"Atmospheric river” was the term used for the sheer volume of rainfall in Tacoma, Washington, at 6 p.m. on June 10th an hour before the start of the 2022 SEVENTY48 race. At the moment of that downpour, I was sitting at a bar and grill, less than 50 yards from where my boat was docked at the starting line. I watched out the window as others walked by clad head-to-toe in exposure suits of all kinds. Is that person in the drysuit part of the race or are they just dressed for the weather? It was hard to tell.
Our table at the restaurant was more than a dozen-people deep with mostly family who had flown in from across the country. They came to show their support as I was about to embark on the SEVENTY48 race for the second time.
SEVENTY48 is a human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend (roughly 70 miles) with a 48-hour window in which to finish. Which route racers take is up to them. As the website states, “the rules are simple: no motors, no support, and no wind.” Masochists from around the country show up in Tacoma every June (since 2018) to participate in vessels ranging from tried-and-true to, let’s say, experimental. The starting line is a mixed bag of sea kayaks, rowboats, paddleboards, 20-person canoes, and tandem pedal barges. There are two kinds of racers: those who are in it to win, and those who are in it for the experience and adventure. I am among the latter.
This was the second year that I sat at the restaurant, just above the docks, anticipating the start of the race. The previous year I had entered the race with my 15-year-old wooden sea kayak, a reliable and sea-tested boat that I purchased at the height of the pandemic in 2020. In my first go at the race in 2021, I saw 5′ whitecapped waves, endured 30-knot winds, and tested the merit of my eBay drysuit with DIY patches. Of the 92 teams that started in Tacoma that year, only 43 finished the race, myself included in 32nd place. I arrived in Port Townsend at 12:34 a.m. Sunday, just shy of 30 hours after the starting gun went off. Soaked to the bone and missing critical safety gear after a capsize early in the race, I stood on the dark beach and told myself that once was enough.
Then my resolve wore off. Racers from previous years had recounted their Zen-like experiences on a glassy Puget Sound through the night. Why couldn’t I have one of those? I decided to give the race another try but I wanted a new vessel—something more stable, more comfortable. I spent a few months researching and settled on building an Expedition rowboat designed by Colin Angus of Angus Rowboats. There had been a few of them in the race in 2021, including a pair rowed by a father and daughter who finished minutes ahead of me. The Expedition is not likely what you picture when you think of a rowboat. At boat ramps and on the water, it’s often referred to as “that thing.” “What is that thing?” “How do you paddle that thing?” “Why do you sit backward in that thing?”
The Expedition is long, narrow, and almost completely enclosed by decking, save for the small cockpit where the rower and sliding seat are positioned. Three large, watertight hatches, one at the stern and two forward of the cockpit, provide ample storage for gear as well as buoyancy in the event of a capsize. It’s truly a boat designed to keep you afloat in even the worst conditions. After my experience in 2021, that’s what I was looking for.
As the 7 p.m. race start approached, my nerves heightened as the rain fell. I said goodbye to friends and family as I ran down to the dock for last-minute preparations. The rain had let up quite a bit from the hour prior, bringing a glint of positivity to the evening. As quickly as I was feeling better about things, I was brought down by the sight of my gloves and socks lying on top of the boat, completely soaked from hours of rain. Fortunately, one of my biggest takeaways from year one was to always have spares. I grabbed a dry pair of each, donned my rain jacket and pants, and kicked off the dock to queue with some 130 other boats for the start. All the boats take team names for the race; mine was Team Bogus Journey, a reference to the sequel of the Keanu Reeves classic movie (my father-in-law competed as Team Excellent Adventure in 2018 and 2019).
The Race Boss fired the starting gun at 7 sharp and off we went. One of the coping mechanisms I subscribe to for a long-distance race is chunking sections of the course into smaller, more manageable goals. Each of these chunks has its own characteristics unique from others throughout the 70 miles. The first 7 miles or so, from the start at the Thea Foss Waterway to Owen Beach, took me around 2 hours to cover and was defined by a crowded course, bumping oars, and constantly checking over my shoulder. It’s also where I got a surge of adrenaline to sustain me for the first third of the race. While daylight still hung in the air, the waterway was lined with fans who had come from all over to cheer on the racers as we pushed north. As racers began to spread out and settled into their paces, it could be an opportunity to meet new racers and old friends along the way. I caught up with 2021 race veterans Team Ted (a stand-up paddler) and Team PWS Sea Otter (a sea kayaker) for about an hour as we made our way together through the 2 ½-mile stretch of riprap-lined beach along Ruston Way toward the first checkpoint at Owen Beach, a mile from the tip of thickly forested Point Defiance.
At the checkpoint, racers make sure all the required SPOT satellite trackers are working. The race organizers plot the positions of each boat on a website chart and spectators at home can watch their favorite racers progress digitally up the course. After a quick shout with my team name to the checkpoint boat, the race marshals confirmed my live status on the tracker. I pointed my bow north.
The next 14 miles of the race run the length of Colvos Passage, the slightly kinked, mile-wide channel between Vashon Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. I started up Colvos at around 9 p.m. as the last glimmer of the sun set behind the darkening silhouette of the Kitsap hills to the west. The descent into darkness would accompany me for the next several hours; the half moon wouldn’t rise until 1:45 a.m. Racers’ headlamps and navigation lights dotted the water like floating lanterns all around me. A handful of fireworks rose and glimmered in the distance astern.
Before my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, it was nearly impossible to judge how far anything was from me. Sounds seemed to come undiminished across the water, tricking me into thinking conversations were happening a few feet from me when they were likely a hundred yards away; a light bobbing up and down in the distance turned out to be a paddleboarder drafting in my wake just a few feet behind me.
As engaging as the transition into night was, the row up Colvos Passage was a slog. The continued rain and overcast sky made it especially dark, much darker than in 2021, and the west side of Vashon Island includes several false summits, giving me the impression that I’d reached the end when I still had miles to go. Racers who had been thronged at the start found their pace and had spread out here. My intention through the last few miles of Colvos was to find a buddy to pair with for the upcoming crossings from Vashon to Blake Island, and then to Bainbridge. These are the longest and most exposed open-water crossings of the route and coincided with the darkest part of the night. Ferry traffic and unpredictable seas can make this a particularly scary part of the race.
I adjusted my pace, both speeding up and slowing down, attempting to pair up with headlamps that looked as if they were relatively nearby. After a couple of tries to flag down other racers, and a near miss with an old pier, I assessed the conditions and determined that I would just keep moving forward, even if that meant solo.
Blake Island lies just over a mile north-northwest of Vashon and is a popular place for racers wanting to catch a few hours of sleep. One of my biggest regrets in 2021 was stopping at the island to stretch and regroup. Weather and crashing waves on the beaches at Blake that year caused me to roll my boat and lose some critical gear, including my VHF radio. This year, I had decided I was going to bypass Blake entirely if conditions allowed. As I reached the north end of Vashon, Blake, just 1 1/8 miles wide, loomed large and dark in the distance. Seas were fairly calm at this point, and the wind and rain had finally let up. I was able to strip off my raingear. Just around midnight I set a compass course north across the surprisingly friendly waters and continued to row.
The crossing from Vashon Island was uneventful. Bypassing Blake and crossing straight from Vashon to Bainbridge Island came up just shy of 5 miles and took about 75 minutes to row. Aside from the headlamps and audible chatter as I rowed by Blake, there was hardly a sign of anyone out there at all, making it all the more eerie. For the first time in this race, I felt truly alone and no longer connected to other racers. I settled into a steady rhythm and rowed at a comfortable, sustainable pace.
As I neared the southern end of Bainbridge Island, a few different things snapped me from my trance. The south side of the island is marked by a rocky shore. I knew I was coming close and could hear waves crashing against the rocks. When I turned my head to check my course, I was blinded by my own navigation lights. As dark as it had been, this was the first time I realized how bright my bow light was. It prevented me from seeing anything beyond the bow of my boat. I decided to play it safe and give the shore a wider berth. This was a wakeup call to keep a better mental log of where I was and of upcoming landmarks to ensure I wouldn’t make any costly mistakes like running aground.
As I adjusted my course and let my night vision recover, I caught sight of a cluster of dozens of bright pinpoints of light to starboard, traveling west from Alki Point on the Seattle side of Puget Sound. It was moving fast and heading my way. It took a few seconds before I realized it was the Seattle-to-Bremerton ferry, probably the last westbound ferry of the night. It crossed only a couple hundred yards aft of me. Had I been only 10 minutes slower, I would have been right in its path, a realization that spooked me giving me the wake-up call I needed. I had assumed that I would be crossing the ferry lane late enough that the Bremerton and Bainbridge ferries wouldn’t be a concern. Had I known the ferry would have been coming through around 1:30 a.m., I would have better planned my crossing to avoid it. But, even knowing the schedule, picking out a ferry against the backdrop of the Seattle city lights and their sea of reflections can be a lot more difficult than I had expected. I moved north up Bainbridge Island with more caution as I approached the Seattle-to-Bainbridge ferry crossing at Winslow. Fortunately, I had missed the last run of the night and was clear to continue rowing without fear of ferries until Kingston, 13 miles farther north.
Fay Bainbridge Park, at the northeast end of Bainbridge Island, is roughly the halfway point of the race and another popular spot for racers to stop, have a snack, or catch a few hours of sleep. I had covered the 10-mile length of Bainbridge in about two hours and reached Fay Bainbridge at 3:30 a.m. The park is easy to miss from the water, but I knew I was getting close when I heard in the distance voices I could safely assume were racers. When I saw headlamps moving up and down the beach, I turned my bow toward them to make a quick stop to stretch and eat. I neared a particularly dark section of shore and hopped out, avoiding the piles of driftwood on the beach. As I turned my headlamp on to secure the boat, the light suddenly revealed a face no more than 6’ in front of me. A fellow racer had emerged from behind a large piece of driftwood to lend a hand getting the boat ashore. Having a stranger’s face pop out of the dark when I thought I was alone, got my adrenaline going and I no longer needed the break. I thanked the racer for his kind offer and let him get back to his beach nap. As quickly as I had pulled to shore, I was kicking off and ready to tackle the last half of the race.
Beyond the north end of Bainbridge Island lies Port Madison, a 3-mile-wide bay that can be tricky for racers unfamiliar with the race route. In morning fog and with sleep deprivation, the open water there can send even seasoned racers off course. The best bet is to head north-northeast from Fay Bainbridge and point your bow toward Point Jefferson—if you can see it. The crossing can feel like big water with large rolling waves spilling over from Puget Sound. Fortunately, I made my way across Port Madison at 4 a.m., in calm seas as dawn was beginning to illuminate from behind the Cascade Range on the eastern horizon. As I rounded Point Jefferson, I passed the flank of a parade of four or five cruise ships making their way south into Seattle. One was adorned with garish purple lights and was blaring party music at this pre-dawn hour.
As I began to cross Appletree Cove at 5:30 a.m., I knew ferries would likely be running soon to and from the Kingston terminal on the cove’s north shore. These ferries move fast—16 to 18 knots—and I had two options. I could hug the shore, crossing the ferry lane near the dock in Kingston. This would add quite a bit of rowing distance but would allow me to cross the ferry lane where it narrows and the ferries are moving slower. Or I could cut across the cove on a more direct route. Having been awake for nearly 24 hours, rowing for the last 10, and loath to row any farther than I had to, I chose the latter. While I made my way across the bay, I focused acutely on the ferries docked at Kingston, looking for any sign that one might depart and head my way. A fisherman who had been watching racers come by motored alongside to let me know the morning ferry was broken down and wouldn’t be running for a while. This was a huge relief, and I took the opportunity to have a breakfast of leftover pizza and cold-brew coffee concentrate while gently bobbing at the cove entrance with no ferry worries. While enjoying my pizza in the morning light, I began to see several racers spread out astern, continuing their march north.
The next stretch of the race, the 7 miles from Apple Cove Point to Point No Point (yes, that’s the real name), were the most monotonous, tedious miles I’ve ever rowed. The weather was clear, the sun had come up, and the rowing conditions were perfect as I rounded Apple Cove Point. From there, Point No Point is the farthest visible point (yes, there’s actually a point) on the shoreline to the west. As long as I kept my bow in that heading and made forward progress, I couldn’t miss it. But I felt like I was fighting a current and Point No Point never seemed to get any closer, always looming in the distance. Yet the stretch took just under two hours to complete, matching my average pace for the race. Whether I could chalk my mental struggle up to sleep deprivation, or the pizza I had for breakfast, this chunk of the race will linger in my memory as the most difficult and most mentally challenging. Reaching the lighthouse at Point No Point felt like a huge accomplishment and built momentum for the final stretch to Port Townsend.
I had convinced myself that the worst was over, that I was almost done. I bought into the lie I told myself to keep moving forward. At Point No Point I was not almost done. On the chart, I could more or less draw a straight line to Port Townsend, but I still had at least 18 miles to go in what can often be the most volatile waters of the racecourse—Admiralty Inlet. Its north end connects directly to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and its swells and currents funnel between Marrowstone and Whidbey islands and dump into Admiralty Inlet, creating conditions not suitable for most of the small boats in the race. Though the 12-mile stretch through Admiralty Inlet can be serene, with no warning it can become whitecaps. In the previous year, I had spent about 8 hours beached 4 miles west of Point No Point near the appropriately named Foulweather Bluff waiting out a hailstorm, catching up on sleep, and hoping the weather would improve. This year, I rounded Point No Point and saw nothing but clear skies and calm waters ahead. I could have used the break and a burger in Hansville, the village a mile west of Point No Point, but opted to use this weather window to keep pushing on. I passed Foulweather Bluff and made my way toward the Port Townsend Canal, 8 miles to the northwest.
The Port Townsend Ship Canal is a narrow ¾-mile-long passage built in 1915 between the mainland and Indian Island to open access to and from the south end of Port Townsend Bay to Admiralty Inlet. The reversing tidal current in the 150-yard-wide canal can run up to 6 mph. I arrived at the south entrance at 11 a.m. with a steady 2 to 3 mph current flowing…in the wrong direction. My family and friends had lined up along the canal to cheer me on for the last push I needed to fight the current and break through into the bay. With their encouragement and a surge of adrenaline, I kicked up the rowing for the final leg.
In 2021, I had emerged from the canal at 11 p.m., rowed the final 6 miles of the course, and finished at the Port Townsend beach just after 12:30 a.m., having rowed for 29 1/2 hours and finishing in 32nd place. This year the sun was high, the sky was clear, and the snowfield-draped Olympic Mountains loomed over the horizon. Schooners and sloops tacked across the bay. The beach at the Northwest Maritime Center was lined with locals, friends, family, fans, racers, and event volunteers who had come together to welcome the racers. Even more spectators had lined the docks and paddleboarders came out to encourage racers over the last few hundred feet.
I pulled onto the beach and rang the finish bell at 1:04 p.m., 18 hours and 4 minutes after the start, and once again the 32nd boat to reach the finish line. Tired, blistered, but in surprisingly good spirits, I gave my family a round of hugs, including my newborn daughter, and thanked them for all the support while I accomplished this silly goal for a second time. I was quickly congratulated, handed a beer, offered a place to shower, rest, and eat. After a few minutes to stretch my legs, I was ready for another cold drink and joined the crowd to cheer on the rest of the racers. It wasn’t long before I began strategizing on how to improve for the next year’s SEVENTY48.
Samuel Hendrix is a Midwest transplant now living in Tacoma, Washington, who has spent the last decade exploring the waters of Puget Sound. When he’s not rowing Commencement Bay or dreaming of his next boat build, he can likely be found bike touring with his wife and daughter at one of the many beautiful parks in the Pacific Northwest.
If you have an interesting story to tell about your adventures with a small boat, please email us a brief outline and a few photos.