GLOUCESTER, Mass. - Howard Blackburn set a high bar for endurance rowing. While fishing off the coast of Newfoundland in 1883, his dory became separated from from his schooner. Over the next five days, he rowed 60 miles across the North Atlantic until he reached land. Blackburn's crewmate Thomas Welch died in the boat, but what arguably makes the story memorable is the description of Blackburn letting his hands freeze around the oar handles so he could continue rowing.
“A man with extarordinarily bad luck and extraordinary determination," said John Dillenbeck several days after he and 12 teammates from Belfast's Come Boating! returned from the annual Blackburn Challenge — a 20-mile endurance rowing race in Gloucester, Mass.
Come Boating! placed first and second among six-person pilot gigs at the July 20 event. The men's team finished first aboard a new boat, Malcolm G. The women's team, aboard Selkie, took second place, edging out a Gloucester-based team by three minutes in a race that took the fastest boats over three hours to complete.
Come Boating! set a course record at the Blackburn Challenge last year for a mixed-gender team with a crew of four men and two women.
Dillenbeck said the goal this year was to set course records for both men's and women's teams. But with temperatures in the mid-90s, an unfavorable current, and a slight headwind the crews quickly reverted to a more Blackburnian goal of surviving the race.
"The irony is that while we were rowing we could think of nothing better than ice," Dillenbeck said.
One crew member was treated for heat exhaustion after the race.
“I thought it was pretty awful last year. It’s hard on your body, your hands get torn up and you're cramping up by the end of it it. You pretty much use everything you have," he said.
Monica PIccinini, who led the women's team, wasn't thinking of Howard Blackburn during the race but rather Donald Hume, who led the American men's rowing team to a gold medal at 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin despite being sick shortly before the event.
"He basically rowed that race in a semi-comatose state," she said. "I thought, if Don Hume can keep going, I can keep going, too."
Another rower on the team thinks of a specific racehorse when she needs a jolt of motivation, Piccinini said.
Come Boating! competes in around seven races each year. This was the group's second time at Blackburn Challenge.
Asked why Belfast has done so well, Dillenbeck cited the team's commitment and constant training. He also offered another explanation.
”I would say the reaon was: we’d been beaten by our main rival so many times, we decided we were going to get serious and start winning,” he said.
The rival is Team Saquish from Plymouth, Mass.
“About three years ago we started beating them and we’ve pretty much won everything since,” Dillenbeck said. The last time was at the annual "Snow Row" in Hull, Mass. last November. The race amounted to a home field lost for Team Sqamish and the Massachusetts rowers have been conspicuously absent from the race circuit since then.
Dillenbeck anticipates the team will be looking for payback at the Come Boating! Regatta in Belfast, August 17.
“It’s going to be an exciting race,” Dillenbeck said. “According to them, the men’s team has pretty much been training all year.”
“To beat us,” he added.
Belfast rowers who competed in the 2013 Blackburn Challenge:
Coxswain - Rowan Walauski
Ethan Andrews can be reached at email@example.com