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The Great Peconic Race is back and in the books: A circumnavigation of Shelter Island

A few people standing together on Wades Beach Sunday morning were looking across the water at the point of Shell Beach where it touches West Neck Harbor.

Then, someone with binoculars, pointing, said, “There she is,” and with the naked eye you could just catch the flash of sunlight on an oar dipping and rising.

Three hours, one minute and 32 seconds after she started a 19.1 mile circumnavigation of the Island from the beach, Sinead Fitzgibbon returned from where she started to cheers from the small gathering. The 52-year-old Sag Harbor resident was the first person to complete the course in the seventh running of The Great Peconic Race.

Sinead Fitzgibbon finishing first at Wades Beach on Sunday, circumnavigating the Island in just over 3 hours. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

Another event that was put on pause by the pandemic, the race was back, albeit in a slimmed down version. Instead of a crowded field of paddlers and rowers for the race around the Island, there were only 18 competitors.

Unlike past races, there was no beach party atmosphere with music, paddle board reps at colorful booths, lots of food and drinks, and families and friends enjoying the spectacle.

“We planned to keep it low key,” said race founder and organizer Billy Baldwin in the Wades Beach parking lot early Sunday as he unloaded his outrigger canoe from his pickup. The reason to keep the event small, he said, was to show good faith to the Town that the event can be run at the height of the summer season and not later in the year when the previous races have taken place.

The plan was not to disrupt beachgoers enjoying a Sunday of sand and swimming, and to keep the waterways safe with increased boating activities in high season.

According to the race organizers, proceeds from this year’s race, in addition to a recent donation of $25,000, will be donated to the Town in support of a new children’s educational program, entitled “The Waterman Challenge,” which is expected to begin next year. The program will be created in coordination with Town Recreation Director Bethany Ortmann, and will emphasize environmental coastal water concerns, outdoor water activities and water safety.

Running the race later in the year had caused problems for competitors, Mr. Baldwin said, with fluky tides and sudden, changeable weather. From all reports, this race went off without a hitch, with Bay Constables on patrol, as well as Coast Guard vessels keeping watch.

Ms. Fitzgibbon, racing in a coastal rower — a sleek, light and extremely quick craft powered by oars — had such a successful race that she had to wait nearly half an hour for the next racer to complete the circumnavigation. A native of County Wexford, Ireland, Ms. Fitzgibbon had raced in a brand-new boat, or, as she more entertainingly put it, “It’s right out of the oven.”

Conditions were good, she said, with little wind and the tide just right, but it was hot, and showing her hands, you understood that competitive racing is not just a Sunday paddle.

“They blistered at about 15 kilometers,” she said, showing yellow pus in her palms. “That hurt. And they  popped at about 20 kilometers, which made them feel a bit better.” She smiled. “A bit.”

The boat she rowed is made by Next Boatworks; her husband Dennis Loebs is a partner in the company.

Finishing second, was Mr. Baldwin, who, as he approached the beach, yelled, “This is just the first lap!” Like many racers he had taken a dunk to relieve the heat from an unrelenting July sun. Another Next Boatworks craft, rowed by Keith Attisano, 46, a woodworker from Miller Place, finished 3rd in the race. Before the race, Mr. Attisano said he’d been in the last four Great Peconic Races.

“I like to have at least one epic adventures every summer,” he said. His goal “was to finish feeling good.” Minutes after his  boat nosed the Wades Beach sand he said he had achieved his goal, “But, man, it is hot out there.”

Adam Nussen, 34, of Freeport, was the sole racer who went prone on a paddleboard, completing the circumnavigation in three hours and 45 minutes. Someone expressed amazement that he had rowed 19 miles lying flat, using only his arms.

Catching his breath on the beach, Mr. Nussen said he had an advantage over the stand-up paddleboarders: “There’s no danger of me falling off.”

A successful day for the competitors, who tested themselves and met challenges. And from all reports, a successful comeback of a race that should be back next summer.