Blackburn Challenge 2015

Last weekend was the Blackburn Challenge, a twenty mile race starting and finishing in Gloucester MA. Several of my team mates have done it multiple times in the past and they’ve told me it’s always no worse than anything we’ve paddled on Lake Ontario. It starts up a river, and then goes around the island that Gloucester is located on, then comes back into the harbor to finish a short distance away from the start. Looking at the map, the part out on the ocean looks roughly like three equal legs traveling roughly north east, then south east, then north west, like three sides of a square. And frankly from the stories I’d heard, I was more worried about the finish stretch in the harbor, where tired from the previous 18 miles you spend two miles dodging the wakes from crab boats and trying not to snag your rudder on a lobster pot bouy line.

I’ve done a lot of long distance training this year in preparation for this race. In most years, a ten or twelve mile paddle was considered very long, but this year that’s just getting started. I did a whole bunch of twenty mile paddles, mostly starting on Irondequoit bay and heading out on the lake to get a combination of swell and boat wakes.

So on the morning of the race, I checked the marine forecast, and it said a north east wind, with two foot swells. There was also a warning in the fine print that there could be waves up to twice as high as the swells in places. Ok, that’s not great, because it means that the south east leg will be with big beam seas. I hate beam seas. But it didn’t sound any alarm bells.

It was when we went to the school that the alarm bells started to sound. A guy who has done all 29 Blackburn races said he’s never seen it have a north east wind before. Another person said that the wind was stronger than forecast. The race organizer said that they were seeing four foot waves right where the river comes out to the ocean. Oh, none of this sounds good. But I’ve got my pfd, my whistle, my leg leash, and the race director’s phone number saved as a “favorite” in my phone. I’m good to go.

The race started like so many others, with lots of maneuvering around trying to find a good wake to ride and a good line through the bouys and boats. After being squeezed out from Pete’s wake when he threaded the needle between two closely packed boats I found myself riding the wake of somebody I was just thinking of as “the Hawaiian girl”, because she had the skin color I associate with Hawaiians and Polynesians. (I found out after the race that yes, she is Hawaiian and she won the women’s race.). She was setting a nice pace and we were passing lots of people, both from our wave and from previous waves. As we passed a sea kayaker he harrumphed “letting her do all the work?” And I smugly replied “yup, that’s racing”. 

The mouth of the river got rough, but I was still hanging onto her wake. For about a hundred yards, then we were in the ocean proper. Suddenly we were going into waves that were at least four feet high. If you were down in the trough, you couldn’t see anybody ahead of you unless they were in the same trough as you. When you were up on the crest, you could see carnage. Every time you came up on a crest, you could see people in the water. You could also see waves exploding on the rocks to your right, and whitecaps breaking to your left. I was trying to stay somewhere in between. “Hawaiian girl” was long gone – it’s almost like she paddles on the ocean all the time or something. Pete came up and I tried to paddle with him, and we were staying pretty much together. The waves were mostly about four feet, although the occasional rogue would be bigger. Every now and then a big boat wake would come from another direction to add to the problems. Keeping together with another person in these conditions is all about moral support – you’re not riding each other’s wake in this shit.

After a bit, I dumped. Mild panic for a second because my new water shoes are bigger than my old ones and I never loosened the straps, so I was hanging in the water unable to get my feet out. But they came out after a few seconds. Pete asked me if I needed help but I’ve got confidence in my remount so I tell him to keep going – I figure I’ll be up and paddling again in a few seconds and I’ll be able to catch him. But my first remount attempt sucked and I fell in immediately. For my second attempt I remembered to wait for the crest of the wave to pass, and I think I got in properly. Meanwhile more people came by asking if I needed help. I don’t know if they were just really nice, or if they were just looking for an excuse to stop racing. If it had been me, it probably would have been the latter. Anyway, after remounting I took off after Pete with my leg leash wrapped around my leg and my drinking tube inaccessibly trapped under my feet.

A few minutes later I nearly caught him. I was not enjoying things at all because every wave was either one of those ones where your bow slams down into the wave after the crest passes, or water comes rushing in and floods the cockpit, or both. I was trying to take the bigger ones diagonally to reduce the slamming but it wasn’t helping. And through it all, I knew that after five miles of this crap, I’d have six or seven miles of beam seas just as bad if not worse. Have I mentioned how much I hate beam seas? I muttered to myself about this not being fun a few times.

Then I dumped again. This time my leg leash got wrapped around my entire body. It took me three attempts to finally get up and paddling again, all while fending off people who would not take “no” for an answer when they asked you if you needed help. Because my water tube had been trapped before, I took the opportunity while I was floating in the water to have a good old suck on the water tube. By the time I got moving, I had a sea kayak and an OC-6 (six person outrigger canoe) circling me like vultures waiting for their chance to swoop in and rescue me. But after the second failed remount I’d already made up my mind: the conditions were too tough and my remount too bad to continue, and I should go back to the start and abandon the race.

Silly me, I thought that after smashing my way through gigantic waves for two miles that if I turned my back on them I’d actually have fun surfing them. But there was something about them – I don’t know if they were too close together or too fast or what, but I couldn’t seem to get a ride off any of them. I spent a lot of time with my cockpit full of water bracing for my life. Very soon after I turned a safety boat came by and asked me if I was ok, and asked for my number to report me as DNF. The amount of flotsam in the water was startling – lots of water bottles, but scarily enough, a single running shoe. I don’t think there was a foot in it.

The entrance to the river was the scariest thing I’ve ever paddled in. The waves were hitting me from three directions at once and my cockpit was completely full of water. I was probably taking a forward stroke about once every five seconds and bracing for all I was worth the rest of the time. But after a few minutes, I was through that and I was actually catching some waves and having fun surfing. I was catching a large sailboat that was coming in under power, and I attempted to hail him to find out if I was in the right channel but he wouldn’t put his phone down. But almost immediately after I passed him, two other surf skis caught me. We formed “Team Discretion Is The Better Part Of Valor” and paddled together back to through the start and to the finish. It was like a pleasant day on the canal back in Rochester. Even with the part where the boat wakes make a “wake laser” as they reflect back and forth off of vertical walls, but here that was only a few meters instead of the 1.2 kilometers we have in Bushnells Basin.

After coming in to the finish, I lifted my boat and confidently trotted out to the parking lot where we’d left Mike’s car. Except it wasn’t there. It took me a bit to realize that if Liz had taken the car, she must be off retrieving Mike from somewhere. So I left my boat in the grass and was heading back to the finish when I ran into Mike and Liz. Mike had abandoned about the same place as me, but had gone into a cove called “diamond cove” or something like that instead of handing back, and Liz had gone to retrieve him. So they had obviously lost our great parking spot. Mike and I carried my boat out to their new parking space that seemed like half way across town, and on the way back we saw a truck pulling in with a two person rowing shell that had snapped in three pieces. We heard afterwards that it had been suspended between two wave crests and collapsed in the middle. We also ran into the guy who had rowed 29 Blackburns who had  turned back right at the mouth of the river after taking one look at the waves. 

Back at the beach, some of the first paddlers were coming in. The winner was only a few minutes slower than he’d been the previous year, so I guess if you’re really good you’re really good in all conditions. The second place guy was paddling a Maurauder, which is like a faster and tipper version of my thunderbolt, which is a boat that I’d never paddle in waves because if you fell out you’d never get back in. Todd and John came in in pretty good time, although they both looked like they’d worked hard for it. Then we settled in to wait for Pete. It’s nearly two miles from where they come around the breakwall to the finish, so we had a long view of people as they came in and we were struggling to figure out how to pick out Pete until we suddenly remembered that Pete has white paddle blades. That was definitely a distinctive feature as most of us have black blades. So we waited…and waited…and waited. He eventually came in about an hour after we would have expected him in normal weather. He was completely spent – he said he’d dumped twenty or thirty times, and a video taken from somewhere on the course showed that his technique had completely fallen apart and he’d basically arm paddled his way around the course. Even worse, when we picked his boat out of the water, we discovered it had a massive amount of water in the hull – I estimate about thirty or more pounds worth, practically doubling the weight of the boat. We’re not sure if he developed a leak or if he’d just spent so much time with the boat upside down that it came in the vent hole. But massive kudos to him – I know I couldn’t have done thirty remounts and I need every iota of my technique to get around such a long course even in perfect conditions. 

We later heard that forty four boats had turned back at that the point where the river first reaches the ocean. Counting them and the rest of us, about one third of all paddlers had DNFed. So I don’t feel so bad about abandoning. So maybe next year. I’m going to hope for more typical conditions but I’m also going to work on my remount.