Sixty miles into the Seventy-48 race, Akeyla Behrenfeld decided she was done. The 14-year-old Port Townsend middle schooler had rowed her home-built, wooden boat through rain, three to five-foot seas and 20-knot winds. She was soaked from the salt spray, her arms aching, hands blistered.
The race had been won hours earlier by veteran rowers in high-tech boats, but dozens more competitors had beached their boats to wait out the worsening winds and seas. Her dad, Port Townsend teacher Tim Behrenfeld, had been rowing alongside her, trying to encourage his daughter without pushing her beyond her limits.
“I called my mom to tell her we were quitting,” Akeyla recalls. “She said she and my friends were waiting at the Port Townsend Cut, ready to cheer us on.”
OK, she told her dad. Let’s finish.
So they did, clocking in past midnight. It was the second time father and daughter had completed the extraordinary, human-powered race – 70 miles from Tacoma to Port Townsend.
Akeyla is a quiet, confident middle-schooler who swims two hours a day, and was inspired by the Sail Like a Girl crew that won the 2019 Race to Alaska. Like those women, Akeyla’s Seventy48 experience embodies the spirit of Port Townsend’s no-engine races and the Wooden Boat Festival which celebrates boats and boaters alike.
Akeyla and her father had been scheduled to tell their story at the Wooden Boat Festival on Sept 11, but the festival has been cancelled due to the pandemic.
Her adventure dates, appropriately, to the 2018 Ruckus, the waterfront festivity that precedes the Race to Alaska, where she was drawn to a “really cool one-person wooden dinghy sitting on the lawn.”
“I didn’t say anything until the fall, when I read about the Seventy48 race, and I told Mom and Dad I wanted to do that race.”
Tim, an experienced whitewater rafter, thought it was a fine idea. They borrowed a neighbor’s 16 foot rowing skiff and went to work, modifying the boat and getting comfortable rowing it on the bay. They rowed the 2019 race in 25 hours, including a couple of rest stops.
“I loved rowing,” Akeyla says. “Especially at night, out there in the silence with the phosphorescence. If something goes wrong, you find a way to deal with it.”
She wanted to do it again, but solo. Mom and Dad agreed. They found plans for an 18-foot “expedition rowboat,” fully decked with a 5-foot cockpit, a wooden “stitch-and-glue” craft they could build in the garage. And they built two of them.
When the 2020 race was cancelled in the pandemic, they continued to work on their rowing skills until last June, when they hauled those boats down to Tacoma for the start.
The first few hours of rowing went well with light winds and following seas pushing them up Colvos Passage, glowsticks marking their boats in the darkness, communicating by walkie-talkie.
“It’s harder to row in darkness because you can’t see your oars,” she says. “It seemed like morning would never come.”
She wanted to stop for a rest, but father and daughter agreed to keep riding the favorable current as long as they could.
Wind and waves picked up as they rowed the shores of Bainbridge Island and Kitsap Peninsula. The GPS spot trackers on each competing boat showed that most had put ashore to wait out the weather.
But they finished.
“The ocean can slap you pretty hard,” Dad says. “You learn your comfort level. You have highs and lows, from awesome to why-in-the-world-am-I-out-here?”
Akeyla agrees. “You learn what your boat can do, and what you can do.”
What can she do next? “I need a new challenge,” she says. “I’m thinking Race to Alaska. I’m ready.”