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Rowing teammates have been pulling together since 1989

Between the two of them, Russell Smith and Sean Bercaw have 27 years of rowing experience.

Both licensed captains, Smith, of Ledyard, and Bercaw, of Falmouth, Mass., have been rowing together since 1989. That's plenty of time to hone their skills for their most recent test: today's more than 20-mile-long Blackburn Challenge - an open water circumnavigation of Cape Ann in Gloucester, Mass.

Participants in the 25th anniversary race can row or paddle small boats. There is no rain date, and conditions on the water can change at the drop of a hat.

Smith has a solid 19 years of competing in the race under his belt, while Bercaw will compete today for the eighth time. He is the captain of the Amistad, a reproduction schooner built at Mystic Seaport.

To prep for race day, they met six times a week at the Bayberry Lane Boat Launch in Groton to row 2 or 3 miles around Ledge Light or Pine Island. Sometimes, they met in Mystic and rowed around Masons Island.

"We've discovered we row pretty well together. When you're tired after rowing for two to three hours, that's when you find out how well you really get along," Bercaw said.

In 2008, the pair set a Blackburn Challenge record for the fixed-seat double class with a time of 3:14:43. It has yet to be broken.

During the race, Smith tells jokes and playfully taunts the other rowers, Bercaw said.

"Once it stops being fun, we won't do it anymore," Smith said.

Bercaw is in the stroke seat while Smith steers.

While rowing, the pair reaches speeds of 6 or 7 miles an hour.

Their 21-foot-long boat, "Last Chance," was built by Bill Armitage of Ledyard.

Smith said it was named after President Theodore Roosevelt's last trip down the Amazon and his quote to his son stating he went on the trip because it was his "last chance."

"Sean and I think rowing is a real stress release. We get to row for an hour and talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Smith said.

Two days before the race, Smith and Bercaw began to hydrate themselves. With today's check-in at 6 a.m., and the captains' meeting at 7 a.m., the pair will make time for a quick breakfast stop at their most trusted restaurant.

During the race, they generally snack on bananas and drink a concentrated formula of carbohydrates.

Even though the Blackburn Challenge is fun, it is also daunting and still intimidates Smith.

"There are rocks and not a lot of places to pull in and stop," he said. "I'm still scared after doing it 19 times. You have to watch out for rocks, boats, buoys and the weather. You have to keep your wits about you."

They'll see seals and seabirds, but lobster boats and divers searching for the crustaceans pose a greater threat.

In case of an emergency, there are safety and chase boats for the more than 250 competitors registered for this morning's race.

Each year, Smith said, he tells himself he's not returning to Gloucester.

"Just before the end of the race, we'll be coming towards the beach and I'm saying no way, no how, am I coming back. But, 20 minutes later we're standing on the beach, talking about what we're going to row next year, making plans already," Smith said.

"It just gets in your blood, I guess. Boats, boats, boats. That's me."

j.hanckel@theday.com

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