Swedish Steam and Braided Whipcord

Roger Crossland Blackburn

Epic Competition on Cape Anne

by Roger Crossland.

I keep a calendar of summer outrigger races. You can’t have races sneaking up on you.  This year, the much vaunted Philadelphia race was cancelled and I suddenly found I had eight weeks to train for the Blackburn Challenge.  The Blackburn doesn’t sneak up on you.  It is the longest toughest open water race on the East Coast.  The Blackburn comes at you frontally, with numerous warnings, whistle blowings, flashing lights, and chews you up like a tug pushing a coal barge that you can’t evade.

The Hooked Line

The Blackburn is a 21 mile race around the diamond-shaped Cape Ann which starts and finishes in Gloucester.  All man-powered boats are welcome. This is a muscle-power or “Swedish steam” race.  In the 19th Century a large part of the seafaring population came from northern Europe.  Swedish steam, muscle-power,  came cheap and the term became part of Yankee vocabulary  At each Blackburn Challenge, the race staging area at the Gloucester’s high school looks as if Noah’s Ark has just capsized and its cargo has washed up on Massachusetts’s Cape Ann.  Instead of two of everything, however, there are a dozen or more of everything.

There is a quotation with currency among boxers, “If you can’t get in shape for a bout in six weeks, you can’t get in shape for anything.”  Well most boxers are at their prime in their early thirties so perhaps they can be ignored.  I’m an American baby boomer twice about twice that  baby boomers constitute a disproportionately large number of all recreational competition for at least another decade.  They were raised in an competitive environment and they simply cannot stop competing.  Eight weeks, eight weeks should be more than enough to prepare for one of the East’s premier Swedish steam races.

I set my internet weather watch for Gloucester and watched Gloucester conditions daily.  I paddle every other day gradually lengthening the distances.  I study my gear.  I study my boat.  What  item can fail me?  What item have I forgotten?

I watch the wind patterns.  I watch the current patterns.  I watch the swell patterns.

This will be my fifth Blackburn.  I’ve done the Blackburn four times already, three in an “outrigger canoe six” and last year in an “outrigger canoe, single.”  I like Gloucester.  I get a sense of renewal going to Gloucester.  My ancestors were a part in its history for almost two centuries, testimony to the power of codfishing..

The Blackburn Challenge openly publishes a list of its current registrants until a week before the race.  I studied the list under “outrigger canoe, single.”  You can learn a good deal from that list if you study it until your eyes cease to focus.

Last’s year list was daunting.  The field was filled with hollow-cheeked men of portent with the musculature of braided whipcord.  There was “the Russian” (I suspect he is really Ukrainian) who rarely lost a race on the East Coast.   There was the Hawaiian high roller that bought a boat in Hawaii, had it shipped to Gloucester for the race, raced, and sold it that same day at auction so he didn’t have to ship it back.  There was the eight foot tall naval architect with his own boat building business in San Francisco who had been a first rate crew oarsman and now had designed a lime green “outrigger canoe, single” prototype that he planned to put on the market.  There was Floridian whom I imagined wrestled “gators who slogged northward through several thousand miles through several miles of swamp for the race with the added motivation of selling his catch.  You don’t travel a distance like that unless you plan to bring home gold.  And then there was “Ragnar,” my own personal nemesis.  Ragnar (not his real name) was about my age who came from a broad boating and seafaring background much like my own.  Worse still, Ragnar is a writer, still another trait worthy of suspicion.  Last year I kept a special eye on Ragnar.  I’ve always felt in competition it was important to keep it human, and that required a personal yardstick.  I did the 41 mile Molokai to Oahu Race with a 9-man outrigger team.  About 115 boats entered the Molokai that year.  Trying to take in 115 teams is too much to process.  We focused on beating the Vladivostok Tigers alone, and we did.  Psychologically, it would have been too hard to beat all 115 other teams.  Instead we focused on one team, one worthy rival.  Well, Blackburn typically registers double the number of boats Molokai does.

My last Blackburn did not go well.  My hydration system shifted, came apart, and eventually fell out of the boat at mile 13 (though it did stay attached to me).  I experienced cramps in my hips that were either the result of an improper mixing of electrolytes in my water, or the fact that the boat simply did not fit my body properly.  This year I’d no better what to expect.

Last year, the Russian, the Hawaiian high roller, the eight foot tall San Francisco boatbuilder, and Ragnar, crossed under the Greasy Pole before me.  The Florida gator wrestler didn’t.  He came in behind me.  I suspect he’d experienced a similar equipment malfunction.

This year I designed a different hydration mounting system and bought a new boat.

The design-gods in Waikiki who produce the “outrigger canoe, single,” or OC-1, focus on speed.  They make no concessions to practicality.  It is sleek, carbon-fiber, and light.  Few OC-1s  provide stowage compartments, cleats, or deck-mounting for hydration,  lifejackets, compasses or GPS.  Hawaiians scoff at lifejackets.  What? Can’t you swim?  If the competition-gods had intended you to have these things in addition to a paddle, they would have…  Most Hawaiians swim as easily as the walk and view the sea as a gentle friend.

The rule-gods in Gloucester require you have a lifejacket and a GPS or compass.   Hawaiian races are either shorter than the Blackburn or they are supported by escort boats so if you run out of water, someone will toss you a hydration bladder.  Fog is not common in Hawaii.  My first Blackburn, the Coast Guard turned the race back at the Annisquam Harbor Light.  My second Blackburn we had 150 foot visibility for the first ten miles.

In any event, this year I am better prepared.  I constructed a bomb-proof hydration mounting system that could carry two litres of water.  It was a work of art and I would be happy to send drawings and photos to readers who send a self-addressed envelope. I would varnish my hydration mounting system and may turn it into a coffee table if my wife would let me. It is a work of art composed of ample applications of velcro, polyethelene macramé cord, rubber washers, bungee line, rubber washers,  clear 3/8” vinyl tubing, and contact cement.  No duct tape here, this was the work of a professional.

I have a new boat and this one “fits” right.   My new boat is orange so I named it Grandmarnier after a high octane form of orange juice. I value its orange color.   Idle-rich powerboat operators in Long Island Sound, where I practice,  are inclined to investigate strange asymmetric smallcraft.  The color orange keeps them at a safe distance.  It seems official, almost governmental, and broadcasts the message “danger.” The danger is, of course, that of powerboats to me, not me to powerboats, but they don’t know that.

All boats are trade-offs.  If you get one thing, you sacrifice something else.  OC-1s divide into two categories, flatwater and surfing boats.  Grandmarnier is a surfing boat. All boats have hull speeds. Each boat has its own particular hull speed.  Hull speed is a sort of red line demarcation of maximum efficiency.  Once the boat reaches its hull speed, its ability to achieve greater speed diminishes.   Up to its hull speed, one unit of exertion gets it one comparable unit of speed.  After hull speed is reached, it takes multiple units of exertion to get one additional unit of speed.  Surfing OC-1s can defy that general rule if they begin to plane.  In essence a planing OC-1 gets a second, faster, hull speed. 

Flatwater boats can plane a bit, but they are designed to surf wholesale. With a surfing boat you can experience the joy of achieving Star Trek’s “warp speed,” if all the planets are in alignment.  Warp speed is relative, some boatmen who can achieve greater gradiations of warp speed than others, but warp speed is preferable to plodding speed.  As we know from science fiction shows and movies, once you hit warp speed stars that are normally dots become long straight white lines.

A surfing OC-1 doesn’t need six foot waves, just a tailwind and waves in the six inch to one foot range.  The trouble is the prevailing winds on Cape Ann are squarely westerly and nowhere does the Blackburn Challenge course run squarely west-to-east.

Watching the daily weather reports I noticed that from time to time – occasionally –  the Cape Ann winds came out of the Northwest or out of the southwest.  A northwest wind would give my boat an distinct advantage.  A Southwest wind on the other hand would be an impediment to all boats in the last half of the race.

I have mentioned Ragnar. Ragnar is my nemesis.  Last year he challenged me at the start, he held with me to the the Annisquam Harbor Lighthouse and then fell away.  He picked me up again at Halibut Point (the quarter mark) and passed me.  After the halfway mark, Straitsmouth, he’d swerved closer to shore and I’d thought I’d passed him on this shorter,  straighter course, but no, he finished two ahead of me.  Ragnar paddles a sinister black, flatwater boat.  I have concluded on the basis of this observation alone that his boat is as black and sinister as his heart.  On that basis, I resolved to beat that boat at the Blackburn.  Mind you, I think his heart is black and sinister, but we’ve never actually exchanged so much as a greeting.  It is enough that he finished two ahead of me last year.

Casting the Line

Race day.  The race starts just beyond the railroad bridge on the Annisquam River. The groups go out by racing class after racing class at 5 minute intervals.  Attendance is taken for each class, the boats are lined up abreast and then an official with stopwatch in hand gives the starting command.  Three OC-1s take a very early lead.  I swear the Russian leaves the line with a puff of smoke.  Immediately, I find myself hemmed in between an OC-1 from Montreal beautifully painted like a coral snake and Ragnar’s black, flatwater OC-1.  I sprint with my best strokes, shaft vertical, keeping the draw portion of my stroke as straight possible, and I start moving ahead of both boats. My GPS tells me I’m moving well. The Annisquam River winds toward Ipswich Bay like a mountain switchback. By the Annisquam Harbor Lighthouse I can’t see a single OC-1 ahead of me or to my sides.  Philosophically, I never ever look back.

We start passing the centipede-like oar-driven gigs and slow and lonely stand-up paddleboards.   It is a high rocky coast.  The next significant landmark is Halibut Point, half-way to the half-way mark.

The Chart

Blackburn racers received a shirt this year with a chart on its back.  The chart provides editorial remarks.  “Folly Cove” rates the parenthetical notation “(coincidence?)”  Personally I would have footnoted, “Abandon all hope, ye who pass Folly Cove.”  The chart on the shirt further labels the most northerly jetty as “Halibut Point of no return.” Since it is only the quarter-way mark as a “point of no return” it overstates its significance. What it really signifies is that you can return to the starting line claiming equipment failure, and you can  be believed, possibly.  Surely no one would be overcome by the pain and discomfort so early in the game.  No, any excuse would be accepted as valid if you turn temptingly turn back that soon.

By Halibut Point still no OC-1 has overtaken me.  I’m still fourth for OC-1s. I do find myself overtaken by a swarm of surfskis.  The are a faster class and started after the OC-1s.  They are the largest single class in the race and very organized.  I know many of the leaders from my old kayaking days.

Rounding Andrews Point, I feel a breeze on my back.  The wind is behind me from the Northwest.  It was the one favorable natural condition I’d hoped, a downwind run to Straitsmouth.  Cowabunga! Totally, totally wicked!

It is time to let Grandmarnier, my surfing OC-1, show her stuff.  It is just a breath of wind and the waves are more confused than sequential, but my GPS is telling me we’re surfing delightfully above my first hull speed.  And I can feel it.  I steer straight toward the Thacher Island Twin Lighthouses.  Whee-ha!

At Straitsmouth, the halfway mark, I call out my boat number, “Ninety-five.”  I don’t hear any numbers in the OC-1 sequence called out anywhere near me and I gain confidence from that.  There are no OC-1s nearby.

Up until now the current and wind have been light almost to the point of negligibility.  Now that I’ve turned the corner westward, I will be fighting the wind and current directly and the indirect effect of the swells coming from my left.  My pontoon or “ama” is on my left. Any time my ama is above me I’m uncomfortable. If the ama goes too high I’ll capsize or “huli.”

Once past Loblolly Cove I must make a decision: I can start hugging the coast line, “scalloping,” or I can shoot straight across Long Beach and Good Harbor Beach. It is a trade-off.  Scalloping adds mileage, but it protects you from adverse wind and current.  When I steered outrigger canoe sixes, I always steered straight across.  Outrigger sixes are faster than OC-1s and, adding in the weight of the paddlers, they displace half of a ton. Grandmarnier on the other hand weighs 24 lbs.  I’m feeling giddily confident and see other small boats taking the straight line course. I don’t see any small boats scalloping, but small boats clinging to the coast are hard to see, especially black, sinister ones.

When I’ve passed Milk Island and am even with Good Harbor the forces of nature decide to unleash themselves on the giddily confident. The winds pick up significantly to 10-15 kts gusting to 20 kts, and I feel their full wrath on my gritting teeth. The chop builds and I find myself crawling down to Gloucester.  My hydration system is holding up, adequate and flowing freely.  Grandmarnier has sprouted no leaks, her rudder cables are working fine, and no seaweed is trailing from my rudder. Nonetheless I am crawling westward down the coast at barely half my best rate.  From here on it is like paddling through molasses.

Blackburn generally releases the slowest racing class first, and the fastest class, last.  These fastest boats are OC-6s.  These fastest, boats are now beginning to passing by. Several call out to me as they pass.  I know paddlers on each of the lead three OC-6s.  I have been with them at Blackburn in the past.

I see, and then pass the Eastern Point Light. Still this is not surfing to Straitsmouth.  It is torture. At last I see the tip of East Eastern Point.  All that remains is for me to hug the Dog Bar, a long substantial breakwater, and the climactic fight into Gloucester Harbor.
Roger Crossland Blackburn

Landing the Catch

The widely spread boats all start funneling together and a couple hundred yard ahead of me I see two outrigger canoes and they aren’t the three leaders.  Two ahead of me is a black, sinister, flatwater outrigger…Ragnar.  Behind him is some young whippersnapper in a trucker’s hat.  I kick in to overtake them, trying to keep directly behind them to give them the least warning…but I’ve got nothing. Four miles of molasses, current, and strong winds have taken their toll.  Where did they come from?

Gloucester harbor is the worst mile of the race.  It has the highest waves, the most confused chop, cooling wind, and you must endure the sizeable wake of powerboat sailors who regard small boats with disdain.  I never enjoy it, but it is the time to wring out the last bit of energy to cross under the Greasy Pole.

To the left is Dolliver Neck.  I am descended from the Dollivers.  For two centuries my family’s destiny, like that of Howard Blackburn, was controlled by the codfish industries of Gloucester, Massachusetts and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.  My great – (many greats) – grandmother Ann Higganson Dolliver married a Gloucester Dolliver,  The marriage to wastrel “Captain” William Dolliver was an unhappy one ending in his abandoning her and their four children.  It is said the stress made her unstable.  Eventually she was tried for witchcraft in Salem, which lies not far to the south, during the famed trials.  She raised the novel argument of witchcraft in self-defense, and she was acquitted.

Behind me I can hear girlish giggling. Now what?  It is my club’s women’s team coming up behind me in an outrigger canoe six.  They’ve had a rough transit, too, but call out encouragement.  That encouragement is appreciated.

And there it is, the Greasy Pole and two large inflatable buoys

“Ninety-five,” I call out for a second time.

It is done. Sixth, not fourth.  The Florida ‘gator wrestler comes in far behind me.  I’m going to have to reassess his motivation.

Ragnar has beaten me…by two again.

It is not going to happen next year.  I’m going to channel my great-grandmother.  I can be sinister, too. Two centuries of codfishery leave a mark.  I know the potion. Brew up a codfish stew, a touch of molasses and a jigger of Grandmarnier, add a length of whipcord, heat with a plume of Swedish steam, and stir at warp speed.


Next year in Gloucester.


Roger Lee Crossland has been navigating quaint smallcraft by means of Swedish steam for decades.  He is a former men’s racing steersman for New York Outrigger.   He is a retired naval officer with thirty years service, active and reserve and holds a 100 gwt merchant marine captain’s license with auxiliary sail and towing endorsements.

© R. L. Crossland 2012

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  1. Tingting says:

    What a beautiful tirtidaon and a joy to experience. David, DeDe, Luke and Ryan so loved the sea. Caroline shared with us when the outrigger returned about how 2 sea otters popped up out of the kelp as they turned to return to shore. The sea otter I’ve been told is the grandfather of the sea. I like to imagine that they will continue to watch over my two little grandsons throughout eternity. Beautifu video Billy and thanks Laura again for sharing these moments.

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