A legendary rowing partnership rekindled
This year’s Blackburn Challenge open water race in Hull, Mass., coincided with an opportunity for longtime boat mates and class record holders Russell Smith of Ledyard and Sean Bercaw of Falmouth, Mass., to reunite and rejoin the perennial contest.
The challenge, 20-plus miles in often rough conditions along rugged coastlines swept by Atlantic seas, began in the 1980s as a tribute to the legendary doryman Howard Blackburn. These days the event attracts all form of human-powered craft: kayaks, sculls, gigs, outrigger canoes and fixed-seat doubles, the favored class of Bercaw and Smith.
Their rowing partnership began with a challenge from Warnambool, Australia, in 1988, made to the Mystic Seaport Museum: to race in traditional whaleboats in that down-under town during an annual celebration, against professional lifeguards accustomed to rowing with expediency.
The Seaport staff who responded that year did not yet include Smith and Bercaw, but they did prevail, and a return match was proposed in Mystic the next year that included the pair. The second match brought a more focused and intense response, two new whaleboats built by Willits Ansel, two crews formed from every museum department, trained and tested by Olympic rowing coach Bob Gillette. Smith, then supervisor of grounds maintenance, and Bercaw, part of the on-water demo squad, made the final cut.
American whaleboats are unique in that they have five rowers plus a steersman, two long oars on one side balancing three shorter on the opposite side. A 2-kilometer, figure-eight course placed a premium on skillful boat handling, with Smith tasked by Bob Gillette to use his bow-oar position for extra turning power at the marks.
The crew, conditioned, trained and ready, were triumphant over the visiting Australians in the 1989 rematch.
After the contest, Ben Fuller, then curator at Mystic Seaport and an energetic aficionado of small boats, asked Smith and Bercaw what they were going to do next now that they were conditioned for competitive rowing. He suggested some contests in Massachusetts, including the aptly named Snow Row.
The two rowers followed his suggestions, competing in a traditional, heavy Banks dory from the Seaport’s Gloucester schooner L.A. Dunton. Ben next suggested they try the then relatively new Blackburn Challenge, for which they used the Seaport’s light and agile 17 foot Green Machine, built by the Seaport’s own John Gardner. This boat, developed from an L. Francis Herreshoff design, proved well suited to the long and often arduous course: the pair won in their class, setting a course record in the process.
Over the ensuing years, now approaching three decades, the two rowers enjoyed many life experiences and achievements — family, work, and adventures included.
Smith and wife Jane had four daughters, and navigated them through childhood and on to their own life courses. Bercaw’s Mystic Seaport experience in boat demos advanced to working on sail training vessels, including a stint as captain of the Amistad on its voyage to Cuba.
He later served as second mate aboard the Charles W. Morgan on its historic 38th voyage. These days he spends four months spread across the year in Antarctica aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer.
Such busy lives did not always allow for the training and competition time needed for participating in the annual Blackburn Challenge. During those years, Smith teamed up, successfully, with the energetic and exuberant Ben Lathrop, who later served two terms as mayor of Norwich.
In 1997, Smith, Bercaw and Lathrop rowed the 21-foot Apogee to overall fixed seat victory at the Challenge.
Smith has also been working to bring wider participation in rowing with a recreational program called Ledyard Rowin’. Based at his home, Smith has assembled a fleet of gigs, dories and other vessels for aspiring open-water rowers. There is a program devoted to women rowers, youth rowing and the possibility for more as interest grows.
Maintaining this fleet has proffered a further opportunity for people to become involved in the community of small boats and rowers. A number of dedicated, often young, people have emerged to keep the vessels in play; there are, naturally, more chances for participation here as well.
The confluence of boats, maintenance, and rowers is fueling the early workings of a competitive program, with some participation in the perennial events up Massachusetts way.
Meanwhile, Smith and Bercaw, some 29 years on in their rowing partnership, found themselves with a schedule conducive to training once again at 6 a.m., before obligations of work drew them away, in preparation for yet another Blackburn Challenge. And, on a familiar course through lobster buoy fields, past rocky shores and into tides, ocean swells and head winds, the pair once again emerged triumphant, champions of the Fixed Seat Doubles, rowed in a sleek 21-foot boat named Last Chance.
To join the Ledyard Rowin’ program, contact the Ledyard Parks and Recreation department, which is also on Facebook, as is Ledyard Rowin’, where photos and video of the program may be found.
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