In Withering Heat, Patience Pays Off at the Blackburn Challenge (and Fishers Island Circumnavigation "Record")

The temperature and humidity had already soared past the 80s when we racers lined up on the Annisquam River in Gloucester, Mass., last Saturday morning for the start of the Blackburn Challenge, considered the most demanding human-powered, open-water competition on the East Coast.

If the forecast proved accurate, it would be at least 10 degrees hotter about noon when (and if) we finished the course, a circumnavigation of Cape Ann.

"This is going to be a war of attrition," I said to Ian Frenkel, in the bow of our 22-foot tandem kayak. "Let's not go out too fast."

Ian adjusted his global positioning system and pretended not to hear me.

I've learned over the years of paddling together that reining in Ian is like trying to harness a bull. At 6 feet 11, he is a valuable partner to have in the forward position, though the down side is I often have trouble navigating from the aft since all I can see is a huge back and a pair of flailing arms wielding a giant paddle.

The race is named for Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester fisherman who lost most of his fingers and toes in 1833 after his fishing dory became separated from its schooner during a mid-winter squall off Nova Scotia and he had to row 60 miles over five days to safety. Undaunted, Blackburn went on to sail solo twice across the Atlantic and became known as "The Fingerless Navigator."

I suppose in the interest of historic accuracy the Cape Ann Rowing Club should stage the Blackburn Challenge in midwinter, preferably during a blizzard, but searing heat is probably less dangerous than bone-numbing cold.

The race, which draws about 300 competitors from far and wide, is open not just to kayaks but also to about two dozen other types of vessels, including Banks dories, sliding- and fixed-seat rowing shells, six-person ocean catamaran paddle boats, standup paddle boards and lightning-fast surfskis. Even among kayakers there are divisions for sea kayaks, fast sea kayaks and high-performance sea kayaks, based on hull length, weight and design. In a field full of Ferraris we were paddling the equivalent of a Chevy Suburban.

The slower vessels start first in stages, and the river already was filled with boats when a race official on shore called through a bullhorn all tandem kayaks to the line.

"Three … two … one … go!"

In 10 seconds, half a dozen boats surged past us, and I already was soaked with sweat.

"Don't worry!" I shouted ahead to Ian. "It's a marathon, not a sprint!"

We soon pulled alongside longtime fellow competitor Gary Williams, paddling with a partner with a disability in the Achilles division, and he gave me a "What are you guys doing back here?" look.

"Hey, Gary – who are those guys in the green kayak way up ahead?" I asked. "Are they in our division?"

"Yes!" he replied. "You should be right on their tail! Go get 'em!"

In about 4 miles we passed Goose Cove and entered Ipswich Bay.

By keeping a steady pace of about 6 mph we maneuvered past a handful of boats, but the guys in the cursed green kayak maintained about a 200-yard lead. Half an hour later, though, their pace slackened and we slowly crept up behind them.

"Let's keep it quiet," I told Ian. No sense alerting the enemy of our approach.

Ian and I took turns chugging sports drinks and then picked up the pace.

"They're toast," I whispered. "Let's make a decisive move – take the heart out of 'em."

We pushed past the struggling pair and I felt a surge of elation.

We rolled over ocean swells approaching Gap Cove at the halfway point and I polished off another liter of sports drink. I was getting a little dizzy, more from waves than from dehydration.

At last we reached Webber Rock and the infamous Dog Bar breakwater at the entrance to Gloucester Harbor. I I steered away from a rock wall and swirling currents.

"Cut it closer!" Ian shouted.

Just then I glimpsed over my shoulder and there was the green kayak, closing fast.


With a deft move the pair slipped between the breakwater and us.

Ian reacted as if he had stuck his finger in a light socket.

"Come on!" he yelled.

We regained momentum and pulled alongside our foes.

"Where did you come from?" I shouted.

"We could see you slowing down," the stern paddler replied.

"Let's go!" I cried to Ian. "Hard 10 strokes."

Our opponents matched our surge.

The bow paddler grimaced.

"Is it going to be a sprint these last two miles to the end?"

I didn't bother to answer.

"Ten more hard ones!" I shouted.

Slowly we pulled back into the lead, focusing on the "Greasy Pole" marking the finish.

I shot one last look over my shoulder. The green kayak had dropped about 50 yards behind.

"We got it!" I called to Ian. "Don't let up!"

And so we poured it on to the bitter end, and then turned around to greet our competition.

"Great race guys," the stern paddler said with an exhausted smile.

"You pushed us," I replied.

The pair, Clyde Yarnell and Mike Malley, had driven to Gloucester from Vermont for their first Blackburn, though they have competed often in other races.

For Ian and me, last week's race was our second Blackburn. Our time of 3 hours and 19 minutes was about nine minutes slower than our first victory in 2010.

"Undefeated!" Ian exulted, noting that we need one more win to match our three wins at the Essex River Race in Massachusetts, also organized by the Cape Ann Rowing Club.

Immediately after suffering for nearly three and a half hours is not the best time to think about another race.

"Way too soon to even think about next year," I said.

Fishers Island Circumnavigation "Record"

A few weeks ago, loyal readers may recall, after three friends and I paddled our kayaks around Fishers Island, my buddy Phil Warner mentioned he'd like to do it again, faster.

Another eminent kayaker, Dave Grainger, had once covered the 18-mile distance in about 2 hours and 57 minutes, and though there are no "official" records that is generally regarded in the local paddling community as a pretty quick time.

Anyway, about 7:45 this morning (July 27), Phil climbed into his 19-foot, 30-pound Extra Fast Tourer kayak and took off from the Esker Point boat launch at Noank's Palmer Cove.

He gave Robin Francis and me, paddling in my 22-foot, 95-pound Nootka tandem, about a 10-minute lead, since there is no way we could keep up Phil's intended pace in a slower boat.

We all agreed that if Phil didn't pass us by Wilderness Point on the south side of Fishers Robin and I would wait for him.

Anyway, the seas and wind were calm, and right on schedule Phil came sweeping by just before Wilderness Point, about 10-miles from the start.

"Go, Phil!" we shouted, and watched him gradually pull away.

The tide was pretty much slack by the time we cut through The Race, but it still kicked up a nasty chop and we dodged a few rocks before turning east past Silver Eel Pond and back into Fishers Island Sound.

Less than an hour later, Robin and I finally arrived back at Esker Point, where an exultant Phil had been waiting, still in his kayak.

"How'd you do?" I asked.

He displayed the global positioning system strapped to his life jacket, and I squinted to read the digital number:


"Well done!" Robin and I cried.

So, two hours and 53 minutes is the new "unofficial" mark for a solo kayak, though Phil and I wouldn't be surprised if someone had gone faster in the past and not kept track of the time.

Records are made to be broken, so I ask anybody who has circumnavigated Fishers faster to let me know.

Good luck, and safe paddling.

Reader Comments


Tom And Steve’s Excellent Adventures In The Northwest Part III: Kayaking Off The Oregon Coast And Columbia River Gorge; Hiking On Mount Saint Helens

Propelled by the sound of crashing surf, my son Tom and I scrambled over a low dune and then gazed in awe.

A Connecticut Yankee In The Northwest Part II: A Cross-Country Ski Adventure, Of Sorts, At Oregon's Crater Lake

Lugging back-country skis and poles on our shoulders, my son Tom and I trudged along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway at Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, searching for a section of road that had not been plowed.

A Connecticut Yankee In The Northwest: Stunning Views, Adventures On Land And Water (Part I)

As I clambered toward the crest of the Mist Trail in California’s Yosemite National Park a couple weeks ago, spray from the thunderous Nevada Fall washed over me, but I was already soaked, with sweat, after gaining nearly 2,000 feet of...

Vacations From Hell: At Least They’re Memorable

Just between us, don’t you hate it when friends or coworkers post photos on Facebook of awesome journeys to exotic destinations – or if they’re really old-school, send postcards depicting glorious sunsets, sparkling lakes,...

In Stride With Women Runners: Amby Burfoot Celebrates Their History In A New Book

Back in the Dark Ages when I was growing up, one of the worst insults an adolescent male could hurl at one of his buddies was, "You run like a girl!"

Danger, Swan Attack! Quick, Wring Its Neck!

It’s difficult to imagine a more outrageous example of idiotic government overreaction than this week’s incident involving a mute swan on Five Mile Pond in Danielson, which would almost be laughable if the outcome weren’t so...

The Parable Of The Rope: An Icy Mountain Drama In New Hampshire's Carter Notch

With a blustery breeze making the 8-degree temperature feel as if were a few notches below zero, our group didn’t intend to dawdle while scrambling back to civilization. The mountain hut where we spent the night had been so frigid my boots...

Over The Falls! A Salmon River Adventure

You know that feeling when you’re about to attempt something adventurous that at first seemed it would be fun, but then doubts about your safety and sanity crept in? Oh no! Too late!

There's No Such Thing As Too Much Garlic

A few years ago, while visiting relatives in Canada, I noticed a giant basket of produce in a corner of the kitchen. "Wow! Where’d you get all that garlic?" I asked.

Plenty Of Mudslinging On The Trail

Well, we’ve made it through another winter, though for snow and ice fans it was pretty pitiful – but we’re not quite out of the woods when it comes to challenging hiking conditions.

Hey, Shaddup Out There! At Least Can You Tone Down All That Screeching, Snorting, Squawking, Croaking, Buzzing And Howling?

OK, I get it. It’s mating season, when all the furry, feathered and slimy critters are desperate for a little action, using the only pickup technique they know: make loud noises.

'Life Is Full of Roadblocks, But You Have to Drive Through Them' – Dirk Vlieks' Inspiring Recovery

After having swum the 1.2-mile leg of Hawaii’s Rohto Half-Ironman triathlon Dirk Vlieks of Mystic was 22 miles into the 56-mile bike section, already thinking ahead to the 13.1-mile run to the finish line, when he began to feel...

My Acute Case of OCWD (Obsessive Compulsive Wood Disorder)

You’d think that those of us who heat with wood can relax this time of year when we no longer must make 10 trips a day to the woodshed, stumble out of bed at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, continuously shovel ashes and forage the forest for...