22 July 2017
Last year, our 'Polar Oartex' whaleboat team participated in the annual Blackburn Challenge. This twenty-plus mile row around Cape Ann, Massachusetts, is one of the premier competitive rowing events in the Northeast, regularly drawing hundreds of entrants from as far away as Canada or Virginia. In 2016 we placed third in the 'Open Division,' with a time of 4:38:29. That was thirty to forty minutes behind the first and second place finishers in our class, and a mere 87-seconds ahead of the fourth place boat. It was a challenge, but it was fun, and we all felt very accomplished. A few of us said, "Okay. Been There. Done That. Once is Enough. Never Again."
So last Saturday we were back in Gloucester, because you should never say 'never again.' We came for different reasons. Some on our team wanted to complete the row in four hours or less; some wanted to do it without stopping; some just wanted to do it again; a couple of new recruits wanted to give it a try. The Blackburn Challenge is a symbol, and like all symbols it means different things to different people, yet it fosters community and builds friendships by uniting people around a common focus, a mutual obligation: row in open water, regardless of the conditions, and finish the course. For Howard Blackburn, in 1883, it was row or die.
(Peter Vincent, undated, egg tempera on board; Photo Credit: Cape Ann Museum)
This time around we had a few changes on our crew roster. Last year we went with an extra person, a supernumerary "bow-rider." Our whaleboats carry a crew of six: five rowers and a boat-steerer. But last year, as a precaution against a last-minute drop-out (because merda acontece), we went with seven people. When no one dropped out at the last minute, this meant we had a freshly-rested rower to rotate in every thirty minutes or so. This year, we had no extra rower. In fact, we can very close to withdrawing our entry because we could not find enough people willing or able to join us, and consequently had not been training as hard as we usually do.
"Don't row with Greg."
The 'Polar Oartex' training row claims another victim
Two regular teammates were on the Disabled List, while the "extra" rower from last year had other commitments. It took longer than expected to find substitutes. Not everyone is interested in rowing twenty miles. In a race. In open water. Around Cape Ann. Then, a mere two weeks before the event, one substitute fell ill with a bronchial infection. Again we scrambled to find a replacement. Melissa, a member of another team, the 'Dirty Oars,' came to our rescue. She frequently joins our team's practice rows as a sub, so she was comfortable with us and we with her. It helped that she and her husband had lived on Cape Ann for seventeen years, giving this event a nostalgic allure. It also helped that she had joined our club's 14-mile row between Cuttyhunk and New Bedford a few weeks ago: she felt confident enough to attempt the Blackburn without much condition training.
View from our fire pit: The Eighteen Hole at Turner Hill
On race day, the boat needs to be ready in the water by 6:00am, so participants really need to overnight Friday in the Gloucester area. We rented the same AirBnB as last year, the old Butler's House at the Turner Hill Golf Club in Ipswich. They had almost doubled the price, but the Admiral drives a hard bargain, and negotiated us a great deal. This time, we booked two nights. Last year, hauling out the boat and driving back to New Bedford immediately after the race was no fun at all. In fact, that was the opposite of fun. Consensus this year was to rent the house for two nights, and enjoy a relaxing evening of dinner, drinks, and camaraderie after the race. After all, you really can't indulge in adult beverages and go body-rolling down the hill behind a putting green the night BEFORE a twenty-mile race....
View towards our house (in the trees) and firepit
(Photo Credit: Unknown)
We followed a row plan I developed based on a little homework on weather, tides, currents, speeds, and personnel. I projected elapsed time estimates for different waypoints (based on three different boat speeds), and decided where it would be most appropriate to switch seats (port and starboard) and change up boat-steerers. The short-range forecast for Race Day was favorable: partly cloudy, upper 70s/lower 80s, light winds 4-6 knots, NW backing S, seas one-foot.
The Row Plan
After "carbing up" on our traditional lasagna dinner on the eve of the race, alarms were set for 4:30am. You have to be careful about what you put in your stomach before a big row: some foods don't digest well during a heavy workout. For most of us, it was a light breakfast of a hard boiled egg, a little bit of oatmeal, and some fruit. Coffee was kept to a minimum -- for the next five or six hours, the only place to pee is in a boat bucket. Then we were "wheels up" on-time for a 5:15am departure.
Hauling along back roads between Ipswich and Gloucester, early Saturday morning
Check-in for the Blackburn is behind Gloucester High School, between 6:15-7:00. Those who arrive before 6:00am beat the crowd: you can go straight to the boat ramp, launch the boat, and tie up on the dock. But arrive a mere fifteen minutes later and you are sure to be stuck in the cluster**ck of cars and trailers and boats and people all queue up to access the ramp. Each craft must be inspected for safety equipment, and all entrants must sign a waiver, prior to the general pre-race meeting at 7:00. Then participants board their boats and head up the Annisquam River to the starting line, just north of the railway bridge.
Polar Oartex walking to the boat ramp, behind a single-entry skiff
(Photo Credit: Marty Luster)
North of the railway bridge is a small boat basin where participants cluster together waiting for their division to be started. It gets crowded, and people tend to forget (or not realize) that the oars on a whaleboat extend about ten feet over the gunwales and project twelve feet or so behind the stern.
Chilling out near the start line, before the race
(Photo Credit: "Seawolf")
All sorts of muscle-powered watercraft participate in the Blackburn Challenge, including traditional Banks dories, workboats and skiffs, pilot gigs and whaleboats, racing shells and outriggers, canoes and kayaks. Different classes or divisions start the race in 'waves,' beginning with the paddle boarders.
Kayaks at the Starting Line, the railway bridge in the right background
(Photo Credit: Iforgot)
This year, the traditional 8:00am start came a few hours after low tide. Consequently, the first leg to the river mouth at Annisquam Light was a little tough, as we rowed against the peak of the incoming current. The fun part about rowing the river is the cheering of spectators; the not-so-fun parts are the ubiquitous green-head horseflies. Combined with the absence of any breeze, this was all the motivation we needed to row harder.
Rowing the Annisquam River, passing spectators on a houseboat
(Photo Credit: Donna Lind)
All the same, by the time we reached the sea at 9:03am, we were already behind schedule. Our initial boat-steerer, Mark, began to call more urgently for us to "power up" -- to pull with full strength for ten, twenty, or even thirty strokes and generate multiple spurts of speed.
Passing Davis Point, the crew reaching far during a power up
(Photo Credit: Jim O'Dowd)
Here comes Hawaii 5-0....
Just look at the wake they are generating, compared to our whaleboat
(Photo Credit: Leslie Berchtold Chappell)
Rounding Halibut Point
(Photo Credit: Leslie Berchtold Chappell)
The Stroke Oar sets the rhythm, pace, and (supposedly) the length of the oar-pull that powers the boat through the water. Not everyone enjoys rowing Stroke, and not everyone enjoys when certain people row Stroke. It can be very frustrating when the Stroke Oar has an irregular rhythm, a short reach, or a pulls at too quick a pace. In a whaleboat, a choppy stoke is likely to rock the boat, create drag, and slow your speed; if you row at too fast a pace, you will tire quickly. These are thousand-pound boats. Beth is the regular 'Stroke Oar' for the Polar Oartex. She has excellent form; her technique is among the best in the club. Leaning well forward with a big reach at her "catch" point, she generates a long and powerful pull, usually at the rate of 24-26 strokes per minute. She is really good at it.
Straitsmouth Island: the Half-Way Point
(Photo Credit: RedFin Realty)
(Photo Credit: RedFin Realty)
We maintained this configuration around Halibut Point and across Sandy Bay, passing Rockport, until we cleared Straitsmouth. Now riding light winds from the northwest, we gained some time and made the halfway mark at 2hr 24min. Once again we were back on-track for a 4.5 hour row. After Straitsmouth, at the 8nm mark, we changed seats again and it was my turn at the Stroke Oar. My form is not as good as that of Beth, but its not bad. I try to reach that oar blade as far forward as possible at the "catch," lean back deeply during the "pull," and then keep the blade as low and tight to the water as possible on the "return."
Thacher Island, with Straitsmouth in the distance
(Photo Credit: Maine Imagining)
The leg between Straitsmouth and Thatcher Island is picturesque. You are close to shore and the distance seems to go by quickly. But then begins that dreaded long southwesterly slog down the east coast of Cape Ann, passing Long Beach. For the next hour or more, you are exposed to rolling waves on the beam that come across the wide open fetch of Massachusetts Bay. The wind had shifted now, coming out of the south, on our bow, and we were pulling against some current for three or four miles. But we were saved by the arrival of Super Action Hero Stand-Up Paddleboard Dude. This bare-chested, 20-something, chiseled-figure of muscle, who seemed to come straight out of some magazine, pulled in behind our stern to "draft" in our wake, which meant smoother seas for him on his paddle board. He was listening to country music and smiling ear-to-ear. Half of our crew found new inspiration and a welcome distraction. "Oh look," Mark said. "He is stopping to do push ups."
'Action Hero' Brian Macchi. Our company for much of the course....
(Photo Credit: Donna Lind)
Are we there yet?
Eastern Point Light. More about that kayaker in a moment....
Dog Bar is a bit tricky. There are waves, and currents, and eddies. As a boat-steerer, you feel them in ways your teammates pulling at the oars do not. There is also a lot of boat traffic in a very small space. The harbor entrance, 'Dog Bar Channel,' is a narrow gap between the end of the breakwater and Round Rock Shoal. Commercial and recreational craft are supposed to keep inside the channel, clearly marked by navigational aids Green 1DB and Red 2DB. Race participants in their small, shallow draft boat and kayaks typically cut inside the closer red buoy, keeping out of the navigation channel while edging closer to the rocks.
Dog Bar, at the mouth of Gloucester Harbor
But as we reached the end of the breakwater, a lobster boat appeared at the harbor mouth. We had seen this vessel, the Jean Elizabeth, on the Annisquam River during the first leg of the race. One of our teammates works in maritime insurance, and laughed when he saw that boat. "That guy still owes me money!" he told us. Now, just as I was beginning the turn around Dog Bar, I watched in consternation as the Jean Elizabeth, after a brief hesitation, gunned its engine stormed out of the harbor by cutting inside the red buoy: running outside the navigation channel and close-in to the breakwater, coming across our intended path at full throttle. Then it drove on through the midst of the race participants behind us. Her captain clearly possessed a Class A Masshole license.
F/V Jean Elizabeth in the dangerous shortcut at Dog Bar
The lobster boat drove on without a pause, two crew watching astern, having a good laugh. We were aghast. Spectators on the breakwater were shouting. The kayaker tried repeatedly to climb back aboard, but now four hours into the race, at the Mile 19 mark, his arms lacked the strength to pull himself out of the water. Seeing him struggle, and watching the waves push him ever closer to the rocky breakwater, we decided to turn around and go back to assist him.
A man struggles to regain his kayak after being capsized by a lobster boat
We were not in an optimal position to do this, given our location at that moment: quite literally between a rock and a hard place. I chose to swing the whaleboat to port, toward the busy navigation channel, because I wanted to keep "eyes on" the kayaker. I was concerned that if I turned around to starboard, away from the channel and into the lee of the breakwater, I would loose sight of him -- and with the waves driving us into the harbor, the crew would then have to redouble their efforts to regain the harbor entrance. As we approached the kayaker, another rower in a banks dory arrived first to assist him. He pulled himself back in his kayak, and gave us a wave and a thumbs-up. I turned us around again, this time a port turn, away from the nearby breakwater, and rejoined the race.
Course Alterations at Dog Bar
This detour added a few minutes to our time, but assisting a boater in distress is a sacred trust among open water rowers. As we headed back into the harbor, we could hear the man in the banks dory reporting the incident to the race committee over VHF radio. Then the Gloucester Harbormaster hailed the lobster boat and had a strong NSFW exchange over the airwaves. It was a real WTF incident.
The Final Mile....
Approaching the Finish!
Crossing the Finish Line at Greasy Pole. 'Action Hero' close behind....
(Photo Credit: Donna Lind)
On the beach, free food and drink awaited. Cape Ann Rowing, which organizes the Blackburn Challenge, goes all out for participants at the finish line. In addition to the chili, baked beans, pulled pork, mac and cheese, and other restorative foods, there is free beer from Ipswich Ale Brewery, a live band, and massage tables. Some of the crew headed off for the port-a-potty, but I made a beeline for the beer truck. We were tired but satisfied. The true heroes today were Lee-Ann and Melissa, both of whom rowed the entire twenty-plus miles without a break, since neither is certified to steer the whaleboat.
'Polar Oartex' Crew for the 2017 Blackburn Challenge:
Beth, Melissa, Mark (in kilt), Greg, Lee-Ann, Kevin
While we drank beer, 'Action Hero' Dude did 100 push-ups after the race....
(photo credit: Donna Lind)
Unfortunately for us, the greatest challenge of the day still lay ahead. While light-weight craft are carried off the beach at the finish, our whaleboat has to be hauled out at the ramp behind the high school, where we launched. It is just a short row up the Blynman Canal. But it is the Blynman Canal, a narrow gap originally cut in 1643 that now passes under a small draw bridge on Western Ave, not far from the Gloucester Mariner Monument. It is less than six feet deep, and when the current runs fast through here it can be tricky and dangerous. Marinas.com offers the following advice:
"Transiting the canal can be tricky for the uninitiated. Strong currents of up to four knots in speed can sweep through the canal, and there are two opening bridges to negotiate. Before you transit the canal, be sure that you have enough horsepower to overrun the current, and also make sure you have plenty of fuel and the engine is in tip-top shape. This is no place for the engine to give out; the results can be disastrous."
Capsizings are not unknown at the Blynman Canal. In fact, some people go to 'Cut Bridge' just to watch for mishaps and to satisfy their schadenfreude.
Small Powerboat Capsized after "pitch-poling" in the Blynman Canal
(Photo Credit: "Another Dave")
(Photo Credit: "Another Dave")
That afternoon we faced a choice: wait around on the beach for a couple of hours until the current eased or slackened, or suck it up and power through an ebb current that was just then peaking at around 3.5 knots. To put things in perspective: that was our average boat speed for much of the race that day. The consensus of the crew was, "F**k it. Let's get back to the house." Since I was rested after steering the final leg of the race (and was already four beers in to my post-race revelry), I asked Mark to steer the boat up the narrow cut. Our oars extended nearly the width of the small canal, leaving no room for error. Mark had to keep the bow pointed directly into the on-rushing water, or it would have quickly sent us crashing into the canal sides. Spectators watched from above, cheering us on. Here is a link to a video of two guys in a dory rowing through the 'Cut Bridge' against the outgoing ebb tide that afternoon. It is not us, but you get the idea. When the draw bridge is raised, the waiting powerboats typically go through first. But, as the Boston Sailing Center Cruising Guide warns, the prop wash they generate as they "gun their engines successively harder accelerat[es] the current under the bridge into a seething wash that can spin a boat sideways." It ain't over until that's over.
Start to Finish: 17.7 Nautical Miles (20.4 Statue Miles)
We have rowed the Blackburn Challenge twice now, both times in good conditions. It is an endurance row, to be sure. But is not as hard, nor as exhausting, as a race like the Minot Light Roundabout off the coast of Cohasset -- where you pull in an all-out sprint for over four miles through some sizable waves and rough seas. After that race, you simply cannot raise your arms.
Will we be back again? Who knows. Mark still wants to do the Blackburn in under four hours one day, while I would like to do it in a traditional banks dory. We will see. One thing I have learned: Never Say Never Again.....
If you would like to see the various craft that participate in the Blackburn Challenge, here is a link to a video montage of this year's event, produced by Marty Luster.