Akeyla Behrenfeld rowed the Seventy48 solo this June. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

Akeyla Behrenfeld rowed the Seventy48 solo this June. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Racing toward an adventure

Fourteen-year-old Akeyla Behrenfeld of Port Townsend wanted an adventure. It would be especially fun, she figured, to do it solo, relying on her own resources.

Her dad Tim, however, wanted to be nearby. So the two signed up for the Seventy48, the 70-mile human-powered race across Puget Sound from Tacoma to Port Townsend. Each in their own expedition rowboats, they departed into the pre-dusk light at 7 p.m. Friday, June 4, glowsticks affixed to their vessels.

The pair had trained well, rowing to and from various islands and bays, through fog and steep seas. They built their boats to be stable, not speedy.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk,” Tim said of the Seventy48. Back in 2019, he and his daughter, then 12, rowed the two-day race together in one boat.

An awful lot has happened since then. Akeyla felt ready to race on her own, and wanted to see if she could not only finish, but also finish in front of her dad.

Not too long after launching — amid the field of boats and lights around the Thea Foss Waterway — things got rough. The two rowers faced a barrage of waves, and Akeyla remembers thinking: This is terrible. If it gets worse and we’re dealing with such chop in the dark, I might just pull over.

Moments later, conditions did worsen. By the time she and Tim reached Foulweather Bluff, the wind and the waters had lived up to that name. As their boats sliced between waves, they lost sight of each other.

At one point, all Tim could see was the top of Akeyla’s head. Thinking she’d been swamped, and yelled, “Are you OK?”

“My boat filled with water,” Akeyla recalled. But yes, she was OK, and absolutely she kept going. What you don’t want to do, she said, is pause. You can get pushed back that way.

Night fell. Father and daughter faced another wall of weather, but somehow, Akeyla said, she didn’t feel freaked out.

“I didn’t get, like, scared or anything. We were in the middle of crossing, and there’s nothing you can really do. Why be nervous if there’s nothing you can do about it?”

At Blake Island, the waves rose to 3, 4 and 5 feet, and they were close together, lifting Tim’s and Akeyla’s crafts up, down, rinse, repeat.

“It was really bad,” Akeyla said, but as they saw things growing rougher, they knew they had to cross now.

When the wind increased velocity, heading toward 30 mph, Akeyla decided to take a break; at Mats Mats Bay, she grabbed a nap.

“I slept for like 20 minutes, on the ground,” she said, “in the rain.”

There were times, Tim said, when he wondered: Why are we doing this?

But there were also incredible moments. Rowing across the sea under the night sky is like nothing else.

The duo had been at sea for about 27 hours when they began to approach Little Oak Bay State Park.

“I was just done,” Akeyla thought.

She decided to call her mom — a good move.

“We’re at the cut! All your friends are here,” Kristen Behrenfeld told her daughter.

So onward, and “by the time we did get through the cut, the wind was completely gone,” Akeyla said.

Instead, “we were fighting the current. It was really bad. But it could have been a lot worse.”

A few minutes into Sunday morning, Port Townsend came into view. Akeyla recalled seeing what looked like paper cutouts: the Washington state ferry, the Northwest Maritime Center dock with a bright light shining.

“I was super tired,” Akeyla said, which may have been the cause of the paper-cutouts effect.

She could see the finish line. She could hear the screaming — aka cheering — led by her mom.

Akeyla beached her boat shortly after 12:33 a.m. Sunday, June 6. She had finished one minute ahead of Tim.

When I asked her advice for other teens — or even myself — contemplating the Seventy48 race, Akeyla smiled.

“It’s really fun,” she said.

“It’s different every single time … You just have to enjoy everything that happens, I guess.”


Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] peninsuladaily news.com. Her column runs on the first and third Wednesday of the month; the next one will appear July 21.

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