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East County Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 6 months ago

Remote Coxswain leads to success for blind rowers in Sarasota

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Bob Berry develops his Remote Coxswain system at Nathan Benderson Park.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

As winds whipped strongly across the lake at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, James Mumford had told his wife, Linda, it was time to go.

The Sun City Center couple, who are both blind, had come in January, 2019, to meet Bob Berry, who reached out to them to test a remote coxswain system he had designed.

When the Mumfords rowed together, they had needed a third person in their boat to act as a coxswain. Berry's system would mean the Mumfords would be like any other doubles team with two people in the boat. A third person, in this case Berry, would use a support boat and move the rudder accordingly by remote control. It would mean the boat would be more than 130 pounds lighter, depending on the weight of the coxswain they no longer would need.

Linda and James Mumford are happy Nathan Benderson Park hooked them up with coach Bob Berry.

They were excited when they arrived, but their test run seemingly had been scrubbed by bad weather.

Linda Mumford, who was 66 at the time, would have none of it. She asked Berry to hook his system to a single (boat) and out she went into the wind, with Berry trailing behind in another boat. She never had been in a boat alone.

"I felt like I was free as a bird," she said of being in the boat alone. "It was just me out on the water, in a single. It was amazing, a great experience."

James Mumford met her at the dock.

"She loved it," he said. "She said it was so peaceful."

It's an experience Berry, who works as a rowing instructor at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, would love for others with special needs to have as well. He said the park is all about providing opportunities for everyone.

Berry got the idea in 2017 after his son had crashed a remote control car and was ready to scrap it. The car provided him with an electric motor, and he started toying with the idea of using the motor and a remote control on a rudder system.

He was thinking of a way to help Sofia Priebe, a 14-year-old, blind rower with the Ledyard Rowing Club where he coaches part of the year in Gales Ferry, Ct.

"It was easier to build than I thought it would be," he said. "And when she used it the first time, it went way better than I thought."

Bob Berry checks his system before the workout.

Berry started working with Priebe with his system, and he soon realized it could be used by many more people. He started to look for blind rowers in Florida, and Nathan Benderson Park Program Manager Meghan Farrell hooked him up with the Mumfords.

Besides taking a person's weight out of the boat, Berry said the person using the remote control can make changes quicker than a coxswain sitting in the boat.

"By the time (a coxswain) sees a correction they need to make, they've already made another stroke," said Berry, who can make changes immediately in a support boat.

Linda Mumford said her rowing skills are improving now they couple of using the remote system.

"Without somebody (in the boat) helping to steer, I spend more time concentrating on my rowing technique," she said.

The Mumfords, who are both 67, drive to Nathan Benderson Park once a week to practice their rowing and they compete in various events, such as the upcoming Sarasota Invitation Regatta in February.

They both were born with Usher's syndrome, a condition characterized by partial or total hearing loss and vision loss that worsens over time.

"She is totally blind," James Mumford said. "I am partially blind and deaf."

Both have cochlear implants to give them limited hearing.

Despite being blind, James and Linda Mumford now can row in a boat without a coxswain to make sure they are on the right line.

James Mumford started rowing in 2001, he later met Linda and married her in 2005, and then she began rowing after they spent their honeymoon at a rowing camp in Craftsbury Common, Vt.

"We were married at 52," James Mumford said. "It took us 52 years to find each other. Now we say when we are 102, we will go rowing one more time, and then quit.

"This is a low impact, full-body workout. We are in great shape."

Berry hopes his remote control coxswain makes rowing more accessible and fun for those with challenges such as the Mumfords. He hopes the rowing world embraces his design, which only costs about $350 to set up on a boat.

The Mumfords are just glad Berry developed the system, and that they adopted Nathan Benderson Park as their rowing home.

"It's a new world, a different world, a rowing world," Linda Mumford said. "No matter what rowing club you choose, you are welcome. But we do have barriers to overcome and the first club we joined had concerns about safety and insurance."

The Mumfords said that hasn't been the case at Nathan Benderson Park, which they have received support from their first day.

And meeting Berry has added to their fun. He now sends them instructions through an audio system while following them in a support boat.

"I repeat his instructions to my wife," James Mumford said. "When he tells me she is doing something really good, I tell her she is doing something really bad."

The Mumfords laughed, then turned toward their boat. It was time to get on the water.

Linda Mumford awaits her practice row as the sun rises at Nathan Benderson Park.

 

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