26th Coastweeks Regatta: An Inspiring Story of Rowing in the Dark

At the Coastweeks Regatta, Sofia Priebe, who at a very young age was diagnosed with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), raced and won a 2,000-metre race in a single scull thanks to the Remote Coxswain, an innovation by her coach, Bob Berry. She later won in the youth mixed double with her brother, Dante.

22 September 2017

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

The autumn head race season in New England starts with the regatta at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut. This year, the 26th Annual Coastweeks Regatta was held on Sunday, 17 September. After the light morning fog had lifted on the Mystic River, it became perfect rowing weather: no blazing sun, hardly any wind, comfortable temperatures and a rowing course that lay still as a mirror.

In 2015 and 2016, the regatta was scaled down to only offer races in single sculls and double sculls/pairs, due to lack of space to store larger shells in the boat area. During these two years, the north end of the museum was a construction area to build a new 14,000-square-foot building, the Thompson Exhibition Building. With the building now open and operating, the fours and quads were back on the racing list.

With the Thompson Exhibition Building opening on 24 September 2016, the boat area is large enough to take singles, double/pairs and fours/quads.

However, with only 127 bow numbers racing, the 26th regatta was not as large as the organisers had anticipated. ‘There are fewer rowers here today than we had hoped for,’ Pete Tebeau, one of the members of the organisation committee, told HTBS. He added: ‘but it will pick up, I’m sure of that.’

Among the participating local and regional clubs were: Noank RC, Blood Street Sculls, Cape Cod Rowing Inc., Coventry Lake Community Rowing, Mystic River Rowing, Kent School BC, Narragansett BC, Pettipaug Yacht Club Rowing and Union BC, to mention some of the rowing groups and organisations competing in the masters, veterans, recreational, open and junior categories racing on the 2,000-metre course on the Mystic River. There are also adapted races for double sculls. Barbara Lewis, a ‘veteran’ when it comes to racing at the Coastweeks Regatta, won the women’s race, while Mark Stapleton won the men’s race. Both Barbara and Mark row for Groton Community BC.

Mark Stapleton talking to Barbara Lewis.
Tom Stottlemyer and Dale Hoxie (bow), of Noank RC, came in second in the masters/veterans double.
Nice to see fours and quads back in the boat area again. Without doing a count, it looked like there were more women than men racing in this year’s regatta.
Waiting to go out on the water.
Blood Street Sculls are going out to race in the women’s youth fours.
Someone has to watch the crew’s stuff.
Tom Sanford, one of the organisers, is having a coffee break. Tom’s father was the legendary Columbia oarsman Bill Sanford.
A double from Blood Street Sculls is getting a helping hand in to the dock.
What would a rowing regatta be without a dog? Sir Finley – ‘Fin’ for short – is a cute 10-week-old King Charles Spaniel. Fin’s owners have a daughter rowing for Coventry Lake.
Bob Hannon, of Narragansett BC, was probably this regatta’s most decorated oarsman.
How did we place? Did we get any medals?
In the background is the Viking longship “Draken Harald Hårfagre” and the 1841 whaleship, the “Charles W. Morgan”.

At the end of the regatta, I was approached by a local rower and coach, Bob Berry. Bob told me an inspirational story about a teenager by the name of Sofia Priebe, who earlier in the day rowed in a 2,000-metre race in a single scull. What is remarkable about this is that Sofia is blind. At a very young age, she was diagnosed with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a rare eye disease that appears at birth or in an early stage of a child’s life and leads to a total loss of vision.

However, Sofia’s condition has not stopped her from rowing. Thanks to her coach, Bob Berry, Sofia cannot only row, but also race, which she did with success at Coastweeks, winning a gold in the youth women’s recreational single sculls.

But in a single scull, you ask?

Bob has developed a ‘remote coxswain’ device, which allowed him to remotely steer Sofia’s Maas single from a launch that followed her race (he had the blessing from the organisers). The Remote Coxswain can be used from a powerboat that is up to 500 feet away from the rower. ‘It’s still in its initial stage, but Sofia’s row today proved that the device is working,’ Bob said. ‘With remote coxing, a rower with poor vision doesn’t have to row in a double with someone else, or in a larger crew boat.’

‘Sofia is an amazing teenager. She was not rowing in an adapted race, she was rowing the full 2,000-metre course with girls in her own age group and won in the recreational category,’ Bob said. ‘I have been with her when she rowed several kilometres. She went on and on, she didn’t stop to take a break. She’s an inspiration.’

In 2014, Sofia’s parents, Laura Manfre and Charles Priebe, started an organisation, Sofia Sees Hope, which aims to help not only their daughter, but also other children who have been impacted by blindness caused by LCA. Read Sofia’s story here.

Sofia Priebe and Bob Berry. Under the little box at the aft of Sofia’s boat is Bob’s ‘Remote Coxswain’, with which he coxed her boat. This is a groundbreaking innovation that for sure will help people with vision impairment to a new life on the water independently.

Bob’s revolutionary remote-controlled rudder can also be fitted on kayaks and other watercraft. Read more on his website here.

In the regatta’s last race for the day, Sofia also won in the youth mixed double with her older brother, Dante.

You will find a full Coastweeks Regatta result list here.

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