Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Back in Black(burn)!

Starting line, Blackburn Challenge 2019

By Johna Till Johnson

Sometimes winning is just about showing up.

“I don’t think I’ll ever do the Blackburn Challenge again,” I said to my friend Jean.

I meant it. The race was too intimately connected to Vlad. It was the first race we’d ever done together, and the only one we’d done repeatedly.  

No, I couldn’t do another Blackburn.

A year went by, and another.

And to my surprise, I heard myself asking Jean, “Are you thinking of doing Blackburn this year?”

She was. Along with her friend B.

So I blocked time on my calendar… and forgot about it.

That is, until B. sent me an email asking for advice. Although she was an accomplished marathoner, Blackburn would be the longest kayak race she’d done, and she had questions: Would conditions be overwhelming? What happens if you bonk midrace? What did I recommend for hydration and food?

It wasn’t until after I’d explained my thoughts on the above that I realized I really would be doing the race, my sixth time.

Launch site (my Solstice is the red boat next to the bag, which holds supplies)

As I planned and prepped for the race, everything was achingly familiar… yet totally different:

The drive up from NYC. As always, I left later than planned (Vlad and I had had many a tension-spat en route north, thanks to the added time pressure.) But this time I was leaving on Thursday, giving myself time and energy to recover on Friday before the race. And of course, there was no one to have a spat with.

The lovely little hotel that Jean had found. Vlad and I had always stayed at The Inn at Babson Court, right downtown; they were full up by the time I committed to go, but the Castle Manor Inn was just as lovely, if less idiosyncratic. And we met up with some Blackburn Challenge competitors, who went out with Jean on a pre-race paddle (I had to stay back at the hotel to get work done).

The early-morning start in the gym at Gloucester High School.  The boats had been loaded and were in place. We were at the captain’s meeting at Gloucester High School, edgy and nervous about the day ahead. But there was plenty of “hurry-up-and-wait” time to chat with fellow contestants, sip coffee, and worry…

Captain’s meeting

And then the start…

Before long we paddled out to the starting line, waiting for our groups to be called up. B. and I were in the same group (Sea Kayaks); Jean was in the surfski class.

They called our numbers, and we each shouted out “here”. Then the horn sounded and we were off.

Starting line

Somewhat to my surprise, B. pulled ahead of me early on. She’d been so worried about her inexperience that I’d assumed she’d be slower.

Well, no matter. I’m known for finishing strong; I’d likely pull ahead towards the end of the race.

The paddle down the Annisquam River was surprisingly challenging; I’d only realize later that I’d gotten the currents mixed up, and we were paddling against the current in the early part of the race.

Like all races, it was both infinitely long and over in the blink of an eye. My memory is a jumbled mix of sunshine and waves… watching (from behind) the strategy of one of my top competitors in the sea kayak class as she paddled out to sea to catch the currents, then rode the currents parallel to the seawall, pulling well ahead of me, propelled by the sea (green line in the course chart.)

The course. Green line is where my competitor went out to sea to surf the current in…

Somewhere close to the end I realized I wasn’t going to pull ahead of either B. or my other competitor, and I slowed way down, finishing in a disappointing 4 hours and 23 minutes, my worst time by far, and well below my most recent sub-4-hours.

Approaching the beach

So it was with decidedly mixed emotions that I pulled up to the colorful beach. I wasn’t happy with my performance, but more than that, two things hit me hard: Vlad wasn’t there to greet me, and a memory stuffed away suddenly surfaced.

On the cold December evening right after he’d died, I’d changed his body into a shirt that reminded me of happier days… And I realized with a shock, for the first time, that it had been his Blackburn Challenge 2102 shirt. Tears filled my eyes and the beach blurred.

Suddenly someone appeared. It was B. “Let me help you with your boat,” she said. Together we hauled it up on the sand.

B. and Jean

A few minutes later, Jean appeared. “Look, you got bling!” she said. It was true. I’d come in third, despite my poor time. B. had won our class (with a brilliant time around three hours and forty minutes!)  and Jean had won hers.

And so had another woman, Melissa, who joined us on the beach and who I vaguely remembered.

Melissa and her first place

“Didn’t you compete in 2013? In a plastic boat of some sort?” I asked her. She had, and done well, coming in third. Six years later she’d graduated to a high-performance sea kayak (Surfski) and had finished at the top of her class.

Scene at the finish line

Melissa was just one of several people I recognized.

As we went through the lunch buffet and gathered for the awards ceremony, I caught up with several others, including Roger, one of my kayaking heroes.

Roger was a good kayaker until he retired from his job as a university professor when he was somewhere in his 60s. Then he became a great kayaker, routinely beating men who were nearly a half-century younger.

I was delighted to spend a few minutes catching up with him, reminiscing about past races and commiserating over this one (he, too, had done less well than he’d hoped.)

“You and Jean seem to know everybody!” B. exclaimed.

She had a point. And it was a happy reminder of one of the things that Vlad and I both loved about the race: the diverse participants. We human-powered boaters are an odd breed, and the people who take delight in seemingly pointless tests of endurance form our own community. (Blackburn would have been pleased!)

Three dories

Vlad is gone, and we will never share another race.

But there will be other Blackburns, other opportunities to connect with my crazy endurance-boater kindred spirits… and maybe to improve on that 4:23 pace.

For now, it’s enough to be back.

Beach umbrellas

 

Gallery

Sea Hare

This gallery contains 1 photos.

Text and photo by Johna Till Johnson Photo edit concept by Dan Kalman Westport River, East Branch, Westport, Massachusetts It was a sunny weekend in early autumn. The trees were just beginning to come ablaze, lit by the late morning … Continue reading

Circumnavigating Monomoy

By Johna Till Johnson
(With additional text, charts, and photos by Vladimir Brezina)

This happened in July 2011.

The day dawned clear and bright, and we were excited: This was the day we were going to circumnavigate Monomoy Island. Located at the “elbow” of Cape Cod, Monomoy juts out some eight miles, dividing Nantucket Sound from the Atlantic Ocean. It offers a nice spectrum of paddling opportunities: The protected, shallow water of the Sound on one side, and the deep swells of the Atlantic on the other.

And then there is Monomoy Point, the very end of the island, where the two waters meet.

“Kayakers have died there,” Vlad informed me cheerfully over breakfast.

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Sea Kayaking Adventures in New England: A Few Photos to Start With

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

After returning from a week’s eventful paddling in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Vlad is sorting through hundreds of photos and Johna is turning over the stories in her head. It will take some little while for the report to come together, but it will feature:

Long open-water crossings!

Exciting surf landings!

Unexpected encounters with low tides…

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