At 8:35 on a foggy Saturday morning in mid-July, I slowly paddled over to the fleet of long, skinny surfskis hovering around the start area for the 23rd Annual Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile, open-ocean kayak race around Cape Ann, in Massachusetts. Nervously adjusting my grip on my paddle, I lined up alongside internationally seasoned and local elite paddlers with skills far beyond my comprehension.
A newbie to kayak racing, this was my first open-ocean competition and first race in my Kool-Aide orange, grey bellied Think Evo surfki, which at 20.6-feet long, 19-inches wide, scared the heck out of me just a few months earlier.
Of the 46 surfski racers, I was, perhaps, the least experienced, and the most petrified about tipping out of my boat in rough seas and getting lost. Nearly all of my savvy compadres had longer, skinnier boats which they paddled with the grace of a Baryshnikov and the speed of Usain Bolt.
After the fast single kayaks started, it was our time to go. At the sound of the command, the fast guys and gals were off in a splashing flash. The mass of boats funneled into to a ragged paceline. I paddled equally hard, but quickly lost contact with the lead group and settled near the back of the pack.
Much to my delight, the race started with six miles in the protected Annisquam River sporting calm, flat water. We crossed under a bridge and past boats docked to piers that were peppered with enthusiastic, cheering spectators.
"It was fun to start on the river lined with people," said Patrick Hemmens, a 30 year surfski racing veteran, who flew in from Costa Mesa, California for the race. "There are so many races to do and this has been on my list." Hemmens was setting pace up front when I lost sight of him within the first half-mile.
Upon reaching the Atlantic Ocean, I followed a smattering of surfskis clockwise. The rolling swells rhythmically slapped the left side of my boat, momentarily lifting it up and pushing it around as if it were a tiny toy vessel. I sat tall, straining to stay balanced against the wind and reminding myself to relax.
"Stay relaxed and keep loose hips," was the advice from my friend Joe Glickman, an elite longtime marathon paddler who was upfront, hammering with the leaders. "Remember, the boat wants to stay up." His words looped in my head like the Mister Softee song.
It was a treat to be on open water, which felt so...well, natural compared to the chaotic swells and frantic ferries on the Hudson River in New York City, where I typically paddle. But a storm that thankfully blew in overnight--not during the race as predicted--left a lingering dense fog that was as thick as New England style cod chowder, obscuring the shoreline--the very thing I was to follow to stay on course.
"And, you and Joe made fun of me for taking my map and compass," said a New York City paddling pal Fiona Cousins smugly with a smile at the finish. "It came in quite handy."
Engulfed in white, fluffy mist I couldn't see beyond the nose of my ski and blindly paddled on past hidden coves and inlets, hoping to find other boats. I came alongside Bill Kuklinskia, a local paddler who was also lost in the fog--ironically he was in an identical Think EVO. We looked like a pair of orange kazoos plodding through puffy white clouds.
Meanwhile at the front, race leaders Hemmens and Eric Borgnes were at full throttle. Due to their impaired vision, they missed a critical short-cut through an inlet that snuck between two islands.
"It was weird not knowing where we going," says Hemmens, who with Bognes took the long route around Straightmouth Island, losing what Hemmens estimates was five to ten minutes. "It was real misty and we didn't know which way to go," said Hemmens, who saw other boats "about 500 meters" in front of them when they rounded the island. "That's when we realized we'd gone wrong, so we put our heads down and went to catch them." He said.
Upon reeling in their competitors, about 20 minutes from the finish, Hemmens picked up some six- to eight-inch bumps heading toward the harbor and rode the swells to the finish. His super swell surfing skills gave him a 30-yard lead on Borgnes, which he held to win the race in 2:41:03. Eleven seconds later, Borgnes finished and Donald Kiesling wrapped up third in 2:42:23.
In the women's surfski field it was paddling phenom, Alex McLain, who at the ripe age of 20, crushed the competition and clenched victory in 2:57:44.
"I am from a pretty big paddling family," said McLain, who has been racing for the past five years. "Both my parents did it a lot when they were younger and always wanted their kids to get into it; I caught onto it pretty quickly."
Tracy Landboe was second in 3:02:26 with Kathy Manizza taking third in 3:10:37. I brought up the rear in fourth some twenty minutes later. By that time, the beach was booming with music and peppered with a rainbow of kayaks and weary racers savoring celebratory pulled pork, chowder and beer.
Fiona Cousins won the women's fast single kayak division in 3:26:42--map and all--recapturing her title from 2007, while Roger Gocking took the men's fast single kayak class in 3:06:11. New York Outriggers captured the women's outrigger canoe win in 3:09:23 and Blake Conant captained the men's outrigger canoe team to triumph in a scorching 2:32:42.
Stefani Jackenthal is an adventure journalist and elite endurance racer who has competed and reported worldwide. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Outside, Conde' Nast Traveler, Marie Claire, Runner's World, Shape, Fitness and Women's Health, among others. www.stefjack.com.