BLACKBURN CHALLENGE 08: The Weed Ate my Race (The Glickman Report)

Wednesday, 23 July 2008 18:07 | Written by  Joe Glickman
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Gloucester, MA -- More than an hour into the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile race around Cape Ann, Erik Borgnes, up front in a gang of four, spotted a small grey fin rise above the ocean's glassy surface. As the dorsal fin grew steadily larger, he began chanting: "That's a seal...That's a seal..." A physician who lives on the banks of Lake Michigan in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin - a three-hour flight from the nearest man-eating fish - Borgnes is aces when it comes to human anatomy but a rube when it comes to marine biology. In fact, he had nearly planted his paddle on the critter's head when he realized, "That's a flippin' shark!"

Blackburn '08 finish
Carnival Time (the finish of the Blackburn) (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

The inquisitive shark turned out to be "just" five feet long and vanished beneath his ski. He shouted to the three paddlers to his left, but they'd been focused on riding wash and hadn't seen a thing. "It was frightening and exciting at once," Borgnes later said. "It took me a few minutes to get my mind back into the race. I was strangely aware how narrow and vulnerable my ski looked."

Paddling my boney behind off

While Borgnes struggled to regain his equilibrium, I lurked 25 meters behind, paddling my boney behind off, wondering why I was unable to close the gap.  The guys up front were solid paddlers, I thought, but none of them are named Greg Barton and I should be able to hang in. I wasn't tired; the water was flat so stability wasn't an issue; my left leg tingled a bit, but it was merely a nuisance and not worthy of legitimate excuse status. For 20 minutes I struggled to find a solution to this vexing problem until I settled on the only two possible explanations: I was carrying heaps of weed on my rudder or, more likely, I just sucked.

For those of you not up on the minutia of my racing life, let me give you a Reader's Digest version of what transpired since I last wrote in this space. After hitting the wall spectacularly at Molokai in May - puncturing 2.5 hours into the race and then shearing the rudder off my ski rounding Chinaman's Wall - I returned to chilly New York eager to rebuild my battered body and fragile psyche. I was determined to figure out why I'd failed so miserably in Hawaii and set out over the next month to right my wobbling ship.

Concentrate on speed!

After consulting my network of spiritual advisors from South Africa to Hong Kong to Sturgeon Bay, I had both the diagnosis and the cure.  In the words of Oscar Chalupsky: "You've got the base but you're too [email protected]#king slow. Concentrate on speed!" During one SKYPE call to Oscar in Japan - or was it China or Dubai? - he told me his son Luke, a 16-year-old who weighs not much more than a fiberglass double, did his intervals at 17 kph or better. I had my work cut out for me.

Rochester Open Water Challenge

My first race of consequence after Molokai fell on June 28.  While the rest of the surf ski world turned their attention to the World Cup duel in Durban, three dozen paddlers gathered in Ontario Beach Park for the inaugural Rochester Open Water Challenge ( on Lake Ontario in western New York to have a go at the $1,100 purse.

Given that Greg Barton had flown up from Charleston, South Carolina, the big question was who would finish second in the 10 mile race. Ontario is the world's 14th largest lake. Paddle 60 miles north and you're in Toronto, Canada. Typically, in the summer the wind is out of the west, producing 3-to-4 foot rollers. But on this muggy overcast Saturday morning the lake was millpond flat.

{sidebar id=5}There was $100 for the first male and female finisher to the hot spot 1000 meters into the out-and-back course. Shortly after securing the dough, Barton backed off and allowed me and Jason Quagliatta, a K1 specialist who'd recently qualified to represent the U.S. at the upcoming World Marathon Champs, to sit on his wash.  Doing his best imitation of Oscar, Greg asked what had taken me so long to catch up, making subtle references to my heritage and anatomy.  With little breath to spare, I simply repeated the insult, substituting his surname for mine.  This may have been the first time Greg Barton, the son of a pig farmer from Michigan, had ever been subjected to anti-Semitic vitriol. 

Thirty minutes into the race, a light wind appeared. When a motor boat passed, I did my own Oscar imitation, linking the 3 to 5 inch rollers as if I'd grown up in Durban. Barton sat just behind me, but Quagliatta fell off. Much to my surprise I rounded the buoy first, both pleased and stunned to have nothing but open water between me and the finish. Twelve double strokes later, Barton was by my side, smiling and hurling insults. "Get on my wash, you useless bastard!" And off we went.

Paddling behind Barton is always a thrill even if it feels as if you're breathing through a plastic bag: I've most often watched the combination of power and grace as he passed me on his way back to the finish, but when I've been lucky enough to sit behind him I'm blown away but how he generates so much speed with what appears to be so little effort. So I was hanging in, feeling pretty darn smug, when Greg peered over his shoulder and said "We gotta pick it up, Jason and Ed [Joy] are gaining on us." I stopped admiring Barton's torso rotation and focused on the precious wash off his stern. Like a thermometer set in the sun, our average speed rose from 7.5 mph to 7.9 to 8.3 - this, mind you, into the wind.

With just two miles to go, Greg informed me he that was heading off. :"Like hell you are," I thought. After all I'd been on the Oscar program for six weeks.  Armed with my newly developed speed, I dug deep and watched the Epic logo on Greg's shirt grow smaller and smaller until I had to strain to see the water splashing off his blades.

Greg Barton - Rochester Open Water Challenge 08
Greg Barton

Barton crossed the line in 1 hr 10. I was second (1:11), Jason third (1:14) and Ed Joy, a former Molokai competitor whom I met in 1995 during a month-long race from Chicago to New York, was fourth (1:15). Shortly before we parted, Greg told me that he'd just spoken with Oscar.  The race in Durban would start around 2 AM our time. The wind was just right. Grinning like a ghoul, Barton switched back into Oscar mode, "Make sure you wake up at 3 AM and watch the live coverage on you useless bleepin' bastard!" I guaranteed him that I would not.  My more pressing concern was if he planned to come to Blackburn.  He shook his head; he had to be in China. But he gave me a stern and unprintable admonishment to win the bleepin' race.

The Blackburn Challenge

For the next two weeks that's exactly what I had in mind every time I hit the water.  I continued to focus on speed, not paddling more than two hours at a time, intently eying my GPS during each session. Last year at the Blackburn, Barton covered the 20 mile (32 km) course around Cape Ann in an Epic 18x, a high-performance carbon sea kayak, and won in 2 hr 32 min. and 58 seconds - less than two minutes off the course record he set in a V10 Ultra. Don Kiesling, who'd flown across the country from Seattle, was 2nd, 95 seconds back. I was third and Borgnes fourth.

With Borgnes and Kiesling back and Barton out of the mix I figured it would be a chummy three-horse race. That is, until Derrick Bezuidenhout signed on. A South African living in Tampa, Florida,  Derek finished a strong third behind Ian Gray and Barton at the Culebra Challenge this March in ideal downwind conditions in Puerto Rico. Discussing the Bezuidenhout factor with Borgnes via e-mail, he replied: "Our friendly race just got a lot less friendly."

Located at the tip of Cape Ann, roughly 30 miles north of Boston, Gloucester is the oldest fishing port in the United States and, more importantly, the place where fish sticks were invented. While commercial fishing has fallen on tough times, the Blackburn Challenge continues to thrive, with classes for dories, rowing shells, outriggers, sea kayaks and surf skis. This year there were about 45 skis in a field of 225 paddlers and rowers. Starting in 11 waves, we were the penultimate group to head down the flat, scenic, serpentine Annisquam River.

The Group of Nine

Without Barton pushing the pace, a group of nine headed out to sea. Early on along the north shore, Borgnes surged to the front, surfing stray boat wash and the gentle swell rebounding off the rocky coast. Before you could say "Howard Blackburn survived five days at sea in the winter with no food and water and eventually no fingers," the group was down to five: Borgnes, Bezuidenhout, Kiesling, Canadian Brain Heath and me.

Blackburn 08
Lead pack on the Annisquam River heading out to sea (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

Much to my surprise, the first to fall back was Bezuidenhout. After a 10-minute hiatus, he returned to the pack, complaining that he had to back-paddle twice to remove weed from his rudder.  The good news, I thought, is that he's expended a lot of energy in the first half of the race. But when I fell off the pace 15 minutes later, the bad news hit me like a wet sponge in the kisser: we were both paddling V10s with deep ocean rudders.

Blackburn 08
Oh, that weed! (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

For 20 minutes I labored to close the tantalizingly small gap back to the four-man pack. When I finally regained contact, Derek was back-paddling yet again. I had him check my rudder and, sure enough, it was Weed Central. I shifted into reverse, extricated the pernicious substance and resumed the chase like an office temp with a bad attitude.

Ninety minutes into the grind, Borgnes grew less social. "I went to the front of the group to put some pressure on everyone to see what would happen." Ten minutes later, he was pleased to note that the tight pack had become a tenuous conga line. Heading along a rocky 10K stretch along the south shore, Borgnes sprinted for every bump he could find. "I was surfing about half the time, even though the waves were small and most of the rides lasted only a few strokes," he said.

Blackburn 08
Glicker leads Erik Borgnes (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

This winter to prepare for the Culebra race in Puerto Rico, Borgnes flogged himself silly in frozen Wisconsin on his erg, which must be the most tedious training apparatus on the planet. Since I'd seen him in March, he'd lost 10 pounds and appeared far fitter.  Having competed as a road and mountain biker, cross-country skier and inline and (ice) speed skater, the man knows how to hurt. Countless accelerations later, the paddling physician looked back and saw that he was alone. "While I was working hard," he said, "I had lots left in the tank."

Erik Borgnes - Blackburn 08
Erik Borgnes (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

Best Finish Ever

For most of the race, Borgnes kept a steady heart rate around 160 bpm, but when he turned the break wall into the harbor, he kicked it into high gear and crossed the line nearly three minutes before Brian Heath. Fifth here last year, the Canadian overtook Kiesling heading into the harbor. It was his best finish ever.  Derek struggled mightily over the last third of the course. He and I sprinted for 4th and 5th, respectively.

Brain Heath (CN); Don Kiesling Blackburn 08
Brain Heath (CN); Don Kiesling (2nd and 3rd respectively) (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

Then came the fun part.  The Blackburn has the reputation as having the best post-race party on the East Coast:  live music, great food, free beer and massages housed under a spacious white tent perched above the beach.  Most of the 200+ paddlers and their entourages lingered for hours. I schmoozed with Ray Fusco, the race director of the Mayor's Cup who'd won the fast sea kayak class; with Larry Cain, the C1 gold and silver medalist from Canada who'd won the OC1 division; with Gloria Wesley and Gary Aprea, who'd just returned from Canada where they'd won the psycho-hard 740-kmYukon Quest; with Richard Germain, a warm paddler from chilly Montreal who has been dreaming of doing Molokai for years. But I found it hard to shake my feeling of disappointment. How much had the weed slowed me down? Had I been too preoccupied thinking about it? Why hadn't I put on a weed guard? Had I been fitter could I still have battled Borgnes to the line?

Craig Impens - Blackburn 08
Craig Impens (8th ski place finisher) (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

Finding excuses um... reasons

After the race, my family and I drove to Cape Cod to catch the ferry to Martha's Vineyard. At a coffee shop in Wood's Hole I found free internet access and accomplished two important tasks: First I checked to see how Oscar and Herman and Kurt Dierckx had shorted themselves out at the North Sea Champs in Belgium. Next I wrote Erik Borgnes, who'd raced to the airport before we'd had a chance to compare notes, and congratulated him. A 43-year-old with a shaved dome who jokingly refers to himself as a "short, overweight, lazy bastard," Erik doesn't have a high profile as a paddler internationally but in the U.S. the Belgium-born lad who spent  his childhood booting a soccer ball and dreaming of playing professionally has more than a few solid wins on his paddling resume and finished 6th at the '04 US Surf Ski Championship. He's modest, smart and good company, which makes it all the more annoying to lose to him -- I can't work up any resentment.

Surely an analytical fellow like Erik would want to know how he had managed to beat me so handily, so I explained to him that I'd been dragging a lot of weed and possibly a lobster pot.  As usual, he responded graciously.  "It sucked that the weed determined the final results," he wrote, "Brian, Don and I all had small weed-shedding rudders and you and Derek did not." But then, strictly in the interest of accuracy, Erik added: "I knew I was carrying weeds at some point and after I crossed the finish I had a big glob of them bent around my rudder...but my guess is that I had less than you and Derek."

It's the rare, enlightened competitive paddler who doesn't seek a good excuse, pardon me, reason, for not finishing where he or she had expected to.  Had the results been reversed, Erik would have been all set: with a little embroidery, his shark sighting could have easily taken minutes off his time.  I made a mental note to pack a little chum on the next Blackburn, just in case my new winter erg training program doesn't do the trick. 

Erik Borgnes Blackburn 08
Erik crosses the line (Pic: Richard Hodgkins)

Summary Results

(More on



Erik Borgnes  

Fenn Mako 6



Brian Heath

T Rex



Donald Kiesling

Epic V 10



Derek Bezuidenhout

Epic V10L



Joe Glickman

Epic V10



Ken Cooper




Cory Lancaster

Fenn Mako Millenium



Craig Impens

Epic V-10 Elite



Timothy Dwyer

Epic V 10



Mike Tracy

Fenn Mako 6


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