It is somewhat typical to be exhausted after a 20 mile open ocean race like the Blackburn Challenge, but I was exhausted as I lined up at the start line. This was going to be a rough day.
The Blackburn was the culmination of a week-long road trip. I had driven from my home in Chattanooga, TN to the Finger Lakes Region of NY for a reunion and some Finger Lakes paddling. From there I drove farther north to my original stomping grounds of the Adirondack region. There I paddled the tannic acid water of the Saranac River, and completed an incredible solo downwind paddle on Lake Champlain. The downwind paddle, 23 miles from Burlington VT to Plattsburgh NY, was a total blast with incredible long glides but, was a poor choice four days before the Blackburn. In addition to frying my core, I re-injured a previous neck strain.
From Plattsburgh, I drove to Hollis NH to stay with friends and proceeded to not sleep one minute the night before the race. Nerves and a strange bed conspired to keep me WIDE awake all night, despite having several pints of premium microbrew the evening before.
But alas, no matter about being tired and worn out, this was my first Blackburn, and I was just here to experience the race and learn the course. This has always been a bucket list race for me, so I was just glad to be here.
After packet pickup, boat safety inspection and getting my bleary act out on the water I was lined up with a collection of old friends, new friends, a few Southerners and a whole bunch of Yankees! I had decided to go out slow and allow the jacked up neck muscles to warm up. I watched as my normal “hang with” pack went rocketing down the river. This river/inlet wound its way around the backside of Gloucester and was choked with moored boats. Careful attention was required to avoid snagging an anchor line with your rudder.
After a few miles we finally rounded a point and we were in the ocean! This is always a big moment for us inland paddlers. As I weaved through the lobster buoys I was a little shocked at how calm and flat it was. That turned out to be oddly misleading due to the “BOBBLES!!”
Having warmed up and woken up thanks to the fairly hard push out of the river, I started to really overtake a lot of paddlers out on the open water. Up ahead I could see two targets that I REALLY wanted to reel in, Wesley Echols and Richard Carter. As I gained on them, I could see the occasional low brace or stroke adjustment to counter some unseen wave. Knowing that they are both experienced coastal paddlers, I thought “hmmmm, that’s odd??” Then WAM!! I got hit with a bobble. A strange little disturbance that completely threw my rhythm off and made me do a little hip check to straighten the boat. These odd, out of nowhere bobbles seemed to be due to a combination of gentle swells, small boat wakes, current, shore reverb, and some odd celestial misalignment. No one bobble seemed like an issue, but over the next 20 miles they got worse and more frequent, and it turned into death by a thousand cuts.
Before the bobbles got too bad, I managed to overtake Richard Carter. Normally this never happens (or at least not easily), but he dropped his legs over his ski and looked like he was about to die. A respiratory infection that put him in the ER the previous day apparently didn’t miraculously go away. While he was attempting to wash out his lungs with cold seawater, I thought “never kick a man while he’s down, it’s not sporting. Unless it’s Richard.” So with that bit of sportsmanship I took off and thought “it’s a ploy, he’s plotting something”. Apparently he wasn’t, because I didn’t see him again until after the race. And he looked like something the dog would drag out of the sea. Which I think is exactly what happened.
A few miles after abandoning Richard and his infectious issues, I finally managed to get by Wesley Echols. But this wasn’t going to be so easy. As the water got more squirrely and “bobbly”, Wes would keep surging up alongside of me. Sometimes I couldn’t even see him if I looked back, and then he would re-appear alongside of me in his neon green Stellar.
Throughout the race we were passing rowing craft of all sorts. Open ocean racing shells, skiffs, whaleboats and working row boats of every class and type. The race is actually a commemoration of the incredible survival story of Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester fisherman in the 1880s that lost his vessel in a winter storm. He rowed for 5 days with no food or water and his hands were frozen solid to the oars. I kept reminding myself of that as I started to “suffer” in my 3ish hour journey on a stunningly sunny and gorgeous day with a PFD, pocket full of sports nutrition and a 100oz bladder of water.
Not being familiar with the course and not carrying my GPS, I had many “false summit” moments. I kept thinking “This bay has got to lead me into the finish”……nope. I would be crushed to find out that the line of boats in front of me wasn’t turning into shore. This happened three times and my spirit, my core, and my energy levels all fell to shambles at the same time. The last 3 miles to the turn into the Gloucester Harbor I was struggling to keep form, and struggling to stay with or ahead of Wes and Peter Kahn.
My last thought coming up to the light house that signified the turn into the harbor was “Once I’m in that harbor, it will be flat and I’ll try to open it up with anything I might have down deep.” After a rough turn around the lighthouse, I was dismayed to see a harbor full of boat chop. Gigantic whale watching boats were zipping back and forth throwing monster wakes. Usually, I’m ecstatic to see wakes like that, but I was devolving into survival paddling, and just wanted to be done. Wes and Peter went by and I didn’t have a prayer of responding. I was just trying to keep moving and upright. Approximately 1/4 mile from the finish, I pass a ski paddler who has stopped to vomit. Barely glancing at that poor soul, I keep myself slowly grinding to the finish. I was done. I was too weak to get my boat up on the beach. I lay in the water for 5 minute before finally dragging myself and my boat onto the beach. Once there, I struggled with nausea. I recovered after 20 minutes of lying on a warm giant boulder like a harbor seal.
The post-race beach party is a fun mix of racers, beer and BBQ. Wait, BBQ???? I drove 2000 miles roundtrip from the Bible Belt for BBQ in New England? I dodged lobster traps and maniacal lobster boats for 20 miles and they are going to feed us BBQ? I was expecting clams, corn on the cob, and lobster casserole. So sadly, all by myself, I walked down the block and had a lobster roll at a local restaurant. But back at the party, the beer was great and the New England hospitality was excellent. It was so good to see those northern paddlers that I only see occasionally or just on Facebook.
I guess I should mention the top ski paddlers here. Eric Mims from Charleston SC took first in his first ever Blackburn. This is impressive given that he edged out some incredibly strong paddlers that knew the course very well. Local Greg Lesher took second and Craig Impens from New Jersey was in third.
This race was an incredible and grueling event for me, but I hope to return and hope to be at the start line rested and familiar with the course and its challenges. Of course, if I do make that long journey back up there, I sure hope there is a clam bake afterwards!