At a time when most scullers in New England are hanging up their oars, or heading south for the season, Ben Booth is just getting started. Winter is his favorite season. Donning a full body wetsuit and a coastal rowing single that he designed and built, he regularly rows out into Buzzards Bay, braving conditions that many of us would find intimidating.
-Tell me a little bit about how you first got into rowing, why you've stayed with it?
I got into rowing to get onto the water. Ever since I was a young kid, I wanted to be on the ocean. A tiny little seven foot long row boat was my initial avenue to the sea. I rowed that thing ragged in year round adventures, and ended up loving the act of moving across the waves under my own power. It's both simple and intriguingly artistic. I've stayed with it because I continue to find it exhilarating, every single time I'm out there. With oars in my hand, I'm still that wide-eyed child full of wonder and joy.
-Did you start sculling on the ocean, or did you evolve into a coastal rower?
I started out on the ocean. As mentioned, I rowed as an avenue to be on the sea. I graduated from my little skiff to old-school rowing dories, surf boats, wherries and other traditional craft. From there I got into ocean shells and finally designing and building my own coastal sculling boats. I did a few years of flat water racing for some more competition and to round out my rowing journey, and did the whole Boathouse Row scene in Philadelphia, but I think I'm one of the few who started as a coastal rower, dabbled in flat water, and returned to coastal.
-How would you describe the current coastal rowing scene in the US, versus other countries?
It's interesting, because we had a very early boom in ocean rowing with the Alden Shells and all that. But then it fell flat, with only a few scattered pockets of activity remaining. In the meantime, Europe and around the world this whole other scene, fueled by FISA and World Rowing, has been exploding over the past decade or so. This international coastal racing category, with its associated Coastal World Championships, has been attracting hundreds of elite racers per event, many of whom are at the national team level (with even a few Olympians showing up).
Somehow all this developed without our even knowing about it over here. I came across the coastal world championships through random internet searches trying to find more competitive coastal races. In 2015 I was the first US athlete ever to enter the coastal World Championships. So we are at the very beginning of our journey into the FISA coastal rowing world here, which is a rather exciting place to be. How often do you get to witness the birth of a new sport expression in you country?
-I remember the Alden Ocean Shell, and it's designer Arthur Martin, ushering in the "first wave" of sliding seat ocean r owing shells here on the east coast, back in the 1960's; then Chris Maas and his innovative designs on the west coast in the 1980's. Can you describe the "new wave" of ocean going, sliding seat sculls that are being raced internationally?
For terminology, we can call these "new wave" coastal boats the FISA coastal. I would say the main difference between the FISA coastal boats and our Maas, Alden, and other "open water shells" is that the FISA boats are way more capable in rough water. They won't feel as lively as, say, a Maas 24 in calmer water, but they do spring to life in true coastal conditions. I bet they will take bigger waves than most people will want to bring them in, but that is good because it will help people to feel really comfortable in getting out of the bay and cruising the beach. They tend to be much deeper than our traditional open water shells. This depth allows them to have rather rounded bottoms, and lots of flare (narrow waterlines but wide overall beams). With the flared hull shapes, they do have good speed even with the rugged capability. In general, they are much more of a "boat" than a "shell."
This of course has its downsides too. The FISA coastal boats are heavier and harder to handle on shore than the other open water shells. But to me its worth it. I really like having this increased capability, and I think it will help to get more people to open their eyes to all these untapped miles of coastline in our country (including all that coastline of the Great Lakes!). In addition, I think having this international class boat in the US will reinvigorate the coastal race scene – from recreational to elite.
-As a coastal rowing boat builder, can you elaborate on your own philosophy of what makes for a good design?
I think good design suites the user, so in many ways it's a subjective measure rather than objective. As such, I can see myself eventually having a range of boats to satisfy the diversity of users and their various hopes, dreams and environments. Good design, therefore, is recognizing this subjectivity, which then liberates you to create a design that is purpose built to exemplify a desired characteristic (rather than trying to vaguely satisfy "all characteristics"). Like art, design must be fueled by passion and vision, and be driven by an underlying intent. I think that intent of purpose is critical for good design, so that the design comes to life with an animated spirit once it hits it intended environment and user.
-What is your favorite place to row?
Gooseberry Neck in Westport MA. Its awesome and has it all. It's a strip of land that sticks out in a N-S direction off the MA south coast. It always has one side that is calm if I feel like gliding across smooth water, or am taking out beginning coastal rowers. Conversely, the other side will be rougher, with small to moderate sized waves.
Off the tip of the Neck there are a series of rock reefs and boulders stretching a ways offshore. Here waves really kick up, rip currents create chaos, and at times there can be truly epic offshore surf. So within a few miles, I can experience everything from calm water, to moderate seas, to adrenaline junky thrills. On top of all that, there isn't a good boat ramp nearby and the reefs off the point discourage boat traffic, so even on mid-summer Saturdays, the place is still an empty expanse of watery wilderness.
-Recently, you were followed by a shark during one of your rows. Can you describe what that felt like, and how your kept your calm?
I suppose to describe it in a word, I would use: primal. Its an old, old part of the brain that recognizes, immediately, the situation of being prey, with that unmistakable large Great White shark fin just off my stern, weaving towards me. It's a deep wilderness experience. I kept my calm through a lifetime of meditation coupled with years of being in fairly edgy outdoor experiences – big wave rowing, high speed mountain biking, etc. Fear is not a place from which one can act, and when you can relax into a situation, you are able to perceive avenues of possibility. So for me, it was an immediate assessment – stop rowing (get rid of the "fleeing animal" effect), get my feet underneath me if I need to spring out of the boat (should it attack from underneath), zip up my wetsuit and free up lifejacket in case the boat gets compromised, drink some water in case it turns into a really long day (might as well start out hydrated), and wait, poised. Luckily the shark submerged and I didn't see it again so we had a pleasantly anti-climatic ending to this exchange.
-What other strange experiences out on the sea that you can share?
Once I was out after a hurricane, contemplating boat surfing some massive offshore breakers. I was in this little channel of smooth water with towering surf on each side of me. Then, all in a moment, the clear blue sky closed up into a blind fog. I couldn't see past the boat. I navigated out of there through sound (listening to the surf on each side) and feeling (feeling for the familiar currents that would tell me where I am).
I've rowed at night where the phosphorescence trail behind my boat was a milky way of stars streaming through the water, and each time my oars broke the black silk of the night sea there was an explosion of light. I've been surrounded by whirling clouds of birds and explosions of fish. I could go on for page after page, because I feel as if every row is like stepping into a poem.
-You row right through the year. What precautions do you take in the winter?
The major precaution to take in the winter is to be prepared to fall in the water without worry. Basically, this means putting on a nice thick winter wetsuit. It's amazing how well these things work, and this one simple piece of technology opens up the winter season. Winter rowing is amazing. The entire coastline is pretty much empty and peaceful. All the winter birds are here – the snowy owls, the colorful Harlequin ducks, huge flocks of Long-tailed ducks with their playful demeanor, some penguin-like Razorbills. The low lying light reflects off the water with a spectacular subtlety of elusive colors. I love the rawness of the winter outdoors too. The glistening layer of ice on my deck, the steam of my breath, the contrast of cold on my nose and warmth in my insulated core. It's the vivid stimulation of being alive. And of course, for my thrill-seeking side, winter is the time for some of the most beautiful waves as the storms roll through, leaving perfect swells in their wake.