Around Cape Ann/Gloucester Massachussetts

By Reinhard Zollitsch
December 2006

I have raced rowing shells and all types of kayaks and canoes, mostly on rivers and lakes, but frankly, I have always preferred being out on the open ocean or its many bays and bights.

I worked on freighters as a student, sailed across the Atlantic on a small two-masted schooner as a watch captain, and hitched up and down the Maine coast in my small 22 foot sailboat with my family. But my funnest thing to do since 2002, approaching retirement age, is sitting in a boat with a maximum hull width of 13.5 inches, still out on the Atlantic, and solo.

What is wrong with this picture? I should be stepping up to the next size boat, taking it easy, going for comfort, and being more sociable rather than trimming down. (I hope, though, that this downsizing trend will not continue beyond 13.5” and put me back in a bathtub with a little choo choo tugboat, where all my boating began.)

The Indomitable Gloucester Dory Fisherman H.B. And The Race

So let me tell you about my latest toy and how it all came about. I had read Joseph E. Garland's book LONE VOYAGER, the story of Howard Blackburn, the indomitable Gloucester fisherman, who in 1883 got separated from his schooner in a snowstorm off the south coast of Newfoundland and decided to row his dory back to shore, 60 miles away, rather than give up.  After five long days and nights, he finally made it, allowing his hands to freeze to the oars, but he lost his partner and most fingers and toes to frostbite in this ordeal.

He became a hero in that little Massachusetts fishing town, and it is in his honor that in 1987, a good hundred years after his memorable row, the Cape Ann Rowing Club came up with a long distance ocean race.  It is a clockwise 22-mile circumnavigation of Cape Ann, starting on the Annisquam River behind Gloucester High School, and finishing on the town beach near the inner harbor.


What a course, what a historic background and what a major event for Gloucester and Massachusetts, actually the entire eastern seaboard. When I first heard about this event, I could not wait to join in the fun, especially when in following years the original rowing race turned into a race for all types of man-powered crafts, including sea kayaks, surf skis and six-person Hawaiian-style outrigger canoes.  But my tippy kayaks and flatwater racing canoes were out, for sure, and my rowing days date back to college – I still felt left out .

RZ Prepares for Blackburn
RZ getting ready for the big race

Then I learned about those incredibly slender and fast Hawaiian-style solo outrigger canoes – and I was hooked. I ordered one sight-unseen from a manufacturer in Maryland and raced it five days later in the 2002 race. I found myself floundering in the wake of a dozen six-person outriggers at the start, who, fortunately for me in my new type of boat, pulled ahead so fast that I felt I was standing still. It turned out to be one of the windiest and roughest Blackburn races ever, but I managed to stay up and finish the 22 miles in 3 hours 46 minutes,with less than a cup of water in the boat. I was psyched.

Boat on Shoulder
RZ shouldering his boat at the finish

In 2006 was the 20th running of the event, as well as my fifth, but it was unfortunately halted four miles into the race by the Coast Guard for thick fog out around Halibut Point and Cape Ann. It was eventually restarted on a short course on the Annisquam River – not what we hardy competitors had come for, and also not in the spirit of Howard Blackburn, as I see it, but a sound call from a modern safety point of view, especially for the newcomers and less experienced and prepared boaters.

The 2007 Race

So, could you join in the fun too on July 21, 2007? Today most any sea-going hand-propelled vessel can find a niche to enter the race. There is a class for traditional fishing dories and the more efficient wherries, for multi-oared gigs and single and double ocean racing shells with top rowers vying for fastest overall honors. Sea kayaks and surf skis make up the bulk of boats these days, and are divided into various sub-classes, depending on their speed potential (length-width ratio, that is) and racing equipment used, like modern carbon fiber wing paddles.

In 2002 I remember seeing Olympic-double-gold winner Greg Barton flying by me, and I was very impressed by the two “local boys” (Tom Mailhot and John Zeigler) who had finished the 2001 rowing race across the Atlantic from the Canary Isles to Barbados, showing off their special craft for that race at the finish line. Everybody who is anybody was there, including the news media, but also a lot of normal mortals like me. 

But I kid you not, the Blackburn Challenge is a long and tough race and should only be undertaken by those boaters who have prepared for open ocean paddling and are in halfway decent shape to finish 20 plus miles in often windy and rough conditions. Don't count on the Coast Guard to tow you in or pick you up when you hit the wall – remember Howard Blackburn and tough it out or come as a spectator.

The top two-man racing shells or the six-person outrigger canoes may finish the course in two and a half hours. I felt good finishing between 3 hours 38 and 3 hours 48 minutes these past five years, but some boats were out there for almost 7 hours, and in 2002 and 2003 about 20 boats (more than 10% of the entrants) did not even finish the race. (In 2005, however, all boats finished under 6 hours! Congratulations!) But with almost 200 boats on the water, going off with a staggered start, you are hardly ever all by yourself. Boaters look after each other and enjoy the camaraderie on the water – I do anyway.

The Finish

Tent at finish line
The tent at the finish line

And then there is the finish line at the “greasy pole“ on the town beach, another Gloucester tradition of yet another town event (balancing out on a long greased horizontal pole 20' above the water, grabbing a flag at the end – if you ever get there!). There is food and drink, live music and lots of swaggering and tall tales, mostly from the slower contestants, who by then are often too exhausted and dehydrated to know what they are saying, but definitely are having a good time Nancy and I always spend two nights in Gloucester and make a real outing out of the race and enjoy beautiful Cape Ann before heading back up to Maine.

On the beach at the finish line
On the beach at the finish line

So, what are you paddling or rowing these days? There is still time to get into some shape for a first appearance. Anyway, check out the website of the Blackburn Challenge (, and should you decide to enter the race, don't wait too long. There is a limited number of boats allowed in the race, and remember, the pre-race meeting is at 6:00 a.m. Good luck, and remember Howard's historic row. And please say hello to the guy in the all-black carbon fiber solo outrigger canoe when you pass him, or he passes you.
Thanks, enjoy and be safe.


Bio of the author:
RZ has extensive ocean experience working on freighters, sailing on all types of boats, as well as racing whitewater and marathon kayaks and canoes. In 2005 he finished a 4000-mile solo unassisted circumnavigation of all New England states and Canadian maritime provinces in a Verlen Kruger sea canoe, which took him down the St. Lawrence River, around PEI and Nova Scotia, back to Maine, Boston and New York and up the Hudson to Lake Champlain. He writes for MESSING ABOUT IN BOATS and ATLANTIC COASTAL KAYAKER as well as for Canadian and German boating magazines.

Reinhard Zollitsch
61 North Main Ave.
Orono, ME 04473