July 19th was the annual running of the Blackburn Challenge – 20 miles racing around Cape Ann in honor of the heroic exploits of Gloucester Dory Fisherman Howard Blackburn. This race has become the premier open water rowing race in New England in its 28 years of running. This is the race that I designed and built the Westport Racing Skiff for.
The morning of the race was too early for any nerves, hitting the road well before any signs of sun to get up to Gloucester for a pre-7am registration deadline. These are hard moments in a race – the rushing to wait. Wait in line to register, wait for the Captain’s meeting, wait for the start. I’m bouncing foot to foot, need to get in my boat.
My heat was third, not bad. The multi-oared boats started first. A quad (4-person sculling boat) took off from the start with the crisp, clean sound of expert rowing. The four of them moved as one, and the boat responded in kind, as they quickly opened up a sizeable lead. One splash as the blades entered, one loud thump as the blades flipped from the water and settled in the oarlock. They won’t be long getting to the finish. I found out later there was at least one Olympic rower in that boat. Quite a few international competitors entered the race in both rowing and paddling, pushing the 20 miles into faster and faster times.
My heat started fast, with two expert Adirondack Guideboat rowers pushing the pace. I settled into third place, thinking that this will be a difficult and great race! We flew down the river with the current pushing us along, dodging moored boats, buoys, and other racers. Trying to figure out our positions, testing each others speed. One boat pulled further ahead, I crept into second. Then there was a loud crack and I looked over my shoulder to see the lead boat swerve away – a broken oar. We swept past. Less than three miles in, already lots of action!
Once we got out of the river I was able to pull into a lead and creep away in the calm waters of the north coast. It was a cool 70s, no wind, and a quiet sea. A little haze softened the horizon. All conditions pointed to record-breaking possibility. Keep on the oars, all the way around. Enter the zone that is really joy – joyfully becoming a space of awareness – a meditation that encompasses the mind, the body, the art that is the boat, and of course the great sea and sky.
There is an intensity in racing that is uplifting. A race is a safe space to go to dangerous places – those wild places deep within our minds and spirits that stay covered in more mundane experiences. It cleans us out and lets us see ourselves clearly, to balance the movement of life with the stillness at the core. Its a place of community – a community where there is great togetherness in appreciation of the effort and will it takes, even while each member brings a different history, a different philosophy, and even vastly different goals all to the same course. A race is also very private, similar to the mountaintop monk retreat. It’s a space to heighten all senses, to make a great effort in removing all obstacles to fearlessly approach the possibility of pure existence…
Coming into Gloucester Harbor I caught a nice big powerboat wake and surfed across the finish line, 3hours 12 minutes after the start.
*The previous record was 3 hours 20 minutes.