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The Martini Achter, A Magic Boat

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTOS PROVIDED

I’ve had the great fortune to have known some outstanding oarsmen and oarswomen. As often happens when a group of rowers are together, you get to talking about great races and what made them great. Sometimes the conversation turns to the shell itself. As these athletes are justifiably proud of themselves, it’s rare to hear anyone say, “Yeah, the boat won for us. Anyone could’ve been in there and it would have won.” Nevertheless, credit is often given to one great magical boat.

It was at a session like this that I heard about the Martini Achter, an Empacher that guys a year behind me in college rowed at Henley and in which they won the Ladies Challenge Plate. Accustomed to rowing Schoenbrods in the mid-’70s on the East Coast, they described the Martini Achter as the perfect shell.

 The late Hart Perry, former head of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (which morphed into USRowing), had arranged for Trinity (my college) to use it at Henley in 1976 because one of his Kent School oarsmen, Charlie Poole, was co-captain and stroke of the crew. When I began to write my column for Rowing News in 1994, Hart told me that I ought to write about the M.A. because it had been the same shell in which the U.S. national team had won the Worlds in 1974 and that the University of Washington had won Henley’s Grand Challenge Cup in 1977. I filed that information away and vowed that someday I would write about mid-’70s rowing, with the focus being the shell itself.

1973–Heidelberg

The year 1973 hadn’t been a good one for the U.S men’s national team eight. Only one oarsman and the coxswain from the silver-medal 1972 Olympic boat had chosen to return. The group that formed the eight for 1973’s European championships in Moscow were not all newcomers to international competition, but blending eight talented rowers into one unit is never a sure thing. The ’73 crew hadn’t worked together well in Moscow.

“We had some really good pieces in practice,” recalls Paul Hoffman, the cox. “We definitely had speed. But on race day we just didn’t race.”

The Moscow course had strong crosswinds, and USA was  in lane six, the worst. The boat didn’t seem to row together; they didn’t seem to be on the same page mentally, and they finished 22 seconds behind the winning East Germans.

 Dietrich Rose, the Vesper coach who had emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia and who helped head coach Al Rosenberg with the eight while Rose coached the straight four in the 1964 Olympics, had accompanied the team to Moscow and worked with the smaller boats. Rose salvaged the disappointing trip by suggesting that an eight and four enter the Heidelberg Regatta the next week.

Some of the eight had school or work commitments and had to fly home right away, but a crew was put together with guys mostly from the eight, a couple from small boats, and an oarsman from the British eight, Hugh Matheson. Moscow had been so un-fun, with such a lousy result, that they felt, “Hey, let’s go to Heidelberg and have at least one good row this summer.” They knew that the regatta was awarding a new Empacher eight to the winning crew, but the real motivation was just to go fast and have a good time.

They raced a Czech eight that had most of the crew that had won silver in Moscow, a couple of West German eights, and a Norwegian boat with the famous Hansen brothers aboard. It was a battle for 2,000 meters, but “this Yankee crew was pissed off about our debacle in Moscow,” says Hugh Stevenson, eventual seven man. “I think we ground our axes all the way. I know I did. There were crews banging away, but we wanted that race.”

The motley USA eight won the race and the shell and a new set of Empacher oars. They hadn’t really focused on the prize, but having won it, and having had a really good race, it was a great way to finish the 1973 season. 

Why Martini Achter? Why Empacher?

It wasn’t unprecedented for a regatta to offer such a handsome prize, but almost everyone is surprised when they hear the story of the Martini Achter. The Italian Vermouth manufacturer, which had sponsored auto racing since 1958, branched out and sponsored some rowing regattas in the early ’70s. The bow of this prize boat featured the Martini name and logo. Empacher boatworks was founded in 1923 in East Prussia by Willy Empacher and his partner, Wilhelm Karlisch, and moved to its present location in Eberbach, 33 kilometers from Heidelberg, in 1945. The partners split up, and for many years Karlisch eights were the boat of choice. (Germany had won the 1968 Olympics in a Karlisch.) Empacher was making a name for itself by being offered as a prize.

1974

The National Rowing Foundation took ownership of the newly won M.A. and moved it to Henley, where it was stored for American crews to use. In late May, Vesper sent a crew over to race in Europe. It was a solid crew with a bunch of national-team veterans. They were the first crew to row the boat and they had unexpected success, finishing second to the West Germans at Mannheim while beating the British, and second to the British at Ratzeburg, and second to the East Germans at Nottingham while beating the Brits. At Henley in the semifinals, they looked over at their opponents and eventual winners, Trud Moscow, and saw that they were in an identical shell, Martini Achter ’72. It was a summer of surprising second-place finishes. They loved the boat.

Back in the United States, coach Al Rosenberg pulled together a selection camp in Connecticut for the eight. Collegiate rowing in the ’70s was dominated by Harvard, and although no one could knock the success of Harry Parker’s crews, Rosenberg had a much different training philosophy.

As Ken Brown, a Cornell oarsman who rowed in the 1973-1976 national eights, puts it, “Although I never rowed for Parker, I did observe his style and heard a lot about him from our Harvard friends. Fiercely competitive, he seemed to focus on results, not process. Seat racing reigned supreme. 

“Rosenberg was an entirely different animal. We focused on technique, science–OK, sometimes pseudoscience–and precision. Fitness came almost naturally as a secondary aspect of precision training. Workouts consisted of innovative skill drills, long rows, and intervals. There was almost no traditional seat racing. Rosenberg selected for a sum of parts that would be greater than the whole, instead of a sum of parts that simply equaled the whole.”

Al Shealy, Harvard stroke and stroke of the national-team 1973-’76 eights, says, “Parker instilled competitiveness at the core as a righteous force that demanded the highest physical and mental output. As such, Harvard’s program attracted and rewarded those who were able to transcend pain to defend the ideals he stressed every day. It wasn’t creativity, but hard work that did the trick.

“Rosenberg, on the other hand, was all about the kinesthetics of the sport, how body movements created speed. He broke us down like wild stallions in a corral. He made it clear from the start that we would soon forget how we were taught to row or be sent packing. For me, I almost didn’t get it and thought I might have to hitchhike out of South Kent. Eventually, we all adapted to his style, which was predicated on the horizontal movement of bodies in the boat. Vertical movement would result in the boat checking, robbing it of speed and efficiency. Quick, but not violent. Quiet, but forceful through the stroke. No wasted motion.”

Rosenberg coached the eight through the 1976 Olympics. His influence on American rowing did not last–just as it had not lasted after his Vesper eight won the gold medal in the 1964 Olympics–but for the summer of 1974, everything worked perfectly. John Everett, three seat in the ’74 eight, says, “Rosenberg was all about efficiency. Many coaches were preaching getting the power on early in the drive with a hard catch, which led to shoulders lifting and all the vertical motion others have mentioned. Al demanded a quick catch, but not a hard catch. He used analogies such as picking up a rolling orange or a rolled-up ball of socks. He also said, ‘It’s like peeling a banana,’ ‘It’s like opening a door,’ or ‘It’s like pulling up your trousers.’”

His passion for drills was famous. Ken Brown, two seat in ’74, recalls two: blind rowing, and body-motionless rowing. “Rowing with your eyes closed was a surreal experience. You don’t realize how much you rely on sight to monitor your timing and blade work, but with your eyes closed, you are forced to feel for rhythm and trust your own body, the bodies in front and back of you, and the movement of the boat in absolute terms. We logged a lot of hours rowing with the bodies fixed in the finish position with arms-only strokes. This was Al’s way of emphasizing the calm, clean and rock-steady way of rowing that he knew moved the boat forward most efficiently.” 

Workouts, even the toughest ones, always centered on technique. Dick Cashin, six man, says, “It was all about getting the hands out, softening the shoulders, picking off the catch and keeping everything horizontal. All his comments were technical.”

 Accustomed to dealing with more mature athletes, Rosenberg separated the wheat from the chaff by seeing who could make technical changes and row his vision of the perfect stroke. It was a more mental process than most guys were used to.

“One of the main reasons Rosenberg’s approach to winning succeeded was the sheer brainpower, concentration and discipline of the people in the boat,” says David Weinberg, coxswain of the ’74 boat. “All of us came to believe that if we rowed the boat better than everyone else, we would win. We could do things in a racing shell that no crew I have ever seen can do. We had complete control over the boat. It was, obviously, the fastest boat I ever coxed but also the best crew I have ever seen.”

Rosenberg, who was the American rep for Donoratico boats, had ordered a new one to be delivered in Lucerne. He had wanted a shell like the East German boats that were known for being shorter than most Western designs. The boatbuilder, however, had taken the length out of the tracks and the Americans could not get their legs down at the finish. Despite numerous attempts to make changes to it, the crew was unhappy and could not get their new Don to move well.

Bill Miller, who had rowed in the ’73 crew and had been in the Vesper boat that was the Martini Achter’s first crew earlier in the summer, was standing with a couple of the disgruntled oarsmen looking at the U.S. boat trailer. He saw the M.A. on the top rack and called it to their attention. “You’ve gotta try it,” he told them. “It’s incredible.” They took it out for a row and, as Al Shealy says, “Never before had I experienced such pure joy of movement and speed.”

It had been designated for the USA lightweights, but a swap was made, and with the lightweights happy in the smaller Donoratico, both crews won the world championships. On the awards dock, Mike Vespoli, who had been on the U.S. team since 1969, turned to John Everett, the youngest in the boat, and said, “I can’t believe it. I finally beat the East Germans!” Everett replied, “I’ve never lost to them.”

1975

Union Boat Club rowed the M.A. at Henley with most of the national team–minus Shealy, Cashin and Weinberg, who had all just graduated from Harvard and had also arrived at Henley with their undefeated crew known as “The Rude and Smooth.” Earlier in the summer, Harvard had raced Union for the right to row a Stämpfli. Union had won that race and now faced Harvard in the semifinals of the Grand Challenge Cup. Harvard was in a Karlisch. It was a fantastic race, with Harvard edging Union and setting a new course record. Unfortunately, the next day, the British national team beat Harvard in the finals. Later that summer at Nottingham, the USA team (with one difference–five man Mark Norelius was away in the Air Force), had a mediocre row, finishing fifth in windy conditions. This wasn’t the Achter’s year; it tasted defeat twice.

1976

With the Olympics in Montreal in July, the decision was made to leave the Martini Achter at Henley. A new Empacher was ordered for the USA; when Herr Empacher announced to his shop workers that a wooden eight had been ordered, cheers went up. The era of wooden boats was coming to an end. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an exact copy of the boat that everyone loved so much. There were some subtle differences; it had a shorter stern deck, for one. Meanwhile, Rosenberg was traveling around the country with his team, moving training camps. Organizational details had never been his strong suit, and the oarsmen were tired and literally sick. They finished ninth.

But the Martini Achter had a great summer. Trinity College was looking forward to using the boat that Hart Perry described as “one of the most beautiful and best boats ever made.” He warned them that it had a deeper hull than the Schoenbrod they’d been using, so they borrowed a deeper-hulled boat from the Coast Guard Academy.

 When the M.A. was delivered to the tents a couple of weeks before racing began on the Thames, the foot stretchers were missing. Perry had told Norm Graf, the Trinity coach, that they would not be in the boat (which didn’t mean they didn’t exist). Graf, misinterpreting what Perry meant, brought over Schoenbrod parts to install new foot stretchers and sneakers.

 “As soon as we turned the boat over and saw there were no tracks or foot stretchers, Norman T. Graf looked like the Millennium Falcon blasting off,” recalls Curtis Jordan, who was along as an assistant coach. “He made a call to Hart explaining that the parts were nowhere to be found and that something had to be done NOW! ‘Yes, I looked everywhere!’ NTG said. I thought ‘Everywhere? You might want to….’”

But NTG was in no mood for suggestions. He got the inside of the boat rebuilt in short order with help from a local boatman. (Graf was Doctor Rowing’s college coach, and he was famous for his short fuse. If his crew had missed only one practice on the water, he would have ripped his friend Perry up one side and down the other.)

When the boys finally got on the water in the Martini Achter, they had a terrible row. On the paddle or light pressure, it flopped around like an ungainly albatross. But as they were finishing practice, they took a couple of 10s at race cadence, and the boat picked up and moved. As Charlie Poole says, “It just flew. The albatross became a soaring eagle.” 

The Trinity guys were aware of the boat’s mystique, and it motivated them. Two man Paul Wendler says, “I felt it had the power to win any race if we could just figure out how to make it go fast. We were told the boat had a hull that required a minimum cruising speed to make the boat rise out of the water. We had to maintain that speed or the boat would be harder to row.”

Other oarsmen in the boat noticed that at speed it made a humming vibration, and once it took off, that sound was a sign they were really moving. Coxswain David Greenspan says, “The feel of the thing was something special. Every cox gets to know how the boat ‘talks’ under the seat and in the feet at catch, drive, finish. This boat seemed to just ‘scream’ once I got used to it. Others had noted how responsive the hull was; it just spoke loudly and clearly to a swain. Perhaps sitting right down on the keel [the M.A. was never built for a coxswain’s comfort] was part of it?”

 Seven man Steve Berghausen says, “What about the sound? My last memory as we rowed and that hull lifted out of the water, there was no sound, no sound of rushing water, no sound of resistance, nothing, only the rhythm of synchronized bodies.”

Trinity set a course record for the Ladies Plate in the semifinals, lowering the old mark by six seconds.

 “I’ve never felt a boat accelerate the way the M.A. could.” says Charlie Poole. “And it just felt like it could go on forever. We were faster in the second half of the course, and the boat felt faster.” On July 4, they celebrated by becoming the only D3 college program ever to win an event at Henley. They all feel that the Martini Achter made the difference.

(In an interesting footnote, Larry Gluckman, who rowed bow in the Heidelberg race that won the M.A., went to Trinity to coach their heavyweight men in 2003. When he stepped into the boathouse for the first time, he saw a Vespoli eight named “Martini Achter.” Harry Graves, four man in the Trinity ’76 boat, had obtained the boat and named it for the best boat he had ever rowed in. After a few years, it was a bit worn, and Gluckman sold it. The program then purchased a new Empacher and named it the Norman T. Graf. That boat, with Gluckman coaching and two of Graves’s sons, Tom and Peter, at bow and stroke, won the Temple Challenge Cup for Trinity in 2005. “Isn’t it strange how things come around?” says Gluckman.)

 After the Sunday finals and victory, Curtis and Norm were left to de-rig the boat as the team went off celebrating. After the riggers were off, they started pulling the Schoenbrod tracks and foot stretchers and grumbling about the process. Curtis did a final check for any items they might be leaving behind. He saw two big wooden boxes stashed at the end of their boat bay sitting all alone. Opening the boxes marked “Martini Achter,” he found eight sets of tracks and eight foot stretchers all neatly packed. There’s a lesson there.

1977

The University of Washington hadn’t had a great spring season but had beaten the University of California, Berkeley.  So, they set off for Henley anyway, convinced they had good athletes who just needed to row more. It was a decision they would not regret. Stan Pocock accompanied the three Washington boats (heavyweight and lightweight eights and a four) as coach Dick Erickson’s assistant. For the trip, he had built a new Cedar Speeder, Pocock’s answer to the new composite boats. It was very light, but cedar isn’t appropriate for 100 percent of a boat, and the boat lacked stiffness.

Mike Hess, captain, stroke and Olympic eight veteran, said they just didn’t feel like they were moving in the Pocock. He had heard plenty about the Martini Achter from his Olympic teammates, the bulk of them members of the ’74 crew. He went to Hart Perry and asked if they could try the M.A. Stan Pocock was insulted and let Hess know it, but the oarsman had a great deal of credibility, having rowed in the Olympic eight the year before. Perry agreed to let them give it a try.

Like Trinity, the Huskies had a devil of a time in it at first. “Being UW, we weren’t pretty and we were all over the place,” Hess recalls. “But when we started to pull, it just got better and better and then one day–magic! It just all clicked. We went up to Nottingham and finished half a length behind the British national team and beat Harvard, the Eastern Sprint champs. Stan began to smile.”

Back at Henley, the crew kept improving and beat Garda Siochana, the Irish national team, by a half-length in a barn burner. In the final, they took revenge on the British national team, beating them by a length. Stan Pocock was very happy as he opined, “It’s fast horses, not fast carriages.”

Seven members of the squad made national teams that summer. They certainly had the horses.

The University of Washington Conibear Shellhouse honored the famous “Boys in the Boat” of 1936 by hanging its eight-oared shell, the Husky Clipper, from the ceiling of the dining hall. In 2017, to honor the 40th anniversary of Washington’s first victory at Henley, a new Empacher was christened “Grand Challenger.” If you’ve paid attention to collegiate rowing in the past few years, you know that the Huskies are right at the top of their game, having won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association team title 12 of the last 13 years.

The boat

So what was it about the Martini Achter? Is there such a thing as a magical boat? Members of all three of those crews certainly thought so and continue to think so today. What made it so fast? A lot of rowers are under the impression that the stiffer the boat–both longitudinally and across the gunwales–the better the boat. The great Stan Pocock, who built boats and had as keen an eye as anyone who has ever coached, said, “Ever seen a stiff fish?”

 The maestro of wooden boatbuilding today, Graeme King, told me that longitudinal stiffness in an eight is overrated.

 “It is far more important in a single, where the weight of the rower is at a single point close to the middle of the boat, whereas in an eight the weight of the crew is distributed over nearly 40 feet, so there is a far better balance between the load distribution and displacement curve, except, of course, if the eight gets hung up on a couple of wave crests spaced about 30 feet apart.”

 If there is a magical boat, why aren’t all boats built like it? The answer may be that the Martini Achter’s fantastic results resulted from a rare combination of the right crew, the right technique, and the right moment.

Bill Miller, the renowned rowing historian who rowed in the M.A. the summer of 1974 with Vesper, said, “I had never believed that a boat made a difference. But the Martini Achter changed my mind. It just never slowed down.”

I asked Graeme why he thought that both Trinity and Washington had so much trouble paddling or rowing at lower cadences. Was there something about the hull shape that would explain this?

 Most likely, it was because these college crews rowed with less skill and precision than a national team, he surmised. But he also thought it could have been the oars. Wooden oars twisted and warped a lot. King remembers hours and hours spent when he was Harvard’s boatman making sure that all eight in a set had the same pitch. The work required taking off the leather and planning down the wood beneath to true them. Trinity had taken delivery at Henley of brand-new Collar oars; Washington brought their Pocock blades with them. The national team had used Karlisch oars. Could that have contributed to the difficulties the college crews faced?

The always quotable Al Shealy, stroke of the 1974 world- championship crew, said, “From the first stroke we took, I thought, ‘This is a magic boat.’ It was like a Ferrari, the greasiest boat I’ve ever been in.

“By ‘greasy,’ I refer to how the boat glided through the water. Going from a Donoratico that was clearly built for the Seven Dwarfs to this stunning piece of craftsmanship was like stepping out of a Volkswagen into a Ferrari. To this day, I can still feel the kinesthetic joy of those first few strokes and I bet my boatmates would say the same. I felt as if we had stumbled upon some magic treasure and in our giddiness wanted to tell the world all about it. And in the end, we did. This joy is undiminished through time and still puts a smile on my face.

“Psychologists use a term for the love of an inanimate object–objectophilia. That is what we feel for this boat. Like a favorite oar, it becomes a part of you. You invest it with human qualities because you want it to know how much you depend on it. You ask of it, you pat its gunwales, and it responds by affirming your intent. Athletes often tear up when they visit a stadium, a court, or a course where they achieved a particular victory. For me, it would be the same if I saw her again. I would pat her again and just say, ‘Thanks, old girl.’”

Destruction and Restoration

After the National Rowing Foundation decided to sell the boat in the late ’70s, Thames Tradesmen, one of the most successful London rowing clubs, bought it, and it was one of their top shells. It had a terrific reputation and great results. It met an unseemly death, however. On a day when the tide was low on the Tideway, as the Thames is called in central London, a coxswain ran over a submerged shopping cart. A 16-foot jagged gash was ripped through the hull. The boat sat on their boat trailer outside the boathouse for several years.

The Martini Achter hanging in the rafters at the Mystic Seaport Museum.

Members of the 1974 crew wanted to buy it and bring it to the States for their 25th reunion. After three years of negotiation, years in which it deteriorated further because of rocks thrown through the hull, Mike Vespoli and crew bought it and brought it back home. They asked Graeme King to bring it back to life. He did as good a job as they had hoped, putting over 200 hours of loving work into it. In his final invoice to them, he wrote, “The end result is a very stiff and durable boat that, if your crew wishes, can be rowed for another 25 years. In fact, your 50th reunion was on my mind when I did this work.”

The 1974 crew loaned it to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where it graced the entryway of the Visitor Reception Center from 2008 to 2014. Sadly, the Seaport decide to raze the building that the Rowing Hall of Fame inhabited, and when that happened, the M.A. lost its home. It sits on the top rack in the Vespoli USA boatworks waiting for a new home. It’s high time that the treasures of our sport find a suitable resting place. We need a permanent Rowing Hall of Fame, and the legendary M.A. deserves a prominent place in it.

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