The Howard Blackburn challenge

Most everyone along the Atlantic shores interested in ocean rowing or paddling has heard about The Blackburn Challenge. This 20-mile ocean race/rally around Cape Ann in Gloucester, Massachusetts was established in 1987 in honor of Howard Blackburn, dory fisherman and sailor extraordinaire from Medway, Nova Scotia and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Even I had heard about his heroic 60-mile row back to Newfoundland shores when he was separated from his schooner on the Burgeo Bank in a snowstorm in 1883. What impressed me most as a little boy growing up in war-torn Germany was that he let his hands freeze to the oars so he would not lose his grip. He eventually made it to shore, but not so his partner. Howard lost most of his fingers as well as a few toes, but still sailed small boats across the Atlantic solo, when that was still a big deal.

Well, I rowed, kayaked, canoed, even worked on freighters and sailed (not solo) across the Atlantic twice, but in 2002 I needed something new. That was the year I heard about the Blackburn Challenge race in Gloucester and about the resurgence of outrigger canoes. Those boats should do much better on the ocean than my racing kayaks and canoes, I mused. I researched my options and promptly ordered a Maori-inspired New Zealand design of a solo outrigger canoe, built in Maryland, USA, sight unseen – everything looked so good. I signed up for the race, and one week after I received my new Surfrigger, I was at the start, along with about 150 other boats.

I had just enough time to test the variants in my boat set-up and found a very good compromise between stability, speed and comfort. Remember, these boats are very long (mine is 24') and very narrow (12.5" on the waterline). The ama (outrigger/float) on port gives you great stability on that side, but it is very easy to flip off your seat to starboard, since the hull is practically round. Furthermore, waves from the left will lift the ama before they get to the hull of the boat, which in turn levers you off your seat into the water. Anyway, I instantly loved the boat, its challenge and speed, even out on the ocean, in the wind and waves. I did well, finishing the 20-mile course in 3 hours 46 minutes. And I did it eleven more times, always finishing within a span of 20 minutes, regardless of wind and tide. 2014 was going to be my 13th race, and I had decided to make it a very special one. I could hardly wait, since the Blackburn is always on my mind, year round.

The set-back

Then came the winter of 2013/14, one of the coldest and snowiest ones on record in Maine and many more states and Canadian provinces (see my article "Ice-bound PEI" on my website. Snow-shoveling, roof-raking plus a few other projects did me in. I finally at age 74 had to accept the fact I was not invulnerable. In January, I snapped the biceps tendon of my right arm with a loud bang, just as my Achilles tendon did when I was a college gymnast back in Germany. This time, though, I was confident it could be fixed. But no, two orthopedic clinics in Maine decided it wasn't worth the trouble. The tendon was too old, too brittle, in other words, used up. Their advice: live with it. You might still be able to do "some" paddling. End of treatment – not even any physical therapy. Nothing.

A couple of six-packs later, I decided that I would still paddle this year's Blackburn, even without the help of my now defunct right biceps muscle. And my time would not be slower than last year's, definitely under 4 hours, and my "nemesis" R.C. (his term, not mine) would not beat me because of a little thing like that! I was also determined not to let the number 13 work its spell. No way! But how could I pull it off? Well, I followed the advice from one of my kids' favorite children's books about "Mrs. Mooley", the cow, who had set her mind on jumping over the moon, which she finally did (when the moon was kissing the horizon). As she put it: "All it takes is determination and a little practice".

Off to the start

The new challenge

OK, so there you have it! If she could accomplish her feat, so could I! First I looked around on the web for faster and definitely lighter, more competitive boats than my old 1990 design. That search was very successful: I found a new 20'6" Hawaiian solo outrigger, manufactured by the same company that also makes the "Hurricane", the fastest solo outrigger. Their new Storm was thoroughly tested against the Hurricane in all 3 categories: all-out speed, sea-worthiness and riding comfort. It was going to be the new kid on the block. I got boat number # 65. They also used the latest carbon fiber construction method, fabricating hull and deck in one piece, thus saving a lot of weight for the seams.

My new Storm weighs in at just under 20 lbs. for hull, ama and iacos, i.e. for the entire boat – a joy to carry for my "handicapped" right arm and to push up to speed on the water! And yes, when you know you are weaker in some parts of your body, you compensate for it with other muscle groups, train harder and longer, and make absolutely sure you know how to handle the new, shiny, onyx-black, carbon fiber beast/boat. I even got a new paddling outfit to match the new boat as well as a new hydration system and compass.

By adding a few letters to the large emblazoned "STORM" on my bow and ama, I even ended up with a personal name for the boat: "Swatte Orm", meaning as much as "Black Dragon" in Viking lingo ("swatt" = black; "orm" = fire-spitting dragon; inspired by the Swedish book "Röde Orm", Red Dragon, by Frans G. Bengtsson).

wavesAt the finish by the Greasy Pole

The finish

I must have prepared all right. I finished the 20-mile race 19 minutes faster than the previous year (in 3 hours 35 minutes). That is almost a minute per mile faster than my time from the year before! I was also very close to my personal best time of 3 hours 33 minutes. I was psyched, till I found out that most everybody beat his/her time from the previous year, when it was brutally hot. My "nemesis" also set a new personal record by a few seconds. But while I beat him by 3 and 5 minutes in previous races, this time I beat him by 13 minutes. Not bad for the officially "oldest contestant (of 399) in this year's Blackburn" at 75, as announced at the skippers' meeting before the race. The icing on the cake was beating another outrigger by 7 seconds in a sprint to the finish line at the "Greasy Pole" off the town beach.

I was "back in the saddle again", you might say. I had met the challenge, the "Blackburn Challenge". Even though my feat is a far cry from what Howard Blackburn did, I still feel I caught his spirit of not giving up, of hanging in there to the end – and I even had a ball! Admittedly, my right arm got more tired than my left arm, and my tailbone was hurting more from balancing the lighter boat in the waves, so I would not tip to starboard. But all that is soon forgotten with a hot meal, loud, live music, and an Ipswich beer served under a big tent at the finish line. And yes, a big hug from my dear wife, Nancy, who is the real motivator behind it all. Thanks my dear!

Taking out - I did it!

So I will be "off to the races" again next year, 2015, my 14th race. Yes, you guessed it: for me and many participants, the BLACKBURN CHALLENGE is a year-round challenge, a life-style challenge. It is much more than yet another paddling or rowing race. It is a constant incentive and reminder to live healthy and stay in shape. So I hope to see you there next year, my friends. Till then, have a great, safe time on the water.

PS: I still like my old Surfrigger and will especially use it for cold-weather paddling, since it has a cockpit with spray skirt like a sea kayak. Paddling my new Storm, I am much more exposed to the elements – but fast is fun, my friends.

- Reinhard


© Reinhard Zollitsch