Blackburn Challenge

Friday, 30 July 2010 21:39 | Written by  Dean Jordaan
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And they're away... Blackburn Challenge 2010 And they're away... Blackburn Challenge 2010

Dean Jordaan sent us an account of this year's Blackburn Challenge, his first attempt at this classic event.

Race History

The Blackburn Challenge celebrates 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.

These days a flotilla of human powered ocean-going craft assembles once each summer in the fishing village of Gloucester, MA.  250 dorys, work-boats, rowing sculls, outrigger canoes, stand-up paddle boards, ocean kayaks and of course surfskis complete a 20 mile (32km) circumnavigation of Cape Ann.

 Blackburn Challenge

Where in the world?

The race starts in the Annisquam river, heads into the sea through the bay on the West side of the Cape, rounds the North end clockwise and across the bay to the Straitsmouth Island gap, then heads in a South-East direction to the breakwater and across the harbor to a finish on the beach.

 Blackburn Challenge Course

Weather conditions can vary dramatically - the book and George Clooney movie The Perfect Storm was based in Gloucester - but summer conditions are usually benign with the exception of regular fog risk.

The race has run the last 24 years and has long been considered the premier race in the North East.

Blackburn Challenge Seadog

Honorable mention to this tough old sea dog who has raced every one - imagine doing it facing backwards.

The Race

The race was started in batches according to class of craft.  The paddle boards (poor bastards) got underway even before the race briefing in the Gloucester High School hall.  The High Performance Kayaks, as surfskis are classified, were the second last batch 1 1/2 hours later, and 5 minutes before the colorful 6-man outrigger canoes.

 Blackburn Challenge OC6 Start

The surfski start was a standard affair of over enthusiastic racers burning a little adrenaline before settling down into race pace.  A leading group of 5 skis quickly formed a racing bunch (me being the unlucky sod sitting second wave or trailing diamond).

An hour into the race the lead pack had been reduced to three, Craig Impens (Epic v12), Eric McNett (Think Legend), and Brian Heath in a T-Rex sea kayak.  Brian did the bulk of the pulling in the early part of the race.  Eric took a tighter line against the rocks rounding Halibut Point, got a few boat lengths clear linking a series of small runs together, and built a lead of about 1/2 mile over the next 10 miles.

Craig, however, fought his way back over the last 1/4 of the race and passed Eric with his best game face as they rounded the breakwater at the harbour entrance.  He held on for the win and his best performance in the Blackburn.

Craig Impens

Craig Impens - 1st Overall

NE Paddling Scene

For the guys in the NE this is the focal point of the paddling season (winter is snow and ice in this part of the world).  One under-prepared paddler muttered at the start how with the Blackburn over he could relax and enjoy the rest of his summer.

Surfski paddling is really in its infancy in this part of the world, but what they lack in numbers the local paddlers make up for in enthusiasm, camaraderie, and a general love of the sport and lifestyle.  While the NE doesn’t offer classic downwind conditions it is a paradise of coastal waterways, has a rich ocean going tradition (read lots of rowing and sea kayak convert potential), and I have no doubt surfski paddling will gain a strong foothold there.

Après-ski, the beer, barbecue and blues on the beach pretty much summed up the vibe and rounded out a great event.

 Blackburn Challenge

My Race

To those unfortunates still paddling a ski with a fibreglass layup I feel your pain.  I’ll admit I’m reaching for an excuse for hitting the wall 1 hour into a 3 hour race.  There I was, stroking confidently in the wash of the leading bunch, through the gentle turns of the Annisquam river and into the bay, and feeling great.  Half an hour in I made a minor concession to the pace setters and dropped back a few boat lengths with Joe Glickman.  Half an hour later I was done.

The next 10kms navigated a beautiful coastline (think Hermanus/Kleinmond without the Hottentot-Hollands as a backdrop), across a couple bays, through the Straightmouth gap and into the turn South.  At one point I asked a tandem sea kayak to check my rudder for weed - searching in vain for some other explanation for my slowing progress.

The 10kms before the harbour were a grind into a moderate breeze with small side swell/chop.  Once past the breakwater, I spent the final 2kms trying to keep some equally tired looking paddler at bay.  Even at minor mission accomplished I hardly felt triumphant - I was pretty exhausted.  I finished 10th out of 40 odd skis, a challenge indeed.

 Dean Jordaan

Stellar Kayaks

However a craftsman never blames his tools and giving up 10 lb to the competition doesn’t actually explain hitting the wall 1/3 into a race.  Rather, I’m very grateful to Wesley Echols for making a ski available to me and giving me the opportunity to participate.  The ski construction is excellent, it’s very stable, and the footplate was by far the nicest I’ve paddled with.

Wesley is a tireless surfski enthusiast and I wish him all the best in promoting the sport in the North Eastern US and building the brand he represents.  For a far richer account of the race plus photos etc. see

 Stellar Kayaks

In Conclusion

  • The highlights of the 2010 Blackburn Challenge for me were:
  • A taste of the NE paddling scene and another nice reminder that we’re part of a great global tribe.
  • A race with a rich tradition and varied assortment of sea-going craft (we don’t rule the water just yet).
  • Getting to visit a very beautiful part of the world.
  • Wife and kids (20 month old twins) on the beach at the end of a ski race for the first time.  May this be the first of many (spectated races that is).
  • Rubbing shoulders with George Clooney at the Crows Nest the night before the race (he fell in love with the place during shooting and has a summer mansion in the area).

 George Clooney

Ok, so I’m kidding about George.


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