BY SOFIA SCEKIC
PHOTO BY RUTH ELLEN OUTLAW
Traditionally, visually-impaired rowers row in boats with sighted people to help guide them. But Bob Berry’s experience rowing in a boat with 13-year-old Sofia Priebe, whom he was coaching at the time and who is much smaller than he, along with Berry’s love for rowing alone, prompted him to devise a way to get Priebe rowing safely in a boat by herself.
“I had this idea,” Berry said. “I’m like, well, a remote-controlled airplane has a rudder on it that steers it, why not put one on a single?”
Priebe agreed to try rowing in a single —she rowed in a double usually with her brother—and Berry quickly fabricated a rudder for a scull out of a wrecked, remote-controlled car.”
“It worked perfectly,” he said.
The device, which Berry calls the “Remote Coxswain,” has been around since 2017 and is used to guide visually-impaired rowers down a course without a sighted person in the boat guiding it. Someone, typically Berry, follows behind the rower with a controller to steer the boat. The rower is tasked with keeping the boat moving, while Berry keeps the boat on the correct path.
The device has been used in numerous races over the years, although most have not been USRowing-sanctioned events. In October 2022, however, visually-impaired rower Pearl Outlaw used the remote rudder in The Gold Cup in Philadelphia. Outlaw told Row2K in December that one of the main advantages of the device was having the ability to focus solely on rowing rather than having to pay attention also to verbal commands — a method often used to communicate with visually-impaired rowers when a sighted person is in the boat.
Berry, who is the maintenance manager for Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Fla., works at the park with a married couple, both of whom are blind, and has used the remote rudder for a head race in which they competed. A few other athletes on the East Coast have used the device as well, he said, and everyone who has tried it has had a great experience.
But the device has not come without controversy, particularly outside the United States.
“I sent one to a young man in South Africa who was blind, and they installed it on his boat,” Berry said. “The South African Rowing Association would not allow him to use it. They felt that he would have an unfair advantage.”
Berry remembers a situation at Benderson Park where he had phoned the race director several months before a race to let him know that a blind couple would be competing guided by remote steering. On race day, the director, who assumed the pair would be guided by a sighted person in the boat, offered to let the pair row in the adaptive race. If the pair rowed in the non-adaptive race and won, the director said, they would not get a medal because the remote rudder gave them an unfair advantage.
“I gave [the blind pair] the choice, and they were like, no we don’t care about the medal,” Berry explained, “We just want to know how we do against other sighted people.”
Berry believes the rudder does not confer an unfair advantage.
“Any time you use a rudder, it slows you down because technically it’s resistance that does the steering,” he said. “Everybody else with vision, when they go to steer, they give extra pressure on one side or the other, which leads to more speed.”
Berry envisions his technology helping sighted rowers by replacing the cable-control system that coxed boats use to steer.
The remote rudder “is like a steering wheel that you turn, and when you let go of it, it springs back to center exactly,” Berry said. “Sometimes, coxswains don’t know if they’re exactly on center with the rudder, and that creates resistance.”
Currently, his goal is to expand use of the remote rudder at USRowing-sanctioned events to continue helping visually-impaired rowers compete in non-coxed races.