Sofia Priebe and Bob Berry are Making Waves

Sofia Priebe rowing in her Maas single at the 2017 Coastweeks Regatta on the Mystic River. Photo courtesy of Laura Manfre.

1 December 2017

Göran R Buckhorn caught up with Sofia Priebe, her mother, Laura Manfre, and Bob Berry, whom he met at the 2017 Coastweeks Regatta in September.

At first glance, Sofia Priebe and Robert ‘Bob’ Berry are an unusual pair. Bob, 55, with his 6-foot-1 is towering over Sofia, 14, who is 5-foot-2. They must have appeared to be quite an odd crew when they raced together in a coxless pair at last year’s Coastweeks Regatta. No, Sofia and Bob didn’t win the 2,000-metre race, they came in third, losing second place to a college crew, Bob told Karen Given, who interviewed them for “Only A Game”, a programme on National Public Radio (NPR), from the Boston-based WBUR, which aired on 4 November. It seems NPR had read the HTBS article published on 22 September on Sofia and Bob and wanted to spread the good word about this amazing duo. What is remarkable is that Sofia is blind and Bob, who is her coach, wanted her to row in a single scull. But how is that possible, a blind, young teenager alone in a boat? It became achievable because Bob had a brilliant idea. But let’s start from the beginning…

Rowing coach and inventor Bob Berry. Photo: Göran R Buckhorn.

Catching up with Bob, I asked him how he met Sofia.

‘I met her in the spring of 2015. Her brother Dante had started rowing with us in the Ledyard rowing programme, which is organised by Ledyard Parks and Recreation in Gales Ferry by the Thames River, Connecticut, and Sofia wanted to join,’ Bob said. ‘Her very first time rowing, I could see she had great grace, balance and rhythm. Sofia’s mother told me she has been in ballet for most of her life.’

Laura Manfre, Sofia’s mother, confirmed this to HTBS in a telephone interview.

‘Sofia started ballet when she was 3 or 4 years old and also did pointe classes and other dances: modern, jazz and more,’ Laura said. ‘But then she wanted to try something else, and as her brother Dante was rowing at Ledyard’s Parks and Rec in the spring and summer of 2015, Sofia wanted to try, too.’

So is Bob right about a ballet dancer making a great rower?

‘Yes,’ Laura said, ‘a dancer has the balance, rhythm and a body awareness that few other athletes have. It was easy for her to start rowing. And she enjoyed it from the start.’

Getting Sofia on the phone, I asked her if she agrees with her mother and Bob that ballet makes it easier to row?

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you need good stamina and if you have done ballet you have good balance.’

So you like rowing then, I asked?

‘Yeah,’ Sofia answered.

Is rowing a good sport for blind children and teenagers?

‘Yes, I think so,’ she said and added, ‘especially if you are on a team. It’s nice to feel the team spirit.’

Sofia and Bob. Under the little box at the aft of Sofia’s boat is Bob’s ‘Remote Coxswain’, with which he coxed her boat at the 2017 Coastweeks Regatta. Photo: Göran R Buckhorn.

The boats they use at Ledyard Parks and Rec are six-oared fixed-seat 25-foot gigs and four-oared fixed-seat 16-foot dories, and ‘sliding seat training boats’. Those were the boats that Sofia and Dante started out in. But as a parent of a blind girl being out in a boat, were you never afraid she would fall overboard, I asked Laura?

‘No, not really,’ Laura answered.

Not even flipping in a single scull, I tried?

‘No,’ Laura said, ‘Sofia is a very good swimmer. To be honest, if you row in a “team boat” the chance to capsize is higher because you never know what another member of the boat decides to do with his or her oar. It’s out of your control.’ Laura continued, ‘Sofia has never been out in a boat that has flipped,’ adding, ‘unlike her brother. When she is rowing in a single, there is always a launch following her. It’s safe.’

To understand how it was to row, Laura gave it a try, too, at Ledyard Parks and Rec. However, while it might have come naturally for Sofia to row, ‘rowing with a sliding seat didn’t come quite as natural to me, let’s put it that way,’ Laura said with a big laugh.

For the 2016 Coastweeks Regatta, Laura and a friend decided to enter in a double scull. Helping them down with the boat to the dock before their race, Bob shared some thoughts on capsizing: ‘Remember, Laura,’ he said, ‘there are two types of rowers, those who have flipped, and those who are about to…’ Laura and her friend managed to stay afloat throughout the race.

Sofia. Photo: Göran R Buckhorn.

I asked Bob what it is like to coach Sofia?

‘Sofia listens very well to instructions and has a great technique. Again, I tell people she has great balance,’ Bob said. ‘When she gets into a boat, it’s like somebody dropped a feather in it. Also, she rows as if she is over 6 feet tall. It’s amazing.’

Of course, I also had to ask Sofia: how is Bob as a coach?

‘He’s nice… and he’s very passionate about rowing,’ she answered.

Bob started rowing late in life. Growing up in Gales Ferry, as a child he saw Harvard and Yale practice on the Thames and he watched the crews racing in ‘The Race’, the Harvard–Yale Boat Race every June. First in July 2007, at age 45, Bob began rowing. He soon started to coach rowing at Ledyard Parks and Rec. He is now hired by Harvard to do restoration work, plumbing, heavy tree work and excavation at Red Top, hence the big, red ‘H’ you can see in photographs of Bob. His sister, LeeAnn, is the caretaker of Red Top.

‘Then I started coaching adaptive rowing in the summer of 2009 at Groton Parks and Rec, located at Spicer Park in Noank,’ Bob said. ‘A woman by the name of the Barbara Lewis was part of that programme and still is. Barbara is extremely visually impaired and was part of starting the adaptive rowing programme at Spicer Park.’ Bob continued, ‘She was the first person who is visually impaired that I rowed with in a double.’ He added, ‘At Coastweeks last summer, Barbara rowed in a double with Corinne Houle, who is the other adaptive rowing coach at Groton Community Rowing at Spicer Park.’

Sofia and her family – her brother Dante, mother Laura and father Charles ‘Chuck’ Priebe – live in Ledyard. When Sofia started at Ledyard High School this autumn, the school didn’t have a rowing programme for the students. However, Noank Rowing Club, in cooperation with Groton Parks and Rec, invited those Ledyard students who were interested in rowing to come to their facility at Spicer Park to row on the Beebe Cove and the Mystic River. Sofia immediately signed up.

Sofia playing around at Noank RC at Spicer Park. Photo courtesy of Laura Manfre.

‘Sofia cannot do team sports like the other kids in high school,’ Laura said. ‘Rowing makes her part of a sports team. She was looking forward to being in a boat with other kids, her peers, in high school, and now she is.’ Laura said that Sofia took a break from dancing when she started to row at Noank RC a year ago, but now she has started dancing again this autumn. ‘Sofia told me that she can handle both dancing and rowing,’ Laura said.

Even though she loves to row with others, being on a team, Sofia did not say no to Bob when he asked her if she wanted to row in a single scull.I have noticed that Sofia doesn’t like special treatment,’ Bob said. ‘I thought it would be perfect if she could row a single, just like everybody else. I asked her if she wanted to try a single and she replied “sure”.’

Instead of sitting in a launch, yelling commands at Sofia in a single, Bob – a jack of all trades – came up with The Remote Coxswain, a device with which he could steer the rudder of Sofia’s boat. ‘I thought about all the existing components that I would need and attached them to a single Alden,’ Bob told HTBS. ‘I did this in the first week of January this year, and in April Sofia tried it for the first time. Then a few months later, I adapted one to the Maas single that she rowed in at this year’s Coastweeks Regatta.’

Sitting in a launch, which followed Sofia’s race on the Mystic River, Bob steered her boat with a remote control down the 2,000-metre course.

Bob steering Sofia’s boat during the ‘straightest race’ at the 2017 Coastweeks Regatta. On Bob’s right is Sofia’s father, Charles. Photo courtesy of Laura Manfre.

‘Straightest line,’ Bob told NPR’s Karen Given, ‘straightest race, probably ever rowed on that course, ever.’ All radio listeners could hear how delighted and a little proud Bob sounded with his new innovation. And Bob’s remote-controlled rudder is a ground-breaking idea, which can also be fitted on kayaks and other watercraft. It can open a new world out on the water for children and adults who are blind.

What advice would Bob give other coaches who might have children and teenagers with vision impairment on a rowing team?

‘The only advice I would give coaches would be to not hesitate for one minute to get them on the water, rowing,’ Bob said. ‘Rowing is all about “feeling”. You can feel the rhythm in the boat and also hear it, especially in a multi-person-boat. One of the drills you can do in rowing is to blindfold the crew and to have them all row together. They can stay in perfect time with each other and really feel the rhythm of the boat.’

When I asked Sofia if she would like to continue to row in college, she hesitated slightly… ‘Maybe,’ she answered. When I put the same question to Laura, she said with certainty that Sofia would love to row in college. ‘Of course, she is only a freshman in high school now, so there are still some years to go before she is heading off to college. But if she would get the chance, I’m sure she would jump at the opportunity,’ Laura said.

Sofia, Bob and his Remote Coxswain have started to make waves in the rowing community, also outside the USA. Not only was there the NPR interview, Rowperfect in the UK has published an article about them. A visually impaired teenager in England, Roesie Percy who rows with City of Bristol Rowing Club, has shown interest and contacted Sofia and Bob about the new innovation. Bob hopes to soon be able to help Roesie get a remote-controlled rudder on her boat.

Right now, Bob is putting a remote-controlled rudder on a single scull, which the late Harvard coach Harry Parker gave him.

Last Monday afternoon, Bob met Kathy Keeler, Harry Parker’s widow, at Red Top. Bob described the boat he is working on. ‘She said she remembered where the boat used to live in the Newell Boathouse,’ Bob said. Kathy Keeler also mentioned to him that she had heard that his remote-controlled rudder is ‘making news in the rowing world,’ Bob remarked. ‘It was great to hear this from her, who has made a life out of rowing.’

Read more about Bob’s The Remote Coxswain here.

Sofia with her brother Dante at the fundraising event Dinner in the Dark in October. Photo courtesy of Laura Manfre.

In 2014, Sofia’s parents Laura and Charles started an organisation called Sofia Sees Hope, which aims to help children who have been impacted by Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), which is a rare genetic eye disease that appears at birth or in an early stage of a child’s life and leads to a total loss of vision. The organisation also supports patients and families with other rare inherited retinal diseases.

‘Sofia Sees Hope is raising awareness and support for research to treat blindness caused by LCA and other rare retinal diseases. We provide education and information, including support for genetic testing and connections for those who have been diagnosed with the illness, so they don’t feel alone and isolated,’ Laura said. ‘For most people, it’s devastating news to learn that your child has LCA and it becomes a tremendous emotional challenge.’

On 14 October, Sofia Sees Hope organised its fourth annual Dinner in the Dark, a successful fundraising event at the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa in Mystic, Connecticut, where more than 370 guests dined with eye masks to simulate blindness. Two days earlier, Laura had been in Washington, D.C., to testify to the Advisory Committee for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on behalf of the LCA patient community in support of the first gene therapy to cure genetic disease. The company Spark Therapeutics, which has done extensive research into genetic therapy for patients with RPE65 inherited retinal disease (IRD), presented their research to the committee. To the delight and happiness of the gathered families at the day’s hearing, the Advisory Committee unanimously recommended approval of Spark’s gene therapy to treat RPE65, one of more than 25 LCA gene mutations.

Sofia with her mother Laura at the Dinner in the Dark in October. Photo courtesy of Laura Manfre.

It’s with great interest HTBS will continue to follow the progress of Sofia’s rowing and Bob’s Remote Coxswain.

One comment

  1. I know Bob and I am so impressed with his passion for rowing and his unwavering commitment to see this young girl do what she loves and it’s great exercise !! Good for you Bob !! I hope this goes nation wide !! I believe 1 person can open doors and pave the way for others and this holds true in this case !

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