Forward Strokes, Ischemic Strokes and No Backstrokes

From the cockpit at Gloucester, Mass.'s 25th annual Blackburn Challenge

Start of the High Performance Kayak class at the Blackburn Challenge, off Gloucester, Mass. Photo: Cape Ann Rowing Club

By Rick Carter

Once again I find myself at Gloucester (Mass.) High School, home of the Fighting Fishermen, bearing up beneath dark storm clouds and a gale of calendar pages. I’m staring down the barrel of my 56th birthday and Father Time’s itchy finger grows heavy on the trigger. The words of Mike Livingston echo in my head: “Good morning. We are privileged to live another day in this magnificent world. Today you will be tested.”

Just two years ago a vascular conspiracy brewed in my bloodstream. It knocked me flat on my back and left me unable to get out of bed. Faceless strangers wheeled me down hospital corridors as I stared at the ceiling tiles and counted light fixtures. The “eternal footman held my coat and snickered” and, in short, I was enraged.

Once out of the krankenhaus, I spent six weeks learning to learn to walk a straight line while uninformed observers speculated that Rick was “drinking again.” Then I bought a plastic Wilderness Tempest. Three months later, an impulse buy led to my Epic V-12. The day following that purchase I took my new surf ski to Georgia and entered a 13-mile race on the Oostanaula River. It became the “Faster Disaster.” I swam more than I paddled.

The author, paddling this April at Charleston, S.C.'s inaugural Charleston Patriot Challenge. Photo Jim Miller

Finish line, Blackburn Challenge. Photo: Cape Ann Rowing Club

Today, July 25, the roster of competitors in the 25th anniversary of the venerable Blackburn Challenge includes yours truly. I’m at the boat ramp behind the high school, preparing to launch the boat. Attention to detail, relentless analysis and dedicated training will combine with old age and treachery for a go at the winner’s circle. A former friend owns a veterinary pharmacy but he selfishly refused to provide horse steroids. The best I can muster is a fair representation of a caffeine-fueled jackass.

It has been more than a year since I got the V-12. After so much “time in the boat,” I relish four-foot swells in the Atlantic with that sleek ski and the wild carnival ride a good downwind can bring, but it is still too much boat for me. The temptation was great to bring the V-12 to Gloucester this time, but I knew the surf ski boys were of a different caliber than this goat rancher from South Carolina. So, it was back to the Epic 18X, a fine craft, but with the limitations of a touring boat. Then I heard about the Epic V-8.

Heat has been my biggest concern. Last year, I used no skirt with the 18X. Three miles from the finish line it flipped in some chop. The boat took on water and I hauled an extra 100 pounds of shifting payload to the greasy pole at the finish. Yesterday, we had record temperatures at Cape Ann. A lingering heat wave is smothering this section of the Eastern Seaboard. These wormy legs would bake into cramps under a black skirt. With no cockpit, the V-8 seems to be the perfect solution. If the boat flips, I can jump back on and it will self-bail.

Three quarters of an inch! A cyst of doubt festers in my brain as I ready the boat for the start. Perhaps the ex-Mrs. Carter was right. Maybe this proclivity for risk is nothing more than a sad appetite for catastrophe. How can I ignore the simple laws of physics? My 18X is ≤ of an inch slimmer at the waterline and I could have brought it instead. What is the drag coefficient of this additional width? My V-12 is only 17 inches wide. It cleaves the water like a giant spear. I also left that beautiful creation at home and wagered a year of careful study and training, 38 hours of road travel and a sea of expensive gasoline on a ridiculous notion. It now seems a desperate, ill considered bet that I could beat the heat in this fat, bobbing, bath tub toy and not be last in my division. My pre-race jitters creep toward nausea.

At the starting line is Roger Gocking, who took first place last year in this division. He jumps ahead early and as we hammer the water to catch him I sense I’m going out too fast. Dave Furniss is on my wash and the three of us snake down the Annisquam River as a single creature with loose joints. This is unsustainable. I’m on the express train to Bonk City. Somehow I make it to the ocean in second place. Gocking slows down ever so slightly and things get a little easier. Furniss is stuck on my wash like a tick on a hound. Near Halibut Point we find some small bumps and the kid blasts ahead. He moves to the front. Now I’m in third place.

Three or four times, I have had to fiddle with my “hydration system” only to fall off the sweet grace of their wash. Each time, the acceleration and responsiveness of this vessel helped me rejoin without undue effort, but now the bumps are throwing me beyond Gocking’s stern and I can’t find the brakes so I steer past him. Catching some good runners, I surge ahead, but at a 20 degree angle away from their course. For a few glorious seconds this goober is in first place! I think I’ve found a faster line. I am an idiot. It is now just a matter of trying to hold on to third place as they shrink in the distance.

Approaching Dog Bar, the swells increase. My gaze remains locked on the turn at the end of the seawall and never wavers although I become conscious of cold water crashing abeam into my lap and filling the cockpit. The stability is dead solid and I never miss a stroke. As I’m surfing toward the rocks, trying to exploit the bumps, the safety kayaks are getting nervous. One paddles towards me to steer me away. My right shoulder is screaming. The temptation to coast is enormous but I won’t. After coming this far, it might as well be Olympic gold on the line. I finish the race without ever having made the first brace stroke and officially become what Bart Simpson calls the “second loser.”

At the finish line, Roger tells me that along the seawall the swells and slop were a concern. He became tentative and Dave pulled away. That would have been my moment. That is where the better boat would have won the day, if not for a weak motor and a bad decision.

Now, I’m on the beach enjoying Ipswich Ale and visiting with my favorite people. Tomorrow we will resume the battle with unemployment, personal relationships and all the thorns and spurs of this life. Today is for savoring the simple privilege of just one more day. As for the boat, the numbers speak for themselves.

• Blackburn 2010: 11th place, 3:37
• Blackburn 2011: 3rd place, 3:04 (17 surf skis finished behind me)

My sincere thanks go out to the folks who hosted this event and the many people who supported me in this crazy pursuit. That last part would include Wyndy, who suffers from a strange affinity for skinny old men with abnormally large heads. See ya at Molokai.

Nick Schade and Phil Warner, all done, Blackburn style. Photo: Cape Ann Rowing Club

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