Blackburn Challenge Trip Report, October 2000

Disclaimer: The following Trip Report was written for the October 2010 SMSKN Newsletter and is re-presented here for new paddling ideas and general interest. However, the specific trip details such as boat launch, parking, and other such things should be confirmed and reverified before following this route.

Editor’s note: On July 15th, SMSKN member Jim Vicenzi participated in the Blackburn Challenge, a 20+ mile race around Cape Ann, Massachusetts. It was the 13th running of the event; about half the participants used kayaks. We’ve reprinted excerpts of an e-mail Jim sent describing it, in case others want to consider stepping up to the “challenge” next year.

Here’s my take on the Blackburn Challenge as a first-time participant. My overall impression is that it’s an extremely well run event managed and attended by a very nice group of people. Veteran participants were very helpful in terms of telling the newcomers what to expect, what to look out for and what to do. I’d certainly recommend it to any experienced paddler. The paddling classes include single touring kayaks, single racing kayaks, surf skis, and double touring kayaks. Each class has a men’s and women’s division except for the doubles. Racing kayaks are defined as any kayak with a beam of less than 20” or any kayak, regardless of beam, powered by a wing paddle. The only other craft that are paddled are the outrigger canoes that have teams of six paddlers; these were just a joy to watch. As you might expect, there are several classes for rowed craft, since the event is sponsored by the Cape Ann Rowing Club.

“Challenge” is an appropriate name for the event. It’s a long way back to the starting point in Gloucester—20 to 22+ statute miles depending on the line you take—and the conditions can be, as they were this year, less than ideal. (A couple of folks told me they were the worst they could remember.) We experienced healthy winds and confused seas; I believe the forecast was for 15 to 20 mph winds and seas of two to eight feet. My guess is that there were occasional five-foot swells on the beam with chop thrown in, but I may have perceived things as being worse than they were because of fatigue. The organizers make a point of letting you know that EMT’s are available (!) and that several chase boats are around. The race starts in the Annisquam River and runs along it for the first three or four miles, then continues into open ocean. The tide was flooding the river the whole time we were in it—a tough way to get started. Head winds were present after we left the river but somewhere near the halfway point they became side winds. A checkpoint is situated near the halfway point and competitors who have not reached that point within three hours are requested to bail out.

One thing that I found disconcerting was the attitude of the people in large watercraft in the area. They didn’t seem to have any interest in avoiding kayakers even if the effort involved was slight. In short, they acted like Boston drivers. As a former Boston driver myself, I decided that the prudent course of action was to avoid playing chicken with them.

“The best part of the race is when it’s over,” said one of the veterans before the start. I can’t say that I disagree with her. I was clearly dog-tired when I came in under the greased pole that marks the finish line. Basically, I was a little stiff all over; even after getting out of the boat and stretching for five or ten minutes, I still walked like Walter Brennan. Fortunately, the organizers provided both a chiropractor and two masseuses to participants (!). In my condition, this was such an attraction that I postponed getting food and beer (!!). The post-race party was a lot of fun and I decided then and there to return next year.

Site for Blackburn Challenge