July 25, 2013

ROWING: Augusta doctors survive shipwreck to compete in Blackburn Challenge

By Gary Hawkins ghawkins@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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.

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NOT SO SMOOTH SAILING: David Grody, left, and Dan Benson take off from Popham Beach on a practice run June 30. Fog set in quickly and the pair found themselves lost and swimming for their lives.

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Dan Benson, left, and David Grody share a sense of relief on June 30 shortly after crashing their boat on Seguin Island three miles from Popham Beach.

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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PROUD: Dan Benson, left, and David Grody are shown with their second-place medals after participating in the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile race around Cape Ann in Gloucester, Mass.

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