Blood, Sweat, and Beers: Blackburn Challenge 2011

Saturday, 30 July 2011 14:57 | Written by  Mark Ceconi
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Cape Ann - the chart of the iconic Blackburn Challenge Cape Ann - the chart of the iconic Blackburn Challenge

Driving up from Connecticut for the 25th Annual Blackburn Challenge was a relief. Much of the U.S. was gripped in the sweaty palms of an unbearable heat wave. My central air was on the fritz and the prospect of four hours in an air-conditioned car was a welcome one.

The outside temperature readout hopscotched back and forth in the triple digit range…103, 105, and for one brief instant, 107… to say that it was hot would be the understatement of the century. The heat and humidity was a tangible thing; a wall of oppressive stickiness. If this was the scenario for tomorrow’s race, I might be compelled to voluntarily go for a ‘dip’ mid race. The alternative might well be heatstroke.


Blackburn - the event

I might well go into the detailed history and lore of the Blackburn, but one would be better served visiting the website:, as the story behind the race is awe-inspiring; a study in fortitude and the will to live.  Suffice to say that by virtue of one Howard Blackburn, we have the circumnavigation of Cape Ann that exists as the premier race on the eastern seaboard. As the story goes, the Blackburn Challenge is a tribute to:

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.’ 


Back at the Marriott, after a fine dinner with a crowd of Canucks, I mixed up one full Camelbak, and another 70 oz. ‘boost’ bottle of Endurox, requested a wake up call for some ungodly hour, and called it a night.

The next morning dawned way too early, actually it didn’t dawn at all-it was pitch frick’n black. I stumbled around in the inkiness, readying, and slipped out the door of room #339, hoping I hadn’t left something important, like my shorts, behind.

 The boys assembled in the lot. Surprisingly, it was not unbearably hot. It really was not hot at all. The sky was gunmetal, there was actually a breeze, and the smell of rain was in the air. Crossing fingers that this would hold for the race, we shuttled up to Gloucester.

Lake Buena Vista Social Hour 

Arriving at the jam-packed lot, it was Lake Buena Vista Social Hour. So many familiar faces to chat with; it was hard to go fifteen feet without bumping into some paddling compadre you knew. S.S. Weyers, a transplanted South African racer now residing in Bermuda, had made the trip. S.S. and I had traded pulls for the entire Run of the Charles.

That pre race buzz abounded-the hissing sound of ripping duct tape as numbers were affixed to bows; multiple gel packs pre-torn and taped to gunnels, like grapes hanging from a vine. It was hydration central, the lot a sea of furrowed brows as paddlers debated how many ounces or litres to bring, attempting to predict whether or not the sun would break through with a relentless beating in mind. One OC-2 duo had strapped what appeared to be two 55 gallon water drums with drinking tubes bored into them, onto their deck. Clearly, we were all expecting the worst. It began to rain, a light, refreshing drizzle. The OC-2 team unstrapped one of their barrels.

25th Anniversary

This year marked the Blackburn’s 25th anniversary. Now designated a world class open water rowing event, it was astounding to witness the overwhelming number and variety of ocean going vessels in attendance, from the massive OC-6s, to the single and double seat rowing shells, to the dories and work boats… Sea kayaks, FSKs, surfskis, prone and stand up paddleboards. If it could float, and be propelled by oar, paddle, or hand, it was there, and had a number taped to it. I believe I even saw a Styrofoam beach cooler with numbers taped on each side-‘Lil’ Igloo’ was the vessel’s name.

Post registration, we bolted to shuttle vehicles to the finish, pimping out our own rides on Pavilion Beach, to paddle back to the start line through the narrow channel under the drawbridge. Suddenly, a grey domed head popped up no more than three feet off Steve and Jim’s Fenn double-a seal! I took this as a good omen, until I remembered what follows seals. Having just finished Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth (What WAS I thinking just before an ‘open water’ race?), and recalling how the Lower Cape was currently being visited by not one, but three, ‘men in gray suits,’ I thought to myself: ‘Go away little seal, go away.’

Doubles Race

This year, a number of tandems lined up. Sean and I were piloting our vanilla Mako XT (not the tropical hued ‘watermelon’ of last year, but a lighter carbon version of this stable ski for two). Steve and Jim were in their more highly caffeinated Fenn Carbon Elite, and Tim Dwyer and local Beverly boy, Mike Tracy, were racing Wesley’s loaner Stellar SE-2 Excel. They aimed to break the doubles record, and were growling, gnashing their teeth, and frothing at the mouth as one Brit friend says: ‘Like a dog at broth,’ on the start line. They were literally straining at the bit. Boston Firefighter and massage therapist Timmy Shields, and his partner Chris Kielb, were at the helm of a striking goldenrod yellow XT double, and Phil Warner and Nick Schade were skirted inside Phil’s ever-so-beautiful, mahogany Guillemot Fast Tandem, designed by Nick and handcrafted by Phil himself. There was a lime green Nelo Waterman FSK wild card as well, captained by none other than Dana Gaines, current holder of the doubles record, and his stoker, Sarah Evertson.  The rain had abated, but graciously gray skies remained.

At our start on the Annisquam River, immediately the roster of tandems exploded off the line, Jim and Steve riding bow wash in the triangle between two lead boats. With an outgoing tide, the GPS registered 8.5 mph for the first mile or so. We kept pace with the Guillemot, and hoped that the leading groups’ start line frogginess would wane, dropping back to a more realistic (ie: physically less excruciating) pace. Not likely. The Fenn Elite and Stellar SE-2 started to pull away, matching cadence in a display of doubles power. We inched our way up to Timmy and Chris in their XT, whereupon Sean immediately struck up a conversation.

Blackburn Challenge 2011

Timmy, normally quite social, seemed on the taciturn side this early morning, probably having something to do with the fact that our heart rates were spiked into the stratosphere.  Chris was only somewhat more communicative. Hence, Sean’s attempts at a friendly chat were largely met with brief responses, or not at all. Undeterred, Sean immediately launched into the rousing sea shanty of ‘Yo, Ho, Blow the Man Down,’ tweaking the lyrics to include Timmy and Chris’s names in the chorus.

Blackburn Challenge 2011

Yo-ho, blow the man down!

"Real Race"

Finally, the flat, shallow water of the Annisquam ended, and it was out amidst the lobster pots of ‘Lobster Alley,’ where the ‘real race’ began. There was some texture here, mostly beam waves and boat wake from the lobster boats visiting their traps for ‘bugs,’ as the lobsters are referred to. I like this section; the multitude of multicolored buoys bobbing alongside the rocks, the boat crews hauling up their catch hand over hand, dumping the freshly baited and emptied pots back into the water. It’s the first real taste of the Atlantic; it tastes like New England. 

We settled in to a rhythm, the two doubles ahead of us sliding gradually out of sight on the horizon, our competitors from the river dropping back. Time to get into the ‘zone’ and let the miles tick away. My mind turned to other aspects of the race…


In the singles HPK class, Sean Brennan was favored to win. A former U.S. National Team member who had spent some time Down Under with a surfski, he was, quite simply, in another league. The infamous Joe Glickman (aka: ‘Glicker’) was also in the mix.  The question was, had the demands of Joe’s recent book deadline and potential movie deal eroded his stratospheric level of fitness? (It’s rumored he will take over Daniel Radcliffe’s role as a much older, life worn Harry Potter, in the latest epilogue now in the works. Or maybe it was Dumbledore…?) Barend Spies, another superfit marathon team K-1 paddler originally from South Africa in a borrowed ski, would also be a dark horse, and one could never rule out Eric McNett, or the Westside boat paddlers Hugh Pritchard and Brian Heath; the last denizens of closed boats in a surfski dominated class.

The beam chop now morphed into smoth, glassine, rolling swells, exactly the kind of texture, or lack thereof, I hate. The sea appears flat, but the boat continues to roll on unseen bumps. Surfskis like a bit of character in the water to settle their rounded hulls down-these conditions were annoying. \

Cheering spectators dotted the rocks of Halibut Point, its huge, striated expanses of granite the size of parking lots, rolling down like broad meadows into the crashing waves below. Two enthusiastic race fans clanked away on cowbells. I personally prefer that if cowbells are to be used, they come in minimums of three (“More cowbell! I need more cowbell!!”). In 2002, Greg Barton won the entire race in a bone stock Epic Endurance 18, working the rebounding swells off the rocks in this section to defeat much faster boats. It’s a dangerous gamble though-a swim and beach landing here would not be hospitable. This area was not without some small rides, however. We managed to link three or four and watched our GPS shoot up to 8.7 mph.

Dana and Sarah suddenly appeared to our starboard, prompting Sean to comment on the fact that we were reeled in, and planting the seed that if they had caught us, then where were Timmy/Chris and Phil/Nick? Sean is like ‘The Mayor’ on the water, amiable and conversational. We/he struck up a conversation with Dana and Sarah, and the miles melted away. Eventually, as our lines took us further apart, I could hear them continuing to converse. That’s the beauty of a double, especially for longer races. Apart from the ability to punch the hole of one with the power of two into the wind, the companionship staves off boredom. You always have someone to berate, particularly in the closing miles when exhausted, every last little thing gets on your nerves.


Straitsmouth is the halfway point of the race. Shooting the gap between the rocky island and shore, we called out our number “269!!!” to the race boat anchored to our portside.  There were some wobblies here, no doubt caused by the shallows and current converging. Immediately thereafter, we wound our way through sections of weed, and lo and behold, our speed dropped from 7 mph, to somewhere around 5.3. “Either we’re hitting some funky current, or we picked up weed!” I yelled to Sean. “Do you want to stop?!” “No!” he shouted back, “Keep going!” We mired on. At this point, Dana and Sarah began to pull slowly, inexorably away. There was nothing we could do to increase our speed. My HR hovered at a steady state 160, but this Little Engine That Could actually could not.

own little ecosystem...

After about two miles of this, passing the twin lighthouses on Thacher Island and Milk Island to our left, I’d had enough. “We need to stop!” I shouted, “No way that’s current alone! I’ll bet we’re towing something!” By now, the green Nelo was about 500 yards ahead of us.  Reluctantly, we dragged both wing blades as water brakes, slowed to a stop, and back paddled.  An osprey-sized nest of weeds drifted off our rudder and past us.  It was so large as to be its own little ecosystem. “Look at that!” cried Sean. Bolstered by this sight, we increased our cadence, forward this time, and once again shot back to 7 mph. We almost immediately began to bridge the gap to the green Waterman.

Blackburn Challenge 2011

The last stretch before the harbor at Dog Bar is a long one.  Known as ‘The Backshore Stretch,’ it would feel longer than it does if one weren’t eagerly anticipating the sight of the sea wall and lighthouse, signaling the really long pilgrimage across Gloucester Harbor to the Mecca of the Greasy Pole. For whatever the reason, I’d felt imbalanced all day (Some would argue that I am imbalanced…), and somehow managed in the most benign of conditions to actually ‘whiff’ the water with my blade several times, scooping up wingfuls of Cape Ann air. Sean was putting in mini intervals here, and each Herculean effort would set up some trembles in the boat. Testily, I barked at him to ‘Quit it!’ and stay smooth. He might have commented too, on my paddle version of air guitar, but he was more of a gentleman than that. 

Sean Brennan - machine

It was at the beginning of this stretch that the surfski class winner, Sean Brennan, came by us in his V12. He was a machine, each forward stroke cleaving the water with maximal thrust, displaying the measured efficiency of a wind turbine. We waited for the inevitable onslaught of front runners to follow suit, but they never came. He was alone.

Picking up some swell to carry us around the sea wall, there were a group of sea kayakers frolicking like porpoises in the rebounding waves. They were there to cheer us on for the final push to the finish; their presence was greatly appreciated.  The harbor was the flattest I’d ever seen it. Aside from an occasional cabin cruiser wake, there were no gargantuan day cruisers bearing down on us, their red-nosed pilots hell-bent on running down some ‘speed bumps.’ The final two miles takes seemingly forever and a day; the white building marking the finish buoys dangles teasingly on the horizon, like the proverbial carrot on a stick. Just when you never think you’re going to get there, you are there, coasting to a swim in the cool water, friends and helpful spectators carrying your boat up to the sand in assistance.

In our class, Tim and Mike smoked the former record with a 2:38:40, followed by Jim and Steve, then us. Timmy and Chris hung in with a time close to the magical 3 hour mark.

Sean Brennan was untouchable, finishing with a blistering 2:34:24, followed by Glicker, then Barend Spies. All the anticipated front runners did not disappoint.  A number of paddlers working their way up through the ranks served notice that they had arrived-Francisco Urena and Greg Lesher both posted outstanding times in the 2:50 range. The flatter conditions and accommodating temperatures allowed a number of racers to post personal bests.

Blackburn Challenge 2011

The top three (centre): Sean Brennan, Glicker, Barend Spies

As if on cue, as the racers arrived on the beach, the sun broke through the clouds, to mark the start of an absolutely glorious day. The Ipswich Brewing Company was on hand with a freeflowing tap of Ipswich Ale. A host of dedicated volunteers served up pulled chicken and pork sandwiches, rice, beans, and mac n’ cheese to a hungry contingent of competitors, the massage tables invited the everpresent waiting line, and a jammin’ band rocked the beach, kicking the party into full swing.  The remainder of the day was filled with great conversation as boats lined the beach. Exhausted racers lolled in the sand, soaking up their daily dosage of Vitamin D, passing the hours to the awards ceremony at afternoon’s end.

Much gratitude to the Cape Ann Rowing Club for once again hosting such an incredible event. To all the volunteers, the spectators who came out to cheer us on, and especially to the racers themselves, who ‘bring it’ year after year, 25 of them so far, to make this the jewel in the crown of races on the east coast…thank you. See you back again under the Greasy Pole in 2012.

For lots more stories about the race, head on over to


For more see:

Boat NameElapsed TimeOrderBoat Type,Manufacturer
222 Sean Brennan 02:34:24 First TBD TBD
233 Joe Glickman 02:42:26 Second EPIC V10
249 Barend Spies 02:43:03 Third TBD TBD
234 Brian Heath 02:44:16 4 WESTSIDEBOATSHOP Marauder
240 Eric McNett 02:46:43 5 Epic V12
244 Hugh Pritchard 02:47:40 6 West Side Boat Shop T-Rex
227 Wesley Echols 02:49:55 7 STELLAR SES EXCEL
250 Francisco Urena 02:50:29 8 STELLAR SE EXCEL
272 Greg Lesher 02:50:35 9 Huki S1-R
225 Chris Chappell 02:58:25 10 Stellar SE Ultra
245 John Radel 02:58:46 11 Epic V-12
218 Jay Appleton 02:59:10 12 Huki S1X
242 Kirk Olsen 03:00:43 13 Fenn mako 6
231 Richard Germain 03:02:34 14 Huki S1-X
239 Todd Furstoss 03:04:24 15 Epic V10 Sport
223 Bob Capellini 03:04:45 16 Huki S1X
228 Rob Flanagan 03:04:47 17 Huki S1-X
241 Bouke Noordzij 03:05:49 18 Huki S1-X
237 Tom Kerr 03:05:58 19 Epic V12
252 SS Weyers 03:06:17 20 Stellar Surfski
246 Michael Rask 03:06:45 21 Huki S1-X
224 Michael Chamness 03:07:43 22 Huki S1X-Special
220 Andrew Binks 03:13:01 23 Huki S1X
235 Mark Jacobson 03:15:54 24 Epic V10L
253 Robert Wright 03:16:27 25 westside eft
232 Jim Gilligan 03:17:28 26 Huki special
221 Carey Bond 03:18:26 27 Epic Kayaks V 10 Surf Ski
274 Bill Kuklinski 03:18:39 28 Huki S1-X
236 David Joblin 03:25:10 29 Stellar SR
248 Chris Sherwood 03:27:06 30 Stellar SRS-Advantage surski
243 Mihail Popov 03:30:25 31 Epic V10 Sport
251 Bill Vickers 03:36:27 32 epic v12
226 Ed Duggan 03:42:23 33 epic v10 sport
219 Paul Banks 03:43:41 34 Think Evo
230 Andy Gallonio 03:46:31 35 West Side EFT
247 Joseph Sagona   36 epic V10 Sport
HPK Single - Women        
Boat  Name Elapsed Time Order Boat Type,Manufacturer
256 Kathleen McNamee 03:07:48 First Epic V12
254 Stefani Jackenthal 03:21:26 Second Surfski EVO
255 Margaret Mann   3 Epic V10

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