we want to be on the other side of.
As we enter the canal we find we are a little late, the current is against us at about 2 knots mid-channel, so I hug the east shore, so close my paddle is skipping across the beach, but the current isn’t as bad. It’s doable… just. I paddle hard, I can’t stop, I’m going forward at a slow walking speed, but if I stop for a moment I’m going backward. the channel is a bit more than half a mile long, but with the current against us, it feels like a mile-long sprint. As the canal begins to open up at the north end, the current lessens. I get out of the canal and land on Indian Island, next to the fence where the Naval Base begins. We aren’t on the base, but we are close, armed patrol boats hang out watching us watch them. We grab a quick snack and change the batteries in our VHF radios, this is it, next stop Port Townsend.
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