Blackburn Challenge 2017

Paddling has been known to give you some nice tan lines.

Paddling has been known to give you some nice tan lines.

Paddling the Blackburn Challenge is similar to getting kicked in the nads.  When it happens it hurts, but afterwards not hurting feels so good.  At mile 4 my life jacket started digging into my stomach. That's when I knew the next 18 miles were going to be interesting.

Strong currents and tidal forces powered the water 2mph in the wrong direction. The waves came from all directions as I paddled around the island of Cape Ann, and the sun was relentless.  I had to stop and paddle backwards six times to clear seaweed from my rudder, and when that didn't work I had to jump into the ocean to remove it.  I slept 3 hours and drove to Boston and back in a car with no air conditioning.  Sarah won't allow me to spend $150 dollars on a new air conditioner, and I do love a good sweat.  I spent three to five hours a day paddling 10-20 miles three to five days a week all summer to get my butt kicked.  This is my kind of sport! 

Sarah paddling her Think Uno Max

Even the stable V10L is hard to handle in the big waves.  Surfskis are great because if you swim you simply flip them over and start paddling.  Technique is essential to staying upright and moving forward.  Great paddlers can average upwards of 7mph in ocean conditions.

I've put some thoughts together about life and racing, some recommendations for ocean racing beginners, and some info for those thinking of doing the Blackburn Challenge. 

Ocean races create so many variables it reminds me of fighting.  I paddle a surfski bought from legend Eric Mcnett ( Surfskis are very tippy, and paddling in the ocean is exciting.  The way surfskis remind me of fighting is what I love most.  Mixed martial arts competition is challenging because of the variety of techniques used.  You have to be able to grapple, box, wrestle, etc.  You must be mentally strong, and often times success or failure depends on your own head.  Ocean racing for me creates major doubts and depression as the strength leaves my body.  I start losing my technique and efficiency goes down.  The last few miles drag on in my head, every stroke as painful as the last.


I’ve been on a big Tim Ferriss kick and got the recommendation for the book The Art of Learning from him.  The author, Josh Waitzkin, has a black belt from Marcelo Garcia and was a world class chess competitor, and the insights it’s given him are powerful.  This book caused me to do some hard thinking.  He points out the amazing amount of crossing over learning does.  I see many fighters that try to concentrate just on fighting, then go home and watch T.V. and go to the bar on Saturday nights.  Training my way involves learning martial arts through grappling, drilling, and techniques, but then learning about yourself through running, paddling, yoga, etc. A key to success is developing core attributes gleamed from one skill set to the next.  Martial arts teaches you as much about yourself as anything martial.  Martial arts has taught me how to be a good student.  It taught me the way kids with ADD learn best: failure.  I hate losing and have learned to use that in a formative way.  I didn’t listen to my coaches and got my butt kicked.  Training martial arts is great because the reinforcement of butt kickings doesn’t just happen in competition, it happens in the gym.  Good gyms will send the message of what's working and what's not daily.  It’s our job to pay attention to prevent future failure.  As parents we yearn to make our kid's lives easier and try to use our words to make this happen.  Unfortunately words don’t always sink in as deep, and sometimes the most effective learning is by putting our kids in situations they repeatedly fail and adapt.  It’s why sports and martial arts can be great builders for children.  A great parent and coach highlighting the important things (not winning) can help develop the a student.  Mastery can mean different things for kids but is often signified by being competitive with peers.  Perseverance is required for all great things in life.  Great things will never happen without staying the course.  The hard part can be mistaken for the required hard work doing the thing we love, but that’s not the hard part.  It’s not the part that requires our attention.  If we love what we do that part should be easy.  If you don’t love what you do then you’ll never achieve potential.  Often times it’s the little things that are hard.  Taking the time to prepare your food, organize the schedule, and showing up to practice everyday are the hard parts.  Maybe it’s allowing other aspects of life to interfere.  You only have so much energy, and if you spend it being drained by negativity you don’t get it back. 

At the Cape Ann Campsite before the Blackburn Challenge.

At the Cape Ann Campsite before the Blackburn Challenge.

If you want a way to test yourself, come paddle around Cape Ann next July in the Blackburn Challenge.  This is a great event, well organized in every way.  Dean is a friend of mine from the hospital and loves paddleboarding.  I first met Dean paddling the Penobscot in Bangor a few months ago.  Dean was there with his paddleboard and asked me to hook up and do some paddling.  I laughed to myself that he had no idea the kind of paddling I like to do.  A few weeks later I ran into Dean again, and as I was getting in he asked to come with me.  Sarah just bailed so I agreed.  Dean could actually move along and paddled hard.  As it turns out Dean is super cool, relaxed, self sufficient and loves to paddle.  A week out I told Dean about the Blackburn and he decided to go for it.  Paddling 22 miles with a paddleboard requires enough watts to power city blocks.  I warned him these guys look like death afterward, but Dean was in.

Video: The Cape Ann Campsites were terrific, but watch out for the attack raccoons!

Recommendations for the Blackburn:

  1. DO IT! - I recommend everybody that paddles do this race.  If you want to learn about yourself and fortitude in this life try the Blackburn.  Hard times make life seem easier.
  2. Train hard.  Get together with a veteran paddler and develop a plan.  Then stick to that plan.  Training means paddling in the ocean rain or shine, and it’s gorgeous here in Maine.
  3. Get your gear straight.  I’ve made some recommendations gear-wise at the end of this article.
  4. Be prepared for the sun.
  5. Chafing can be a real problem.  Use your setup and fine tune it over many paddles.  DON’T be like me and make last minute gear changes.
  6. Have fun.



Here are my product recommendations: I put this Camelbak in the front of my surfski and usually use a fruitjuice/water combo.  I don't do electrolytes since I drink ocean water in small quantities.  This is our tent.  It's super light and easy to set up.  This grill I use for campsites with electricity, otherwise I use the fire.  I love foam rollers and consider them the poor person's massage.  These shoes are as close as I can get to barefoot without looking like a total weirdo.  I do wear them when paddling with my friend Rod because of the walk into the ocean by his house is hazardous. The book is one of my favorites, very thought provoking.