David Grody likes a challenge now and then, but he had no idea what lay in his future when he decided to enter the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile rowing race around Cape Ann in Gloucester, Mass.

The race honors the memory of Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester fisherman who in 1883 became separated from his fishing vessel during a December blizzard 60 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Over the next five days, Blackburn and his dorymate Thomas Welch rowed toward land in freezing temperatures. Welch gave up and died while Blackburn allowed his bare hands to freeze to the shape of the oars and survived despite the loss of several fingers and toes.

Grody and his rowing partner Dan Benson didn’t face odds like that, but during a practice run off Popham Beach found themselves swimming for their lives behind a swamped boat in dense fog three miles off shore near Seguin Island. They recuperated from their ordeal just in time for the July 20 race, if not life-threatening nonetheless an exercise in exhaustion.

“After the Seguin Island thing we were determined to do it,” Benson said of the race. “In some respects we felt like we were kind of accident proof after that.”

By the time it was over, Grody and Benson had renewed an old friendship, recognized the power and unpredictability of the ocean and gained a sense of their own mortality. The pair met when they shared an office building on Eastern Avenue in Augusta with Lew Lester, a psychiatrist. Grody is a dentist and Benson a podiatrist and all three practice in Augusta, albeit now in separate locations. It was Lester who suggested Grody ask Benson to become his rowing partner after Grody realized he couldn’t go it alone.

“Both of them were rowers and kayakers,” said Lester, who watched them race at the Blackburn Challenge. “Both of them are extreme crazy guys.”

A sudden change of plans

Grody, 56, lives on Long Pond and 25 years ago bought a racing shell because he thought it would be fun. He’s had them on and off since, but had never competed in a race. Benson, 50, saw the shell on his truck in the office parking lot one day about 10 years ago and Grody taught him how to row. They rowed together here and there but drifted apart as they moved their professions to new locations.

Grody started rowing in earnest again a year ago and said “I got the bright idea to row in this Blackburn Challenge which is a pretty big event for guys who like to row in open water.”

Just to make sure he wasn’t getting in over his head, he traveled with his wife to Cape Ann to test the course in a Maas 24, an open water racing shell he bought specifically for the race. He quickly realized he didn’t have the skill to handle the boat by himself.

“I needed a heavier and more stable boat,” Grody said. “I needed someone to row with me.”

Grody gained a partner while in Cape Ann, but he dropped out a couple of months later due to time commitments. Grody got word to Benson, a competitive runner, that he needed a partner.

“He’s very competitive,” Grody said. “All I had to do was mention the word race to him. His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.”

By this time, Grody had a new double shell racer, an Alden 18, and the two got in two or three practices. It was the final practice, however, that would be one they never would forget.

Lost in fog off Popham

Grody felt the need to test the boat in open water, so he and Benson scheduled a practice June 30 at Popham, leaving from the small fishing beach by the fort near the mouth of the Kennebec River.

“We were only going to practice how it felt to row against the current in a big river like the Kennebec,” Grody said.

The pair were on their first run, less than 100 yards off shore when a thick fog began to roll in. Grody realized it right away, but it was still too late.

“It was like somebody turned the light switch off,” he said. “It was that fast.”

The two couldn’t even see one another in the boat and decided to stay put and listen for the sound of the surf. The swells were nearly 10 feet high, Grody said, and the current began to sweep the boat out to sea along the outflowing Kennebec.

Grody said he almost always takes his GPS with him but on this day he didn’t bring it along. About two and half miles from shore, they heard a bell buoy and Grody recognized they were in the vicinity of Seguin Island and its famed lighthouse. Benson was less hopeful.

“I was not optimistic we were ever going to see land,” he sad. “We did see a couple of buoys but we flew by those.”

Grody and Benson twice jumped into the water to bail out their boat. Seguin Island loomed into their vision like a giant aircraft carrier, but it did nothing to diminish their anxiety. They were already swimming in 57-degree swells behind their boat which was afloat a foot below the water line.

“It was getting a little bit dire,” Grody said. “We were getting hypothermic.”

The pair maneuvered their boat into an inlet and used it as a platform to climb onto the rocks. Then they watched as waves “crushed it to smithereens,” in Grody’s words, and it was swallowed by the sea. They were on land in the midst of a thicket of prickly brambles and poison ivy, determined to make it to higher ground.

“We didn’t know where we were,” Benson said. “It took us probably an hour to go 100 feet.”

Finally they reached high ground and came upon the Seguin light and the lighthouse keeper’s house. The light station at the island was commissioned by George Washington in 1795 and is the state’s tallest and second oldest lighthouse. It’s fully functional but has been automated for many years, so Grody and Benson didn’t expect to see anyone. They were surprised, though, when they peered through the window and saw provisions on the shelves.

“We knew we weren’t going to die from hunger,” Grody said.

Grody pushed the door slightly ajar and instinctively called out “hello.” He was astonished to hear a reply. Mary Hillery and Greg Gunckenburg were staying at the lighthouse keeper’s house as do many Friends of Seguin throughout the summer, who welcome visitors and keep the grounds and house up to snuff. They provided Grody and Benson with a snack and called to get them a lift back to the mainland via SeaTow.

Ten minutes after Grody and his wife came through the front door, he got a called from his 88-year-old uncle Bernie, who lives in Florida. Grody told him of his ordeal, softening some of the details so as not to alarm him.

“The last time I landed on a beach some Japanese guys were shooting at me,” Bernie replied.

Taking on The Challenge

After all they’d be through, Grody and Benson were determined to enter the Blackburn Challenge.

“That became kind of the most important thing in my life, that race,” Benson said.

They had two problems: They were still recovering from their shipwreck and they had no boat. Grody called the CEO of Alden Boats and he arranged to have a boat available at the race. Grody, Benson, Lester and their wives all headed to Gloucester for a race they were certain would pale in comparison to their shipwreck. There was a boat waiting for them when they arrived.

“We were happy to get it,” Grody said. “It was an old beater but it floated.”

Nearly 400 competitors registered for the 27th annual race which features human-powered row and paddle craft. There were six in the Touring Doubles division in which Grody and Benson were entered and Grody thought third place was a reasonable goal until he looked at the competition.

“I’ve got a pot belly, I’m bald and I look like a fruit bat,” Grody said. “These guys looked like they belonged on the cover of Outdoor Magazine.”

The temperature on July 20 hovered around 98 degrees and to compound matters it was windy and seas were running about 5 feet.

“That race, I underestimated how difficult it was by a factor of a hundred,” Grody said. “It was excruciatingly difficult.”

The boats took off and were quickly out of sight of Grody and Benson. In fact, they didn’t see anyone until they came upon a small armada about 15 miles into the race.

“They had burned themselves out,” Grody said. “We just plodded along so slowly we finally caught up to everybody.”

And they passed just about everybody, too, finishing second in their division. Grody had to be helped from the boat although he refused medical attention while Benson’s hands were nearly fused to the oars. Dan went jogging around Gloucetser the next morning but both men admit they are still recovering.

Epilogue

Grody said he originally entered the race to test his body as well as make new friends. He accomplished both goals, but he’s far from done.

“I have resolved to condition myself,” he said. “I’m going to do this as many years as I can. It’s given me a reason to focus the entire year now to get in better shape.”

After Howard Blackburn survived his ordeal he made two solo sailing trips across the Atlantic. Grody, at least, has an inkling how he felt.

“After I crash landed, now it’s me against this thing,” he said.

Benson, too, plans to enter the race next year. He and Grody have even made plans to enter a race in Maine later this summer. He’s still not sure how all this transpired in the life of a 50-year old doctor and weekend athlete.

“I’d be working and say ‘wow, I don’t know how I’m still alive,’ ” he said.

Maybe it was simply fate. Benson has always been fascinated with lighthouses and a few years ago he and his wife picked up a photo of one and had it framed. It’s been hanging in their home all this time but they’d never examined it closely until this week.

“I was talking to my wife (on the phone) and she was looking at it,” Benson said. “She said you need to look at this map when you get home.”

It was a picture of the Seguin Island.

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

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