By Vladimir Brezina
The other day I looked at the calendar and suddenly realized that there are barely three months left: it’s high time to get into shape, and get the kayaks shipshape, for this year’s Blackburn Challenge!
The Blackburn Challenge, organized by the Cape Ann Rowing Club, is a ~20-mile open water race around Cape Ann, the rocky cape that projects into the Atlantic Ocean north of Boston, Massachusetts. It’s a well known and well established event—last year was the 25th running of the race (and there was one participant who had been in all 25 of them!). The fun part is that the race is open to “all seaworthy oar or paddle powered craft. Classes include men’s and women’s Banks dories, fixed seat singles, doubles, multi-oars with cox, multi-oars without cox, sliding seat singles & doubles, single & double touring kayaks, single & double racing kayaks, surf skis, and outrigger canoes.” Even, in the last couple of years, paddleboards! So it’s quite a colorful flotilla out there on the ocean during the race!
Johna and I have raced in the Blackburn Challenge in 2010 and 2011, and we will be going again this year. The 2012 Challenge is on Saturday, July 14th. If that sort of thing appeals to you, you should certainly think about going too!
Here is the course of the Blackburn Challenge in Google Earth and plotted on a marine chart. The exact course, though, is up to you to decide on given the day’s conditions—the only requirements are to check in at one point half-way round (after which “we don’t care how you get back”), and then of course at the end!
(click on the chart to expand)
The course is (almost) a circumnavigation of Cape Ann—for the first two or three miles down the winding Annisquam River, and then past a series of rocky points around the cape, ending in Gloucester Harbor. There is some assistance from tidal current, especially in the Annisquam River. After that, “conditions can vary dramatically throughout the day. Occasionally the water can be very rough, with strong winds and high waves.” The 2006 race was run in thick fog (after which, provision was made for alternative courses to be used in fog or high winds, but I don’t think they’ve been needed yet). In the past two years, conditions have been fairly placid—but even then, as we rounded some of the points we were treated to the sight and sound of surf crashing dramatically on the rocks, just to show what could be!
How long does it take to complete the course? Here are the 2011 results. The fastest boat—a sliding seat racing double—finished in 2 hours, 26 minutes, and 21 seconds. The fastest single “high performance” kayak—a surf ski—took 2:34:24, the fastest single “standard” sea kayak 3:21:08. The slowest of the 245 boats to finish, actually a paddleboard, took 7:32:25. So if you paddle a sea kayak reasonably fast, you won’t be last!
If you are considering taking part, don’t be put off either by the story of the man for whom the race is named. From the Blackburn Challenge website:
The event both celebrates and helps to keep alive the story of Howard Blackburn’s desperate mid-winter 1883 rowing of a small fishing dory from the Burgeo Bank fishing grounds to refuge on the south coast of Newfoundland. Blackburn and his dorymate Thomas Welch had become separated from the Gloucester fishing schooner Grace L. Fears during a sudden squall and found themselves nearly sixty miles from the nearest land. Over the course of the ensuing five-day ordeal, Welch would give up and succumb to a merciful death, whereas Blackburn would allow his bare hands to freeze to the shape of the oars, and row until he reached land.
Though Blackburn survived he ultimately suffered the loss of most of his fingers and toes due to frostbite. In spite of his handicap, he later went on to twice sail solo across the Atlantic Ocean, earning himself the title “The Fingerless Navigator”.
The story is told in much more (horrific) detail here.
Here are a few photos from the 2011 Blackburn Challenge:
And now, sorry!—no photos for the next four hours. But here’s a representative photo, taken from land by David Cox during the 2010 Challenge, from the blog GoodMorningGloucester.
And here is a nice selection of David Cox’s photos from the 2011 Challenge.
Now my race is done…
… Gloucester’s famous Greasy Pole.
More photos from the 2011 Blackburn Challenge, and from the other days of our 2011 New England kayaking vacation, are here.