The 2015 Blackburn Challenge, Gloucester, Massachusetts

A race like no other

If any of you readers know someone who has rowed or paddled in this year's Blackburn Challenge, the 20-mile ocean race around Cape Ann in Gloucester, Massachusetts, give him/her a call and ask how they did. I can assure you they will have a story to tell. It was an epic race. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying, humbling and downright exhausting. In retrospect, it was a rather dangerous situation. I can't remember ever having been exposed to such winds and seas for nearly 4.5 hours in a skinny 20' 6" long, 15" wide boat. Only my sail off Nova Scotia in a 60 knot storm was equally intimidating and downright frightening. Then, for the first time, I had the feeling of sailing "in" the ocean; now I was paddling my solo outrigger racing canoe "in" the waves, in places cresting up to 4-6 feet.

2015 was going to be my 14th Blackburn, my lucky number, I thought, in my new (last year), racy, 20 pound, black carbon fiber, Hawaiian-style sit-on-top solo outrigger canoe. 339 boaters had pre-registered in 232 boats in various classes of rowboats, kayaks, surfskis and outrigger canoes. We were 10 boats in the solo outrigger class, including some hot-shots from the Washington, DC canoe club, from Toronto and from up and down the Atlantic coast. I was the only Mainer in the bunch. The weather forecast for the morning of July 25 was very good, I thought. It was overcast, not too hot, with light winds, about 10 knots. Only the direction of the wind was unusual for this time of year: northeast. Looking at my chart, I confidently thought it should take a bit more energy to get to Halibut Point, seven miles into the race, and from the outer Gloucester breakwater to the finish line, two more miles. But we should enjoy a following breeze from the midpoint at Straitsmouth Island all along the wide open stretch back to the breakwater. I had the right boat for that and could not wait to find out how she would do in following seas.

The boat set-up

At the captains' meeting everybody was in a very jovial, eager and positive mood. The first-timers were cheered, while all the serious competitors were eyeing and evaluating their competitors' boats and equipment. The inherently slower boat classes were started first, chased down eventually by the most competitive and mostly also fastest class, the surfskis. The 6-person outriggers brought up the rear. I have always been very happy with this starting arrangement: everybody races within his/her class, but everybody will also have other boats ahead of them to catch up to or be passed by faster ones. This creates a good camaraderie on the water, and everybody kind of watches out for the other boaters. There were only few support/safety boats on the course, marked with a large orange flag. The Coast Guard tries to stay out of the fray.

this is it
This is it!

"Ready! Go!" - the race begins

At 8:20 sharp my class of solo and the double outriggers headed north for 3 miles, into the wind, towards the mouth of the Annisquam River and the lighthouse. My "nemesis" (his term, not mine) Roger was right beside me, then slightly ahead, in his brand new, startlingly orange Hurricane, over the years the most successful boat in our class. Since he is almost ten years my junior, I didn't fret. I should catch up to him in the rougher stuff, I thought confidently. Before the race Nancy had said something about "the Spirit of '76", meaning: "That's your age, and you've still got it, even being the oldest competitor in the race. You can do it!" (Who needs a cheering crowd when you have a spouse so full of confidence?)

Off to the start

One look out onto the open water made me gulp, though. The weather report had significantly underestimated the NE wind, which was much stronger and turned out to come from the NNE. But the sea state looked truly intimidating. There were long breakers coming in onto our left bow, long crushing crests dumping their tops as in a surfing competition. "Those would be race-enders," I thought when I first saw them. I watched them like a hawk and tried to out-sprint the worst parts of the long waves rolling in. Henry, who had rowed in every Blackburn Challenge since its inception in 1987, told me after the race that he saw those crests and wanted none of it, and wisely returned to the starting line. And I am sure he was not the only one returning or pulling out at the first opportunity. Looking at the race results, I counted the DNFs and DNSs: 77 boats had not finished the race (or had prudently pulled out before getting hurt), or had decided not to start at all.

Since I still found myself surrounded by other boats, I dug in hard too and skillfully sliced through the waves. If they could do it, so could I, I thought confidently. I instantly passed my nemesis, which buoyed my spirit further. I had paddled my Verlen Kruger touring sea canoe in very rough waters around Nova Scotia and even up the western shore of Newfoundland. So I pushed on, point to point to point, staring at the waves, totally ignoring my competitors. This looked more like who could outlast the other boats in class.

Dancing with waves

I knew the wind direction was not the best for an outrigger canoe with the ama/outrigger on port. Waves were lifting the ama before getting to the boat. Already a 2-foot wave would discombobulate my balance on my elevated canoe seat and would try to lever me unceremoniously into the water to starboard, unless I shift my weight to port to keep the ama on the water. "Ama on the water, or "ama" (I am) going to swim!"

I had several close calls. The ama was already high in the sky, but I was able to catch my balance in the nick of time and slap the ama back down onto the water. It was very intense, bordering on being scary. Amazing what adrenalin will do for you. I kept on towards Halibut Point, a bold granite promontory where the waves were crashing onto the bare granite shore and reverberating back into the water. "Officer, it was horrible!" But since there were many people on the rocks, most of them with cameras, I made sure I would not end up like a piece of driftwood in the rocky clefts. "Watch the waves! Anticipate what the ama is going to do and LEAN LEFT into the waves!"

At that point I also learned I could paddle very effectively on port and with each stroke hold myself upright. "Just get the paddle in the water and claw yourself to windward," I told myself. The 6-person outrigger from Washington passed by me but then had lots of problems. They most likely took on too much water. So they headed into the wind, got way off course, and began to bail, or retighten the ama (?). This happened repeatedly to the halfway mark at Straitsmouth Island.

I had hoped that the worst was over after rounding Halibut Point, but no, the waves got even bigger and longer and were now hitting the boats smack dab on port beam. I was dancing, and so was everybody else. Many paddlers went swimming on this 3-mile stretch to Straitsmouth, some even repeatedly, I heard after the race. I could not wait to get to the shelter of the islands, but no such luck. The seas got even more confused in the narrows. I had to switch into survival mode. My perch was so precarious, and my hips were beginning to hurt from all the balancing.

The slam dunk

And as I rounded up towards Thacher Island and the Milk Island Bar, I suddenly found myself lifted off my seat by a big following sea and plunked into the water between hull and ama. (These boats should have a seat belt, I foolishly thought.) Fortunately I was able to hold on to the boat as well as my paddle and scrambled back on, which was much harder than I had anticipated. I was still connected to my boat via my ankle leash as well as my drinking tube, but my boat was madly gyrating in the waves without directional power and rudder input. But it did not "huli" (tip over) as Hawaiians would say, and I did not get tossed back into the water, before I was fully set up. Whew! It was all done on an adrenalin high with some prior practice on calmer waters back home. This, by the way, was my first unintentional ocean "swim" in 14 years of paddling outrigger, no, ever! But I noticed to my chagrin that I was not wearing my life jacket. I had shock-corded it behind me on the deck to be cooler and faster, like all the other serious racers. It is legal, and no one knew how bad the conditions would be. It was definitely not a good idea. I doubt whether I will do it again.

Back in the saddle, I instantly picked up speed again as I was passed by the only 4-person outrigger in the race. They then suddenly totally flipped over, more or less right in front of me. Being a conscientious competitor, I paddled over to see whether they were all OK and could right their boat. They assured me they could. Moments later a 6-person outrigger went upside down, dumping all paddlers into the water. Again, I stopped to check on them. Firm commands were already being shouted to the crew, and yes, they were able to right their boat also. Too much excitement in such a short span of time for "the Spirit of '76".

Crossing the notorious 7-foot Milk Island Bar (measured at low tide, that is), has always been on my mind since my first Blackburn race in 2002. Big waves could bottom out here, I knew, and tumble over. I stayed closer to shore where it is deeper and tiptoed through this mélee. But then right after it I enjoyed a wonderful clean tailwind and lesser and more regular seas, but only for about a mile. It made me smile again. My boat seemed to run as if it was on rails, with hardly any balancing from my hips. They were going, going, gone. Since I still had plenty of shoulder and arm power, I quickly devised a new technique to stay upright: I used the backswing of my paddle stroke to push my upper body upright.

Lone voyager

But then I noticed I was suddenly all alone, a "Lone Voyager" on the open ocean, the title of the famous book by Joseph Garland on Howard Blackburn, whom we honor with this race. All faster boats had passed me and were already out of sight, and nobody was coming up from behind to pass me any more, or they had dropped out. It seemed I was leading the "rest of the pack" towards home. It was a very eerie and lonely feeling, and I made absolutely sure I would not "huli".
Well, I did OK those crucial 6.5 miles from the Milk Island Bar to the Dog Bar, to the Gloucester outer breakwater. At this notoriously rough corner I got ready for more confused seas. But instead it was almost completely calm on the outside of the breakwater. I was delighted. Yes! I had made it! The remaining two miles straight into the wind would be hard work but I could relax my middle. Then someone on shore called out my name and a few encouraging words. Thanks, Tamsin! I needed that.

Rounding Gloucester breakwater (Tamsin Venn photo)

I looked around for my competition for the first time in the race, but none was in sight. I then grit my teeth and dug in again like a well-oiled but tired machine, only watching out for the many large wakes from the power boats. Remember, it was a summer Saturday!

The finish

I crossed the finish line a second under 4 hours and 25 minutes, in fifth place in my class, 52 minutes slower than last year. But then, everybody was significantly slower this year. Even the fastest OC-6, the boats least affected by the strong wind and big waves, was 30 minutes slower than last year. So I felt just fine and managed a tired smile when Nancy greeted me at the town beach. "Well done! Amazing! My Spirit of '76!"

A well-deserved rest at the finish line

I rolled into the water to cool off, but when I tried to carry my 20-pound outrigger higher onto the beach, my legs buckled, and "Swatte Orm", my "fire-spitting black dragon", had to accept some outside help. (Don't you like my Viking name for my boat? All I had to do was add four letters to "Storm", its model name.) Many other competitors needed some assistance too. But after a nice hot meal and a cool beer, things began to look much better.

I was almost done eating, when Roger hit the beach, 20 minutes behind me. He also had to remount his steed after a swim, but I was very proud that all solo outriggers had finished, some even after multiple swims. I felt especially gratified finishing 17 minutes ahead of two much younger outrigger paddlers, whom I had beaten in the past by only 7 seconds. Other paddlers were proudly parading their broken boats through the crowds, but there was no damage on my light-weight outrigger. I heard there was a lot of carnage, but as far as I know, no paddler got seriously hurt or needed medical attention. That was good news for a rather dangerous situation, let's face it. But all's well that ends well!

Looking at the overall results, as I said, I noticed that 77 of the 232 registered boats did not finish the race or prudently did not even start, which is roughly one third of all boats. Some classes were totally wiped out, like the highly competitive sliding seat rowing doubles class, including expert rower and boat builder Ted van Dusen. In the sliding seat solo rowing racing and touring classes, only 50% finished. And about the same percentage of paddlers finished in the fast sea kayak men's class, as well as in the surfski class, and also in the super competitive high performance kayak class. Three big outrigger sixes also bit the wave crests and bailed out.

In summation...

this race will long be remembered and talked about by all boaters who entered, regardless of whether they finished the race or had to pull out. It certainly will go down as the toughest ocean race ever along our New England shores (for rowers and paddlers, that is). It was a race in the true spirit of Howard Blackburn's historic survival row off Newfoundland in 1883. It was an epic challenge.

And I am sure Howard would have been proud of all the contestants who did their best in the worst conditions. But I personally see him especially smiling about all those boaters who finished the challenge, who hung in there all the way to the end, even if that meant bailing their boats, rolling them back up or re-entering them after a brief wet swim in order to get to the finish line. Nancy tells me she was SO proud of me also, which really counts, believe me, and that she was SO glad to see me hit the Gloucester town beach at the Greasy Pole, the finish line. From early finishers and boaters who had dropped out she had heard how rough the race had turned, and she was understandably concerned. She had to wait much longer than the usual 3:30 to 3:50 hours for me to come into sight, but she finally picked me out with her field glasses. "He is coming. He did it!"

Yes, I did it, but it was not easy, folks! - - - Let's see what next year brings, my 15th Blackburn Challenge.

In the meantime I will be proudly wearing this year's T-shirt with the very apropos logo:

2015 Blackburn Challenge
Row it... paddle it... if you can
They that go around Cape Ann in boats
Honoring Howard Blackburn

2015 Blackburn T-shirt logo

Reinhard Zollitsch

Boat: 20' 6" STORM by Outrigger Zone, Hawaii. Total weight: 20 lbs (seamless carbon fiber).
Paddle: 50" carbon fiber bent-shaft and spare by Zaveral, NY (10 oz. each).
2-quart Dromedary hydration system with Cytomax (mounted in front of canoe seat).
Ritchie compass (mounted on bow).
Joseph Garland: Lone Voyager. Touchstone, New York, 1963.
Distances given in statute miles.

All pictures by Nancy Zollitsch, except #4

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© Reinhard Zollitsch