The Road to Blackburn – May 29th 2014

On May 10, I gave the newly designed and built Westport Racing Skiff its second race test – the Essex River Race. This is a 5.5 mile race with a mix of curving river and open bay rowing. I took first place in the fixed-seat single category by a margin of 13 minutes!

I designed and built the Westport Racing Skiff this past winter for the Blackburn Challenge (July). This is the east coast’s premier open water race – a 20 mile coastal race that circumnavigates Cape Ann, MA. I won the race in 1994 and 1995, and haven’t raced in open water since. So this year has been an exciting return to racing. Particularly since I gave myself the added challenge of designing my own boat. It’s also a bit of a personal experiment, because in the 19 years since I last did this race, I have spent much of that time in temples and on extended retreat. So I am folding all of that mind-body training and introspection into this rowing journey. In fact, my ultimate goal with this is a sort of Zen Rowing experience. Each race is a moment to condense all of reality into a small moment of simplicity: row fast. Its a moment to put aside all doubts and to open up the mind to appreciate the vast potential of unhindered, pure connection to Being. Each day I am out on the water is a meditation – connect with each stroke, each ocean wave. I feel like training is an expansion of mind’s capacity to percieve potential even more than it is “getting fit.” It’s a moment to wonder about energy and life and to wonder if there are mental spaces that I hold which may hold me back from a full appreciation of energy and life. It reminds me a lot of the time I spent living in Shaolin Temple, Wudang, or the Mind-Light Temple.

This year’s Blackburn Challenge is also the first in a multi-year project: to design, build and race boats in multiple rowing categories. Designing and building boats is such a creative endeavor. Particularly for me, since I have no formal boat design training. I design the old way – from feel, eye, intuition, and a lifetime of being on the water. A boat is a work of art – a sculpture that is a perfect balance of creativity and receptivity. You need to create the shape, lines, dimensions yet you need to respond to the environment. Its a beauty that is functional. Its also a challenge to innovate and to trust yourself to be mentally fresh in a field that has such a long tradition. Its also a balance in not innovating just to be innovative, because you still have the environment that is in charge. So you could return to the Zen moment and say that looking for design innovation is an art of peering into the soul of the sea to see not what you think or want to see, but to see what is actually there. What is the sea and what shape will move through the sea? And of course, a huge part of it is luck – because really, there are too many factors to balance. And that ultimate release of “control” is the best part. Let the project go and let the boat take its own life.

– Ben Booth


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