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Team of visually impaired students from Utah navigate Washington state’s Puget Sound in a row boat

Visually impaired students from Utah navigate the Puget Sound in Washington state for the Seventy48 race.
Utah School for the Deaf and Blind
Visually impaired students from Utah navigate the Puget Sound in Washington state for the Seventy48 race.

A crew of blind and visually impaired Utah students, including one from Park City, recently rowed across the finish line at a 48-hour, 70-mile race. The students learned about teamwork.

Utah School for the Deaf and Blind students have participated in the Seventy48 race three times. The 70-mile race must be completed in 48 hours and travels across Washington state’s Puget Sound, from Tacoma to Port Townsend.

Only human-powered boats are allowed, and participating teams choose whether to pedal, paddle or row across the coastal waters facing challenges related to wind, rain and stormy seas.

This year, the school had a team of eight students from across Utah, including Park City, Roosevelt, Richfield, Layton, Spanish Fork, Lindon, Lehi and Tooele. All the students had visual impairments of different levels with one being completely blind.

Charlie Sims from Park City is one of the visually impaired teammates. He was born with congenital nystagmus which causes his eyes to shake uncontrollably so he can’t focus on anything.

“Reaction times at night, like significantly just drop. But also I can't see details at distances,” he said. “Reaction time in general is just slowed.”

Ryan Greene (left) and Charlie Sims (right) during the Seventy48 race in Washington state.
Heather Sims
Ryan Greene (left) and Charlie Sims (right) during the Seventy48 race in Washington state.

Coach Ryan Greene said to prepare for the race, the team worked on making each of their strokes the same cadence by using a recording to announce each stroke. They also defined what a stroke was; the point when the paddle is initially entering the water.

“When you have vision, you can automatically correct when you're off on your timing, right?” Greene said. “So we needed to kind of have, you know, a clear understanding of what a stroke meant and the form and the timing.”

For the student who is completely blind, Greene said they 3D printed the map of the race route and included Braille labels so she could memorize the route and recognize location names signifying race progress.

The race started at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 31. Greene said the team paddled throughout the night with speakers playing music and the stroke repetition, only taking short breaks to go to the bathroom.

“We were kind of a party boat, I would say, because the students really wanted to be motivated by music,” he said.

The team took a nap break around mile 35 and then rowed on to mile 51 where they stopped for dinner. After getting back on the water, the team rowed until about 9 p.m. Saturday when they only had around 6 miles left until the finish. Sims said some of his teammates, including him, wanted to push on and finish the race that night. If they had, Greene said they would’ve finished the race around midnight at 27 hours.

“Second and third place we're only we're only like I think 10 minutes in front of us, maybe that,” Green said. “But as a team we felt it was in our best interest to kind of pull over have a hot meal and wait to finish in the morning and that's pretty common.”

Sims said part of the reason for the pause was to allow time for the ground crew and their families to greet them at the finish – something no one wanted to miss. The team finished the race in 36 hours and 15 minutes.

Sims said he and his teammates were relieved and exhausted after crossing the finish line, but also felt a sense of accomplishment. He said they fed off each other’s energy throughout the race and learned even with visual impairments, they were still able to trust their teammates and navigate the coastal waters.

“Within just the two days that we were hanging out, we just became like a big family rather than just a team.”

Sims’ mom Heather Sims said Charlie is graduating from Park City High School this week and opportunities like this will help him in the future. She said he learned he can navigate challenges, especially as a team.