In January, 1883 - 100 years before Oscar Chalupsky won the first of his 11 Molokai titles - a 23-year-old Canadian named Howard Blackburn headed out in a small open dory with his mate Thomas Welch. A storm separated them from their ship. On their second night out to sea, Welch put down his oar, went to sleep and froze to death. Blackburn rowed on; his hands freezing into stiff hooks on the oars. After five days without food or water, he reached the coast.
The Cape Ann Rowing Club started a race to honor Blackburn in 1986. For many years it was New England's best-kept kayaking secret - a 20-mile, open-water circumnavigation of sleepy, quaint Cape Ann with classes for dories, rowing shells, outriggers, sea kayaks and a handful of surf skis. The field was capped at 220 entrants. There was no prize money. Those of us able to drive there in five hours or less headed to the Cape for bragging rights and the party on the beach which featured plenty of beer and a live band. The first year I did it, 1996, most of the sea kayakers in attendance had not seen a surf ski before.
2002 - Greg Barton shows up
In 2002 Greg Barton showed up and it was as if Bruce Springsteen appeared to perform at your cousin Murray's wedding. Barton won bronze in the K1 1000 at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, double gold at Seoul in ‘88 (K1 and K2 1000) and a bronze at the '92 Games in Barcelona in a 1000 meter final that featured Aussie Clinton Robinson, reigning World Champion Knut Holman of Norway and the defending champ, Greg Barton. With 200 meters remaining, Barton moved ahead - a position he rarely relinquished late in a race - but Robinson and Holman eclipsed him by mere tenths of a second in what many consider the greatest 1000 meter K1 final ever.
That year, to be sporting - and to debut his new sea kayak at the Blackburn -- Barton paddled the Epic 18, a carbon sea kayak, in the racing class. There were three competent ski paddlers in the field and we didn't believe - or didn't want to believe - that Barton would be able to hang with us very long. For the first 5K, Barton sat on my wash on the river winding out to sea, breathing like a woman in labor. "He's toast," I thought. Out in the ocean, he caught a bump rebounding off the rocks, surged ahead, and slowly but permanently left us behind. The next time I saw him was on the beach. Later, healing our wounds with beer, we ski paddlers came to a similar conclusion: "The stinkin' bastard kicked our asses in a sea kayak." It is not a particularly fond memory but journalistic integrity compels me to record it here.
In 2005, the two-time US Surf Ski Champ towed the line in his Epic V10 surf ski. I harbored no illusions of staying with him for long (he refused a bribe) but I figured I could sit on his wash at least for the length of the river. Twenty minutes into the race I was on his wash and also on the verge of cardiac arrest. I kept eyeing my GPS which inched up like mercury in a thermometer on a July morning: 12.8 kph, 13.0, 13.6 and, see ya, Barton vanished over the horizon. He eclipsed the course record of 2 hours and 35 minutes by four minutes. Oh yeah: He paddled alone and in conditions that weren't particular favorable.
This year the man with the textbook stroke was back in the Epic 18x - his "old" sea kayak with a new design. It's roughly five percent slower than the V10, he wrote via e-mail, adding "I want the race to be competitive." He wasn't being arrogant, just stating the facts. Channeling Oscar, I told him, only half in jest, that I would make him my houseboy if he paddled that useless thing. I had been training hard, I'd had a decent result at Molokai in May and, let's face it, I'm a cock-eyed optimist.
A few days before the July 21 race I wrote Oscar and asked if I thought I could beat his business partner. "Probably not!" he replied. And then he proceeded to describe a session they did on flat water in which Greg (in the Epic 18x) dropped Oscar, who was paddling the V10 ski. Not good, I thought. Oscar told me that the 18x was six-inches longer with a narrower hull. They'd changed the foot brace and integrated the rudder into the stern like a fish tail. "It surfs as well as most skis," he boasted. Still, I thought, it's a flippin' 15.4-kilograms (34 lbs.) sea kayak. And I was fit. I was prepared to suffer. Let's get it on, I thought...but with somewhat less confidence than before.
In previous years, there'd be at least 75 to 100 sea kayaks in the field and just a dozen skis; however, this year there were about 45 skis on the line in a field of 233 paddlers and rowers. There were two strong flat water kayakers with international experience trying their hand in a surf ski, Canadian Yannick Bedard, flat water moose Kurt Kuehnel and a host of other strong marathon boys along the Eastern seaboard. In the OC1 division, Hawaiian star Karel Tresnak Jr., the five-time Molokai champ, was here for the first time, as was Larry Cain, the Olympic C1 gold and silver medalist from Canada. At the age of 44, Cain looked like an anatomical chart in a rash guard.
It would be the most competitive Blackburn ever.
Over the first 6K on the flat, scenic, serpentine Annisquam River, Barton rode slip in a six-man pack. I listened for signs of labored breathing. He was a quiet as a mouse on a ventilator. Erik Borgnes, a veteran of Molokai and the US Surf Ski Champs, said: "The first couple of miles on flatwater were not super fast, but I was still a bit surprised that Greg was looking so comfortable. Maybe surprised isn't the right word. Disappointed is better. If he was that comfortable and even setting the pace on completely flat water, then the rest of us were realizing that we'd be fighting for 2nd place. "
When we reached the ocean, Barton moved to the front of the pack, eyed a wave off a fishing boat off shore and surged. Before you could say pass the performance-enhancing drugs, the lead pack of six was four: Barton, me, Borgnes and Don Kiesling, another Molokai and US Ski Champs participant who'd traveled across the country from Seattle, Washington.
The course follows the beautiful rocky, undulating coast, littered with lobster pots and lighthouses. By Hawaii standards the sea was as flat as a mill pond; by flatwater standards it was a sloppy track and by Blackburn standards it was a typical day with winds of 10-15 knots out of the NW with two to four foot seas. Forty minutes into the race, Barton led with Don Kiesling and me in line like goslings behind Mother Goose.
What amazed me during the first hour of the Blackburn was the technical proficiency of Barton's picture-perfect stroke. Though we were grinding along at 13.0 kph, the man looked like he was out for a Sunday cruise. His cadence was tantalizingly slow but I could tell he nailed each stroke, no matter what the water was doing.
Heading across Sandy Bay roughly 12K into the race, little 1-meter runners lined up like ducks at a shooting gallery. Finally, I thought some runs and some rest. Wrong. Barton sprinted on to the smallish bumps, amping it at times to 15 kph: "I was trying to go with a comfortable effort," Barton said, "but I did go much harder in the runs. Don was on my wake and I figured if I put a gap on him I'd have the race in the bag."
Erik Borgnes, who finished sixth at the 2004 US Surf Ski Champs, said: "As the four of us were turning south to begin the downwind leg, I came around Greg and thought that I would start walking away from everyone as surely it was going to be pretty flat from here to the finish. To my surprise, Greg immediately passed me back while on a wave, and then started to put distance on us - downwind - in a sea kayak."
At the end of the bay, we passed Karel Tresnak, the leading OC1, who'd started in the wave ahead of us five minutes earlier. Tresnak lives to surf and feared a completely flat race. "Hey, there's actually some surf here," he shouted. But he spoke too soon. As we rounded the cape, the swell picked up but the downwind leg turned into side chop.
Over the second half the wind was mostly on our right hips. Heading across the last big bay Barton kept testing Kiesling and me. I fell off the pace and then, reaching for my drinking tube which had slipped behind me, fell in - a spastic move that highlighted how tired I was. By the time I'd climbed back on, Erik Borgnes, who'd been trailing behind, skated by. When I got back in and going I could still see Barton and Kiesling up ahead together but my mistake would prove costly.
Barton had pulled the entire day. For most of the race his heart rate hovered around 150 beats per minute; however, 8K from the end, he shifted gears for 20 minutes and broke clear. For the first time all day Kiesling was alone. Said Kiesling: "Somewhere after mile 15 [24K] he surged and got about 10 seconds up. That happened several times earlier but each time I was able to pull up again. This time my response was too lackadaisical. Then he surged again and ended up about 30 seconds up, and that was that. I could only push and try to minimize the gap."
Barton crossed the line in 2:32:58 - less than two minutes off the course record he set in the V10 Ultra. Kiesling, paddling an Epic V10L, was second, 1 minute and 35 back. I was third and Borgnes fourth.
Growing popularity of skis
Standing on the beach with Barton, watching the distant double-bladed figures on the horizon growing larger as they raced to the line, was like attending a lecture on the growing popularity of skis on the east coast (see chart). After Molokai and the US Ski Champs in San Francisco, the Blackburn had the largest concentration of skis in any race in the U.S. "With greater availability and greater versatility, skis are catching on here in the east much like they did on the West coast three or four years ago," Barton said.
We chatted about Oscar's big win at the World Cup but what interested me most were Barton's plans for the rest of the season. In the 1980s, he was the man at every distance from 1000 to 10,000 meters. He won two World Champs at 10K, destroying the field both times. Back then paddling was his life, everything else a distant second. With the exception of Molokai, where his best finish has been ninth, he's won every boat race he's entered more than once. Today at 47, with two daughters, a wife, and business that demands draining hours, his training time is severely curtailed. In 2005 at the US Ski Champs Dawid Mocke beat him by just over a minute, then repeated the feat rather convincingly last year. Still, considering that Greg had just averaged roughly 13.0 kph in a sea kayak for two and a half hours, I wondered how fast he could go to with another eight weeks of hard training in a proper surf ski against a stacked field of animals.
So I asked him if he thought he could win in San Francisco. Barton is both humble and a realist - he's a mechanical engineer by trade after all -- but he's also a proud and a fiercely driven athlete. He paused. "It really depends on my ability to train over the next two months. It's a big question mark at this point." First he's traveling to Germany, then to the Epic factory in China. But, he said, if he's able to log 10 to 12 hours of training a week, well, you could tell the gray-haired father of two knows that when he's fit he's still one of the best marathon paddlers in the world.
Of course, the fact that his 44-year-old business partner just won the World Cup in Durban gives him more hope still. "So," I asked. "If Oscar comes to the US Champs will he beat you?" Barton smiled. "I put my money on Oscar right now over me." After a pause, he added, "But it's a tough call."
Preliminary Results (Top 10)