Paddling for a Threepeat Victory at the Essex River Race

“You know,” I shouted between gasps to Ian Frenkel, my kayaking partner,  “I’m not having much fun!”

Ian just grunted and paddled harder.

We were approaching Cross Island in Massachusetts last Saturday, nearly halfway through the 5.5-plus-mile Essex River Race, and fighting a nasty flood tide that kicked up swirling currents against a gusty tailwind. That stiff breeze would become a powerful headwind as soon as we rounded the island and steered for the finish line.

Just ahead I could see a couple other tandem kayaks, but I was pretty sure most were in a different division.

The Essex River Race, one of the most popular paddling and rowing events in the Northeast, attracts more than 200 competitors in such vessels as Banks dories, multi-oars gigs, sliding- and fixed-seat shells, single and double kayaks, Surfskis and paddle boards. It’s a little like opening up the Indy 500 to Formula 1 race cars, NASCAR and a demolition derby, all at the same time.

With slower boats starting first in stages, the fleet tends to crowd up in the narrows at the beginning and end of the race, as we discovered.

While lining up at the starting buoy a tandem behind me clipped my stern and spun me around just as the horn sounded, and while trying to straighten out I involuntarily launched a stream of invectives, using sailor-appropriate language. Not a good start.

Phil Warner, my old friend and nemesis, paddling his super-fast, 24-foot, sleek tandem with Robin Francis in the bow, shot into the lead, and even though we were in different divisions — he and Robin in the high-performance doubles, Ian and I in the slower sea kayak tandem — I vowed to keep them in sight.

Within minutes another speedy boat flew past us, and I called ahead to Ian, who was paddling in the bow, “Who are those guys?” More important, were they in our division?

Neither of us knew.

Nothing to do but paddle like crazy, and we soon caught up with the beamy dories, and then rowing shells and paddle boards. As the stern paddler in our two-man kayak I controlled the tiller, but my navigation was hampered because I had to peer over Ian, who measures 6 feet, 11 inches tall.

The wind built up to about 15 knots, and my arms felt like overcooked linguine.

Ahead, though, I spied the team of mystery paddlers.

“They’re slowing down!” I cried to Ian. “I think we can get them!”

We poured it on and closed the gap to about 100 yards, but were running out of river with less than a mile to the finish.

“Come on! One last surge!”

Too little, too late. Ian and I paddled past the finish in 58 minutes and 42 seconds, about a minute behind. I feared the Fagin-Frenkel two-year reign as Essex River Race champions in the tandem sea kayak division had come to an end (Ian and I won in 2011 and 2012).

But while catching our breath past the finish line Phil tried to reassure us.

“I think they’re in a faster division,” he said of the other boat.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait for the awards ceremony,” I replied.

A few minutes later the boat that had slammed into my stern at the stern crossed the finish line, and paddled up while we rested near the shore.

“Hey, sorry about that,” the stern paddler apologized.

“No, I apologize for losing my temper. I may have used a few words I didn’t mean to,” I said.

We shook hands and laughed.

An hour or so later, after we tied our kayak onto the car, changed clothes and stuffed ourselves with snacks, Suzanne Sweeney, president of the Cape Ann Rowing Club, commandeered a microphone and began announcing the winners.

Rain began to pelt down at the outdoor ceremony, and wouldn’t you know, the microphone shorted out just as she was announcing the first-place winner in the tandem kayak division. I was pretty sure I heard our names, so Ian and I strode confidently forward.

“Steve Fagin? Ian Frenkel?”

“That’s us.”

“Congratulations. Here are your medals.”


Appalachian Trail update:

Back in March I wrote about two buddies, Matt Baer of East Lyme and Garrett Seibert of Salem, who were preparing to hike the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and promised to provide occasional updates.

Garrett’s dad, Mike, emailed me the other day to report that Matt had to drop out after a week because of a sore Achilles tendon, but his son was soldiering on.

“Garrett has continued his journey and met a group of men and women he now walks with. He just recently passed the 1/3 mark. He was at Daleville, Va., Mile 723, on 5/14. In the beginning he was averaging 15 miles per day, but that has increased to around 20,” Mike Seibert wrote.

Good luck, Garrett, and don’t fret, Matt. You have a lot of years ahead to give it another shot, if that’s what you want to do. I and many others have had to quit quests on numerous occasions. Get well soon.

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