Dave Grody and Dan Benson had scarcely finished the Blackburn Challenge last July when they made a vow to return.

Considering the circumstances that surrounded their original decision to enter the 20-mile rowing race around Cape Ann in Gloucester, Mass., this was no small promise.

The two nearly lost their lives in a training run off Popham near the mouth of the Kennebec River when they became lost in a dense fog and drifted three miles to Seguin Island where they wrecked their boat. The Challenge itself was nearly as daunting.

Not only did they compete in a borrowed boat, they weren’t nearly as prepared as they thought they were despite finishing second in the Touring Doubles class.

“We were woefully under-prepared last year,” said Benson, an Augusta podiatrist who lives in South China. “We decided to do it with much more preparation so we could compete rather than survive.”

Benson, 51, put together a cross training program for the July 19 race that included weight lifting, aerobics and ergonomics.

“Probably a minimum of twice a day,” Grody, 51, said. “Half hour to an hour in the morning, an hour after work each night and up to two-and-a-half hours on the weekend.”

The pair also each have rowing machines in their basements and after each workout email one another with what they’d done “so we have accountability,” Benson said.

Since spring, most of their training has taken place on Long Pond at Grody’s home in Rome. They recently completed a 20-mile test run in 2 hours, 53 minutes.

“We felt real strong and healthy,” said Grody, a dentist with a practice in Augusta. “We feel real confident about winning our class.”

One thing the pair is missing is their boat, one ordered by Charles House who is president of the oldest rowing club in Canada. The boat come from Eurodiffusions in France with a few modifications by Grody.

“I talked to the guys at the factory and asked if they could make it out of carbon fiber to reduce the weight,” he said.

The carbon fiber hull reduced the weight of the boat by 20 pounds to about a 120. In Europe, the sport is called coastal rowing and each boat is required to weigh the same. In America, where it’s called open water rowing and the sport is less popular, there are no weight restrictions.

Grody expected the boat to arrive by last weekend, but it got hung up in Canadian customs and has been there for over a week.

“This is the second week,” Benson said. “It was randomly selected for closer scrutiny.”

Despite their rigorous training — Grody has dropped 41 pounds since last year’s Blackburn — their technique was a little rough around the edges.

“We are not excellent technical rowers by any means,” Grody said. “We’re beginner to intermediate.”

Benson and Grody sought the expert advice of Caroline Fuerst, a well-respected coach who operates Durhamn Boat Company in Durham, N.H. with her husband Jim Dreher. Their son Mark held the Blackburn record in his class until it was recently broken.

“We went into the training tank for several hours in February,” Grody said. “Dan and I had to help each other to the car. She helped organize our position in the boat and our synchronization.”

The race is named for Howard Blackburn, a Gloucetser fisherman who became separated from his fishing vessel in a dory 60 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in 1883. While he and Thomas Welch rowed toward land in freezing temperatures, Welch gave in and died. Blackburn kept going as his bare hands froze to the shape of the oars and he lost several fingers and toes.

Grody and Benson will face nothing like that and hope for benign conditions. Last year, temperatures reached 98 degrees.

“The weather can’t be worse than it was last year,” Benson said.

Grody feels confident he and Benson can win the race no matter the competition.

“There can be some ringers out there who have good boats of their own,” he said. “But I think we can take that medal from just about anybody.”

Grody said Benson has already lined up several more events for the summer. The pair drifted apart after moving away from the same office building several years ago and renewed their friendship in preparation for last year’s Blackburn Challenge,

“It’s been great,” Benson said. “Even before I had ever rowed at all I thought a double would be a great boat. When you do something by yourself, there’s always more. If there’s another guy in the boat you don’t want to let him down.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @GaryHawkinsKJ


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