The power of an idea
The culmination of imagination, ingenuity, perseverance and courage played itself out in dramatic fashion last weekend, when a haggard but satisfied crew of 18 students, teachers and parents from Platte Canyon High School made history by completing the SEVENTY48 Boat Race from Tacoma, Wash., to Port Townsend, Wash. The race started from Tacoma at 8 p.m., Friday, May 31.
The PCHS boat finished 23rd of 109 registered entries in the race, landing at Port Townsend in just 17 hours and 41 minutes of the 48 hours allotted to complete the course.
More than that, however, the completion of the seemingly impossible mission demonstrated the awesome power of a single idea, no matter how radical or highly improbable that idea might seem at its conception.
The plan was to have students build a 40-foot outrigger canoe with no existing shop room on campus, to form a yacht club at 8,000 feet above sea level, to test the three-section vessel in the local swimming pool and then race it 70 miles on the unforgiving waters of the sounds, bays and inlets of the area using nothing but paddles for power.
That decidedly unconventional vision, spawned by PCHS teachers Kip Otteson and Steve Hanford, quickly spread like wildfire around campus. The ambitious dream was wholly adopted and internalized by students, teachers and administrators alike, and the quest was on to give the school, residents of Bailey, and anyone else willing to notice, something to talk about.
No team from Colorado had ever registered for the SEVENTY48 race prior to the PCHS team. The PCHS boat and crew were unlike anything previously seen or imagined at the race. The average vessel in the contest, which allows human power only, no motors and no sails, consists of three or fewer people.
The addition of the PCHS boat to the high-profile competition resembled the entry of a horse into a dog race. The mere fact that an 18-member crew consisting almost entirely of high school students from rural Colorado planned to compete in the event with a homemade outrigger was enough to make headlines in a variety of media near and far.
Donations began rolling in from well-wishers, and participating students enjoyed somewhat of a celebrity status simply for having the courage to engage in such a monumentally difficult task.
Meanwhile, construction of the boat was completed, and the students and crew headed down to the Marge E. Hudak Public Swimming Pool to see if it actually floated. After passing the swimming pool test, the entire crew took advantage of spring break to travel to Dana Point, Calif., for a true test run on the Pacific coast.
The crew took five test runs and discovered to their delight that the vessel was seaworthy and reasonably manageable. They enjoyed top speeds around seven miles per hour (6.08 nautical knots), but when facing direct headwinds the boat slowed to just over two miles per hour (1.7 knots).
They made several adjustments to equipment and learned to operate more efficiently as a team. They also developed a firm game plan in terms of rotations, breaks and other specifics involving team procedures and strategies for enduring the grueling journey.
Primarily, though, the trip was hugely helpful in giving the entire crew an idea of what to expect when the real race kicked off. The students learned the boat’s capabilities, as well as their own. They also discovered that Mother Nature had the capacity to derail their dream, so they crossed their fingers that conditions would be kind to them six weeks later when the big day finally arrived.
From radical dream to sweet reality
Fast-forward to Saturday, at 1:41 p.m. Pacific Time, when the 40-foot outrigger steamed through the finish line with students still digging their oars in to save every second possible.
The resourceful kids from Bailey, Colo., were the talk of the town in Port Townsend, and deservedly so. They did what many thought couldn’t be done, and did it in a time that almost nobody imagined possible. They didn’t just finish. They finished with style and swagger.
“We had a bigger crowd waiting for us at the finish than any of the other boats,” said 2019 PCHS graduate Lisa Bezzant. “There were a lot of really supportive locals, some of the race officials came out, and then all of the people who made the trip from back home were waiting for us.”
PCHS senior Tim Long enjoyed the team’s popularity and semi-celebrity status throughout the trip.
“It was like people out there already knew who we were before we met them,” Long said.
As expected, though, it wasn’t all a bed of roses for the PCHS crew. The adventurous trek through unpredictable tides, fog, changing winds, darkness and bustling boat traffic was at times physically and mentally taxing.
Armed only with oars, the crew came to grips with the reality that only a determined and united effort would suffice to complete the course.
“It was pretty cold at night, which made you want to row harder; but then you were also pretty fatigued, so rowing harder wasn’t very appealing either,” Long said with a chuckle.
“Then the fog rolled in at about 6 a.m. (Saturday) to make matters more challenging. We hung in there as a team and got through it, though, and it was awesome to be a part of it. At the end of the race I was just kind of in awe that we had actually just paddled seventy miles in the boat we built.”
Interestingly, the start time of the race, 8 p.m. on Friday, gave participants very little time to settle into the race before nightfall presented a whole new set of dynamics. By the time morning fog closed in, the PCHS team had been rowing in total darkness for about 10 hours.
Bezzant said pesky winds and changing tides presented a gut-check moment for the entire crew during the later stages of the race.
“We were directly into three-and-a-half knot winds and were trying to stay out of the main tides off the shoreline, and it took a lot of work to muscle through it all,” Bezzant said. “That came late in the race, about four hours from the finish line.”
One advantage the PCHS crew enjoyed was the combined navigating abilities of Otteson and Hanford. As the race wore on, other boats began following the PCHS boat because Otteson and Hanford were utilizing tide chart maps that allowed them to choose the path of least resistance throughout the race.
“Those guys were amazing,” said Sheri Bezzant. “You know you have two guys who really know what they are doing when experienced boaters are following you.”
Through all the problem solving, scheduling, preparation and game-planning, not to mention enough paddling to last most people a lifetime, the students, to a crew member, said the experience of seeing a seemingly impossible task to its fruition was unforgettable and immensely gratifying.
“Just to be involved through the progression of this whole project has been amazing,” Long said. “From the construction of the boat back in January, the training and planning, and then to actually do what we did as a team was just extremely rewarding.”
Bezzant agreed, as she recalled her feelings while rowing through the finish line.
“It was exhausting, and I was admittedly glad it was over, but I also felt an enormous sense of pride because of what we all accomplished together.”
Creating an image more fitting for PCHS
The benefits of conceiving and executing such a monstrously ambitious project at a rural public high school cannot be quantified. Every PCHS participant harbored his or her personal reasons for being involved, and each one discovered individual gratification for having participated.
At the heart of the collective effort, however, was a desire to create an image of PCHS as a place where great things happen. Unfortunately, all too often, the school’s public image and online search results are dominated by news, photos and information regarding the on-campus shooting which occurred there in 2006.
Otteson has expressed his hope that this story and other positive news can help to promote a more favorable and accurate portrayal of the school and its students’ accomplishments, as opposed to one dark day in the institution’s storied history.
Based on the volume of news feeds pertaining to the PCHS Yacht Club, and media reports ranging geographically from Denver, Colo., to Port Townsend, Wash., Otteson’s outlandish idea to build and race a 40-foot outrigger looks like nothing short of sheer genius today.