As I am writing this on Saturday, July 16, 2016, the Cape Ann Rowing Club's annual Blackburn Challenge is in progress. It is a grueling race that involves rowing or paddling small sea craft on a twenty mile course circumnavigating Cape Ann in the open sea. Many people who live in coastal communities have experience in open sea rowing but twenty miles around the island is not for the feint of heart.
The Challenge is to commemorate the accomplishments of Howard Blackburn who was born in Nova Scotia in 1859. At the age of 18 he moved to Gloucester to find work as a fisherman. In 1883 Blackburn was fishing from the schooner Grace L. Fears when a sudden winter storm came up separating him and his dory mate from the schooner. With no shelter and no provisions in bitterly cold conditions all Blackburn could do was row. He rowed for five days without food, water, or sleep. He had lost his mittens and knew his hands were in trouble so he set his fingers in a curved position wrapped around the oars and there they froze stiff.
|Route of the Blackburn Challenge|
|Blackburn Tavern back in the day|
Eventually he made it to the coast of Newfoundland where he was rescued and, though his rescuers tried to save his hands, he lost all of his fingers, both thumbs to the first knuckle, and a number of toes. By the time he returned to Gloucester he was a hero, but his fishing days were over. The people of Gloucester raised what funds they could and Blackburn went into business first with a dry goods store that eventually acquired a liquor license and became a saloon. Over the years in spite of various attempts at temperance and Prohibition, he continued to find sources to supply his saloon with booze, but even being a bootlegger wasn't sufficiently exciting. He caught gold fever and decided to organize an expedition to the Klondike.
After sailing around Cape Horn, Blackburn quarreled with his partners and eventually returned to Gloucester without ever panning for gold. But his thirst for adventure remained strong and in 1899 he set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a Gloucester fishing sloop, Great Western. After 62 days at sea, with no fingers and few toes, he reached England. In 1901 he repeated crossing the Atlantic, this time headed for Portugal where he arrived in 39 days. He also sailed down the Mississippi River and back up along the Eastern seaboard.
|Halibut Point today as painted by|
Eileen Patten Oliver
Blackburn died in 1932 and is buried in the Fisherman's Rest section of Beechbrook Cemetery but his legend lives on in Gloucester. His tavern still stands and is now known as Halibut Point Restaurant & Bar. I am pleased to say I have imbibed more than a few cold ones there. Blackburn's story has been told in the book Lone Voyager, written by another illustrious son of Gloucester and my friend, Joe Garland. Joe, I am proud to say, is the man who told me I had to write The Old Mermaid's Tale: A Novel of the GreatLakes and he read every page of it as I was working on it. A few years back the entire community of Gloucester had a city-wide read of Lone Voyager with prominent citizens doing readings from the book in various locations.
The race today is, I believe, the 30th such race and there are plenty of participants. And now, I am going to go and look for the results.
Thanks for reading.