Heart of Utah: Students from Utah’s school for the deaf and blind preparing for a 70 mile boat race

Apr 14, 2021, 11:24 AM | Updated: 1:02 pm

This story about the students from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind USDB Yacht Club is part of KSL NewsRadio’s ongoing Heart of Utah program to highlight good news around the state.


OGDEN, Utah — A group of students from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind built a boat together and are getting ready to race it across Puget Sound in what’s called the Seventy48. In June, they’ll set off at 7 p.m and row 70 miles in just 48 hours.

They’ve been working together for months, all with their different skills and abilities to assemble two forty-foot long canoes that are then attached together to form a catamaran.

The USDB Yacht Club

They call themselves the USDB Yacht Club, and the boat they’ve built is called “All Hands on Deck.”

All the students had to dust off their problem-solving, math, and teamwork skills throughout the boat-building process.

“It’s pretty interesting,” said student Landon Pearce. “There’s a lot to learn about the boat and what goes into it. It was fun to learn while we were building it. I could say, I built that, I know what goes into that.”

USDB Online and Outreach Director Adam Billings directed that part of the project. He has actually built different ships since he was 16, and he served in the US Coast Guard. But much of the work was all student-driven and hands-on.

After building the boat, they needed to make sure it floated, and wanted to get some training on the water before heading to the west coast, so took it out on its maiden voyage on Lake Powell.

“Once you get it out onto the water, it was cool to see it float and work well,” said Pearce.

14 students and teachers paddled together. They went 21 miles for their first big paddle.

USDB Outreach Director Brandon Watts remembers that when they first started, they were going in circles. They had to redistribute the weight and see where different people worked better.

So students jumped between canoes to even things out, which wasn’t an easy process in the lake. When student Noah Mason got up to switch positions, he fell in the boat and re-sprained his wrist — and didn’t tell anyone.

“[Then, later on] I see him paddling with one arm,” said USDB Campus Director Ryan Greene. “We were a good 15 or 16 miles in and he was paddling with one arm.”

Greene said they put Mason on rest for the rest of that row. But now, Mason said his wrist is much better now and he feels ready to paddle again.

Teamwork makes the dream work

All of the students have different levels of vision loss and different levels of hearing loss, and they come from the USDB campuses all around Utah.

That posed a few challenges to make sure that everyone was in sync and on the same page, but they figured it out.

They worked out how to communicate together while building this boat, and now are working out communication while paddling.

Part of that comes down to following the lead of a teacher in front who sets the pace and calls out the stroke. But they rely on each other too.

“It didn’t occur to me that there is such a difference in my vision and their hearing. We’ve found ways to make up for it, because we are friends first. That always came first,” said senior Ashton Hineze.

Those who can see watch the people in front to match their stroke. And they have figured out different signs and signals in the boat. For example, when it is time to switch sides, Pearce says he taps Alexis Wardinsky on the shoulder to let her know they are switching.

Wardinsky said she didn’t realize until they got in the boat that day how dependent they were on each other.

“This was life-changing,” she signed. “I didn’t know how to paddle. I thought I can’t do this! But I kept telling myself to keep going. I could see the other students and their motivation.”

And that’s what Greene knew would happen when they came up with this idea for their students.

“The main point is, no matter what you want to do, or where you want to go, it’s possible. It takes hard work and dedication and a plan, but I want everyone on this boat with me after to look at any other mountain their life and say, it can’t be as hard as the Seventy48!” he said.

“We want everybody to feel that they have accomplished something beyond themselves,” Billings agreed.

The deaf and blind students have grown up learning to self-advocate, learn Braille or American Sign Language, use a white cane and so much more. So school leaders say this goal of paddling across Puget Sound fits right in with their education and courageous personalities.

They are looking to do another long row on Utah Lake or Willard Bay to work out more of the sleeping and eating and resting schedules before the big race.

They’ll fly to Washington on June 3rd. They will enter the Seventy48 race on June 4th, in Tacoma Washington, and paddle day and night. They’ll have 48 hours to paddle the 70 miles to Port Townsend.

While they are in Washington, they plan to visit the Husky Clipper – it’s the wooden boat that won the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and inspired the book, “The Boys in the Boat.” This crew sees similarities with that story, of overcoming great odds, but cementing lifelong friendships along the way.

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Heart of Utah: Students from Utah’s school for the deaf and blind preparing for a 70 mile boat race