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.

"Damn!"

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:

2:53!

"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.

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