June 2018: 70/48
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there”
70/48 is a 70 mile (112 km) race for muscle-driven boats on Puget Sound from Tacoma north to Port Townsend, which has to be completed within 48 hours. No outside help and no escort vessels were allowed. The race was challenging because, apart from fighting the rigors of distance, marine traffic, poor night time visibility and weather, we faced substantial ebb and flood tides whose north-south currents markedly affected boat speed.
Of 121 teams entered, 99 finished.
We were Team 89, “Sound Rowers”. We rowed a Chris Maas-built open water carbon fiber quad, 35 feet long, 14 inches wide at the water line, weighing 128 pounds, with bailers in each cockpit to drain out any water coming over bow and gunwales. Our bow and navigator, Jeff Bernard was 48 years old; I sat in number 2 seat, 83 years old. My son Adrian Storb, 41 years old, occupied 3 seat behind our stroke, Todd Silver, 65 years old. Jeff, Adrian and I belong to Seattle’s Lake Washington Rowing Club (LWRC) and Todd rows out of Tacoma. We are all members of Sound Rowers.
SEND-OFF INTO THE OPEN WATER
A horn blast sent off all boats at once on Monday, June 11, 2018 at 5:30 PM. Spectators on boats and bridges watched us scrambling in the narrow Thea Foss Waterway of the Port of Tacoma. We heard cheers, “Go Todd…go….”.
The weather was sunny and warm. The first checkpoint, a boat standing off Point Defiance close to the entrance of the Tacoma Narrows strait, was hard to locate. On the way there, a speeding Pierce County Sherriff’s boat, powered by 4 large outboard engines, waked and swamped us completely, whoa…. With their power boat, Todd’s brother and family accompanied us to the south entrance of Colvos Passage, a tidal strait west of Vashon Island. They cheered one last time before returning to Tacoma.
The quad was loaded with extra clothes, food, drinks, GPS, marine radio, phone, 2 GPS-based speed coaches, tracker, radar deflector, life vests and running lights. Starboard and port wing riggers at both bow and stern were, in addition, wrapped with green and red LED lights to be even more visible..
Jeff navigated by GPS given that we were unfamiliar with the waters west of Vashon and north of Bainbridge Islands. We heard other, more serious teams made up to three nighttime practice runs on various sections of the race course. Our practice consisted of a single 30-mile row from south Lake Union around Lake Washington’s Mercer Island and back. We made a steady 8 mph going north in Colvos Passage. About three-quarters of the way up Vashon Island, a wooden power cruiser, the Salty, caught up to us. Her skipper and three person crew spent 15-20 minutes photographing us. As the Salty eventually veered off, one woman aboard threw us kisses, which I took as a good omen 🙂
We were very lucky with the 6 giant Washington State car ferries whose routes we crossed. The closest one, the brightly-lit Kingston ferry Puyallup sailed across our bow around midnight, perhaps a hundred yards ahead – but none slowed our progress. As we approached Blakely Rock, a reef off Bainbridge, it began getting dark and then very dark, given that we had a new moon.
IN THE DARK
It was strange rowing through the night in unfamiliar waters. Lighthouses sent out periodic flashes. Lights from planes approaching and leaving SeaTac airport crossed the sky. Seattle resembled an ethereal city of light eight miles across Elliott Bay on starboard. I shushed thoughts of my comfortable bed at home from my brain. With the dark, the air temperature dropped considerably. We put on extra layers of clothing. Around the Decatur Reef buoy, anchored off the south-east tip of Bainbridge and choice resting platform for California sea lions, a north-easterly wind sprung up, blowing against us through the night and creating bumpy, quarterly waves which slowed us. Constant spray bounced over bow and starboard gunwale, soaking us. To keep warm, I pulled my jacket’s hood over the baseball cap. On starboard, large container ships, tug-barge convoys, a Coast Guard vessel rode by on Homeric wine-dark waters, their wakes lifting us up long after the ships were gone. Green bio-luminescence flew off Adrian’s and Todd’s oar blades. It was mesmerizing and I focused on it to forestall thoughts like, “how many miles still to the finish?”.
We stopped every half hour for a quick drink. Everybody on board had their own concoction – mine was coconut water. I ate two power bars before the race and forced down another at Faye Bainbridge – definitely not caviar. We also got out of the boat three times during our journey – at Blake Island, at Faye Bainbridge State Park on Bainbridge Island, and at Point No Point lighthouse on the Kitsap Peninsula. At these stops, one or two of us, up to our knees in cold water, held the quad so she wouldn’t beach herself and damage the rudder. The others would stretch tired muscles, get water, go to the bathroom. However, it was at these stops that boats passed us – maybe only one stop would have been better.
The 10 mile stretch from Point No Point, across the mouth of Hood Canal (a 65 mile long fjord) to Port Townsend Ship Canal (a tidal passage squeezed between Indian Island and the Olympic Peninsula) was challenging, in part because we were tired and in part because we were far offshore and couldn’t see progress, just darkness. Quarterly headwind and oncoming flood currents slowed us to 4.8 mph. A couple of teams passed us there. We heard, they recognized and made use of a giant eddy close to Foul weather Bluff and the Olympic Peninsula, an uncanny feat of seamanship. In contrast, our GPS sent us straight to the Canal and into the flood. Close to the south point of Marrowstone Island, like an eerie apparition, an unlit Zodiac-like speed boat raced up to our stern. A man at the helm stopped us, shouting, “identification!”. Todd and Adrian shouted back, “boat 89, Sound Rowers”. The man looked down, presumably at an iPad, yelled “affirmative”, gunned the engine, swerved and disappeared in the dark. We suspect he was U.S. Navy.
THE FINAL PUSH
Entering the Canal, our speed rose to 11-12 mph (the giant eddy’s tail end?). We had, for the first time, a tail wind and felt uplifted – yippee… (Adrian). The crew at the second checkpoint (Portage Beach on Indian Island) cheered as we sped by. The extensive U.S. Naval Magazine facilities on Indian island were guarded by two ships with blinking lights (and most likely, machine guns and torpedoes), standing perpendicularly to the shipping lanes. Jeff saw a docked nuclear submarine, probably loading or unloading weaponry. Just past the north end of Indian Island, marked by a giant gantry crane, I recognized Rat Island and realized the finish was only 3 more miles across Port Townsend Bay. That, combined with the lightening eastern sky promising sunrise, further lifted our spirits. The indefatigable Todd picked up the stroke by a beat or two (like the horse smelling the barn). Sooner than expected we glided past the sleepy docks and piers off downtown Port Townsend, saw the Coupeville ferry loading cars, and crossed the finish next to Rat Island Rowing Club. Adrian raised his arm in triumph. We were done. We clocked in at 5:11 AM, finishing seventh overall after 11 hours, 41 minutes, which was 51 minutes slower than the third place finishers, LWRC’s young Tyler Peterson and Greg Spooner.
My wife Beverly, our van driver Brian Hayes (a postdoc in Beverly’s lab), Todd’s spouse Teresa and Port Townsend boat builder friends Mark Miller and Steve Chapin cheered from the beach – they had followed our progress via tracker on the 70/48 website. Steve put up boat slings. Lifting the quad while standing with wobbly legs on shifting pebbles in the water, she felt far heavier than at the launch in Tacoma. After she was ashore, our adrenalin stopped flowing and we became very cold very quickly. My numbed fingers were not able to remove duct tape securing the bow lights, for example. Adrian shivered almost uncontrollably in his wet clothes (wet from a leaky dry bag). Hot showers and big breakfasts soon restored function. We returned later to clean up quad, oars and equipment and, helped by our friends, load the lot into/onto our van. Puzzlingly, I felt no aching muscles but, not so puzzlingly, was tired for 2 days. Even though not wearing gloves, Adrian and I had no blisters in our hands, but he had a tendonitis in the right forearm that prevented him from rowing for the next two weeks. That night we celebrated over a memorable dinner with spouses and friends at an old Port Townsend restaurant. Memorable not only because seafood and wine tasted exceptionally well but also because of the gratifying feeling of being done with something very challenging and very nutty.
Assuming an actual rowing time of 10 hours and an average stroke rate of 27 to 28, we made close to 17,000 strokes between start and finish. When asked whether we would do 70/48 again, Todd and I said “no”, Adrian said “yes”, and Jeff was sitting on the fence