It's that time of year again.
The No. 1 open water rowing race on the east coast, the Blackburn Challenge, is back for a 26th year of competition Saturday and it remains as popular as ever. Nearly 300 boats and more than 400 participants are expected to compete in Saturday's race, which begins at the Gloucester Marina (7:45 a.m., starts are staggered by boat class) and finishes at Pavilion Beach.
"We continue to repeat the formula because it keeps working," said Richard Klajnscek of Cape Ann Rowing Club, who puts on the event. "It's such a successful event we don't need to change a lot. We can't change the course and the weather changes for us every year and that provides enough variety for everybody. Plus it's a very unique event to Gloucester. I won't compare it to the greasy pole because they are two very different things but both are unique attractions in the city."
Variety in the race course is also one of the biggest draws to the Blackburn Challenge and keeps rowers coming to Gloucester from all over the Northeast Region. The 20 plus mile row around Cape Ann, which was created by the late Phil Bolger to emulate Howard Blackburn's row to Nova Scotia in 1883, has a little bit of everything for the rowing enthusiast. There is open water racing, the last 17 miles of the course, and a dash through the Annisquam River.
Rowers will also have to deal with a busy Gloucester Harbor during the races stretch run and plenty of other obstacles such as moorings and buoys.
By the time rowers reach Pavilion Beach they will have had to deal with wind blowing at them in every direction and rowed through flat and rough water. All of this would be difficult in a short race, but a 20 plus mile race makes it that much more grueling.
"It's a nice natural race course rowing around an island and this race is so great because you get a variety of conditions," Klajnscek said. "You get flat and rough water so rowers will need to combine two sets of rowing skills. Since you're going in a circle you get winds in all different directions. And the weather is always a factor, I said last year we were due for a rough course and we are still due."
There will also be several different kinds of boats competing in the race from kayaks, the most popular and one of the fastest, to dories, the slowest recommended for people who "enjoy pain" according to Klajnscek. Out-rigger canoes, sliding seat racing boats and even stand up paddle boards, which have became more and more popular recently, are featured in the race.
Sliding seat racing boats are expected to be the first to finish with doubles first followed by singles. Kayaks are expected to hit the beach next.
"Each boat presents different challenges," Klajnscek said. "Sliding seat racers and kayaks are the fastest, I'm still trying to win in a sliding seat race. Dories and stand up paddle boards are extremely difficult because they don't move as fast. I have a ton of respect for the people who compete in those."
Rick Bowen, the Operations Chief at Gloucester's US Coast Guard Station, is one of the brave souls competing on a stand up paddle board. The course record holder for dories, Jimmy Tarantino, will be back in his grand banks dory this weekend.
Klajnscek recommends Halibut Point State Park in Rockport as a great place to watch the race as the rowers will be bunched up and jockeying for position at that point. Dog Bar break water, the start of the stretch run, and Pavilion Beach, the finish line, are also recommended spots for spectators.
"The breakwater and Pavilion Beach will probably see the rowers a little more spread out," Klajnscek said. "Halibut Point is a great spot to watch from probably 8:30 onward. There's always good waves and it's a dramatic place to see the boats go by."