Winning Times at the Blackburn Challenge | Concept2

Winning Times at the Blackburn Challenge

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Sep 20, 2022

Ben Booth has been competing for the US in the World Rowing Coastal Championships since 2015. This year he is both competing and coaching an elite squad of coastal athletes with his new team, Next Level Rowing (co-founded with Marc Oria). He recently won the World Rowing C1X division of the 35th Annual Blackburn Challenge, held each July. This 20-mile (32k) coastal race around Cape Ann, Massachusetts, holds a reputation for being both a fun and demanding challenge. Booth reports that the Comp blade matched his style of rowing, contributing to his result. The post below is Ben's account of his Blackburn Challenge experience.

"The Blackburn Challenge is named in honor of Howard Blackburn, who was a Gloucester fisherman during the age of sail and oar. He is famous for an epic self-rescue row during a winter storm. In a rapidly forming blizzard, he was stranded from his schooner, the Grace L Fears, in a small, open rowing dory. Not one to give up, Blackburn decided to row for shore, which was five days of rowing away! To give a sense of how hardcore this man was, at one point he was bailing water from the boat and lost his mittens overboard. As his wet hands started to freeze, he wanted to make sure he could keep rowing, so he grabbed his oar handles and froze his hands in place. He rowed this way—hands as ice hooks on oars—with no food, water or sleep, to the Newfoundland coast.

This year, the weather forecast promised calm winds and high heat. I have been using the Comp blades for about a year, and thought they would be perfect for these conditions. There is a liveliness and quickness to them that would work with my planned pace for the race—quick and light, get the boat up to speed and just spin it along.

It’s a long race, so here are just a few snapshots of the journey:

The race starts in the Annisquam River, a curvy flow through bridges, buoys, boat traffic, docks, shallows and more. It’s a neck twisting navigation challenge. I’m happy to keep second place here, following another’s wake through the maze.

Leaving the river, I feel the freedom of the open sea. I bring the rate up and move into first, happy to be in the big space and long sight lines of the coast.

The North Shore of Cape Ann is calm with some current assist. This first stretch is all about efficiency. Keep hydrated. Light pressure on the oars, moving the boat with rhythm over power. Vibrant blue sea and sky. Have fun, row the boat.

Halfway through there is a narrow squeeze between an island and the mainland. The current gets turbulent here, a few waves jump out of the sea with no regard to regularity. It’s a place most people take a little pause, so it’s a place I like to speed up. There are a lot of psychological moments in a long race.

The second half is more difficult than the first. The current is adverse. The boat traffic is heavier as we approach the harbor. But some boats are moving in the right direction, and I position myself to surf the wakes and pick up tons of speed. Navigation is key on this leg, so I find the shortest, straightest lines rather than follow the ins and outs of the coast.

ben rounding the bouy
Ben Booth with a 12-minute advantage leading the pack at the Blackburn Challenge, 2022.

The race finishes in Gloucester Harbor. This harbor is BUSY. Touring schooners, Whale Watch boats, zippy runabouts—all in an endless stream of noise and movement. It’s also a deceptively long stretch of water to row through. Some strange part of me loves this hateful last leg. Push through the fatigue, let the distractions flow by unheeded, hold off the heat cramps for a final few minutes, and hit the beach with the satisfaction of a great effort.

It’s a wonderful race. It’s a long unfolding strategy, with a careful regard for pacing. You have to be conservative enough to finish, but if you want to win, you have to be dangerous enough to row fast for a long time. It’s a race where the wily master rower can overcome the young gun or the scrappy lightweight can cruise steadily past the big muscled power. And most importantly, like running a marathon, there is victory for everyone in the act of finishing.

How did the Comps do? I was very pleased—they pulled me to a win in a time of 2 hours 51 minutes. I felt energetic with them all the way around. They have a lively acceleration that is unique to this oar. I actually feel like I am not working as
hard with these blades, which is critical to staying fresh in such a long race. I wanted to keep my cadence as high as possible with clean technique—to “spin” like a cyclist in the right gear letting the legs smoothly circle those pedals, and the Comps are uniquely suited to this style of rowing."

At this year’s World Rowing Coastal Championships (October 7-9) and Beach Sprints (October 14-16), competitors can rent Concept2 oars designed with the rigors of coastal rowing in mind: we’re trialing a new more durable Skinny shaft, built as tough as the athletes who use them. To reserve, email

Read more on Booth’s comparison of blades for coastal rowing.

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