Blackburn Challenge 2017

The Blackburn Challenge. July 22, 2017. Cape Ann, MA

Blackburn morning is a buzz. It’s a murmur of human minds hitting extraordinary vibes. Hundreds of people unloading boats, checking gear, stretching legs, bouncing toes…excited for the great feat to come. All types of rowers, paddlers and their craft are here--Hawaiian Canoes, Paddle Boards, Pilot Gigs, Whaleboats, Kayaks, Surf Skis, Grand Banks Fishing Dories, Coastal Shells, and more. It's an epic 20 miles of unknown – a race long enough for physical things to change, sometimes quite dramatically, and usually not for the better.

Each running of the Blackburn Challenge is a different picture. This year it’s a slate-blue day. Clouds cover the sky enough to shade the sun but not enough to totally lose the morning light. There’s not a scrap of wind to be seen, felt, or hoped for.

In the river start, the countdown went, and just before the signal for GO, we all start to lean on our oars. It’s a long trip, we can’t hang around!

I jumped the gun with a bid for the lead, creeping from 27 to 29 strokes per minute (spm), setting a pretty ambitious pace.  The tide is flooding, and the current is screaming against us. At one point I see 4.5 mph on my gps – a dreadfully slow speed over ground, compared to my fast flight through the water. At this pace, without current, I would be hitting at least 7.5 mph or more. Discouraging. I try to track out of the main channel. Looking for better water. Generally the shoreline will slow things down, or even create secret back currents that blast you ahead, but my hunt becomes a no-good bid for free speed that serves only to trim my lead. There’s too much crap lining the river to navigate through-–a tangle of boats, docks, buoys, rocks, in addition to the ceaseless creases of coves and points. 

Finally, out of the river. Everything now feels loose and just fine. I feel like my training up to this point and my taper for the race put me into that good space of "rested and ready." In the sea I hit and maintain a good stride, about 27 spm. That’s fairly high for this length race, but I’m feeling quick and light, and the boat is moving well, and moving out from the pack.

There are no real waves, but the early morning powerboats are heading out to fish, following the same path out of the river. So there are plenty of boat wakes to surf. I sneak a bit further out, pushing closer to the powerboat parade. I start seeing some ridiculous speeds as I catch wake after wake and glide along on this energy stolen from powered hulls. Holding over 9 mph for a series of stretches, with almost no strength needed. Yes, this will make up for the slow ride on the river! And catching these waves will give me a huge advantage if the competition is avoiding this "traffic" : classic coastal hustling!

Suddenly there is water pouring over the side of my boat! I’m at an impossible angle, tipped up on my side. My left arm is submerged, and going deeper. I’m going over! Brace, brace, lean away…the boat is not responding. What!?! I’m snagged on a knob-tipped lobster buoy! Dead in the water, precariously perched, stretching my hip flexibility to the limit. Finally the evil buoy spirit judges my efforts worthy, and releases me. It's Mile 7 on a flat calm day, and I almost swam! I look around, and discover I’m in a mine field of these traps! Shoot, a bit of weaving in my near future.

Conveniently, at the halfway point, the race passes through a narrow strait between Cape Ann and a small island. Its an obvious mark. I pass the strait feeling ecstatic, in a total rowing trance of rhythmic oblivion. I feel strong, not overly winded, and ready to bring it up a notch or two. So I don’t, not yet. Because I’ve done the Blackburn before and I know the second half is way longer than the first. The wind is different, the waves are different, the boat traffic is larger and more frequently going the wrong way--all of these differences add up to a second southern half that is qualitatively more challenging than the north side.

At the 13 mile-mark I stop for my first and only break. I give myself 20 seconds for a few sips of water. Then I take another 30 seconds to slowly bring my boat speed and stroke rate back up. Then I decide, since racing is one of the few socially acceptable places to go absolutely wild and insane, that I am going to increase my lead as much as possible and break the 3-hour mark for the entire course. But it will be very tight: I won’t be able to drop below 7 mph for the rest of the race. At that very moment, the water went to shit. No other way to say it. Suddenly the sea is nothing but a chaos of tiny waves, bouncing in every direction possible. The boat traffic picks up,  and as promised, all those boats are traveling away from the finish, so no more wake surfing! Still, I pass a double scull. Not bad.

Ah, there it is...the obligatory leg cramp. Mile 17. Right leg, quad, towards the inside. Happens somewhere, every year. I shorten my stroke. Half slide. Quarter slide. Arms and back only. Back to full slide. Mixing it up, giving that leg some variety. Confuse it into uncramping, while maintaining obeisance to Speed, the Divinity of Racing.

Mile 18, rounding the jetty into Gloucester Harbor. I find myself mixed up with a trinity of two-person outrigger canoes (OC2's). Slightly faster boats, inherently, the OC2's are pulling away from me. But some primitive beast howls into my skull, exhorting me to chase them down and try to beat them. As we hit a patch of rough water, they start pulling further away. The canoe paddles fly in a staccato rhythm, heedless of the chop. Meanwhile, rowing through these stutter-bump waves, I’m getting no run out of my boat on the recovery. So, inspired by the quick canoe strokes, I ditch my recovery altogether, and fall into quarter slide pulses. Now hitting 37 spm. Bring it up to 39, a really, really high rating for coastal rowing. My speed kicks up again, and I’m gaining on the canoes. And breathing like a tornado.

The water smooths out and I lengthen my strokes again, focusing on big, powerful surges. I steer by watching the canoes – they are looking forward, so I don't bother to look behind and check our course. My hands feel like mitts at this point. One mile left, screw it. I slap and punch at the water with my un-sensitive hands and club-stiff forearms. I heave with my back, pray with my legs. One canoe is dropped behind. Two canoes are still ahead, but just barely. I’m excited by their 20-mile showdown: after almost three hours they are only seconds apart from each other. I’m in full, mouth foaming sprint now (or at least what resembles a sprint after nearly 20 miles of cranking). I’m not gaining, but not losing ground on the two canoe teams. Keep going!

And then it was over. The greasy pole (it’s a local thing) was passed. The orange triangle marking the finish bobbed astern. My number was called. Not in the metaphysical sense, but in the simple act of recording my time: under 3 hours! 

I dropped out of my boat into the cool Gloucester waters. James Dietz II came across the line in big, strong Dietz strokes. Then Bob Russo had a great finish as he held off another rower-–arms up across the line- triumphantly gaining a place on the podium.

Stumbling a bit on the beach, we swapped stories of our journeys around the Cape. Still not nearly as tough as Howard Blackburn, we nevertheless had fun and pushed ourselves into efforts worthy of at least our own legends and tales to tell.

the above "photo finish" of my battle with the OC2's was taken by Leslie Bechtold Chappell and given a free unrestricted use. Check out more of her photos here: