Kai Stürmann – A Man who Suffers from the ‘Wheels and Keels Disease’

Kai Stürmann (left) participated in last summer’s WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport. He participated in the show with his newly restored training single scull, once built by Joseph A. Garofalo of Worcester Oar and Paddle Company. On the right is Kai’s brother, Claus.

6 October 2017

At the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport on 30 June – 2 July, HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn met a reader of the website, Kai Stürmann, who had brought with him a beautiful, newly restored training single scull, Determination, which had been built by the renowned boat builder Joseph A. Garofalo, who ran Worcester Oar and Paddle Company. Now, four months later, Göran caught up with Kai to ask him some questions about his boat. Göran couldn’t help asking Kai some additional none-rowing-related questions about Kai’s gorgeous-looking old Volvo, a 1967 Duett, with which he transported Determination to the WoodenBoat Show. It is clear that Kai suffers from what he himself calls the ‘Wheels and Keels Disease’.

So, Kai, how far did you have to transport your single on your old Duett? Where do you live?

My family and I divide our time between a home in Amityville (South shore of Long Island, on Great South Bay) and Flanders (East end of Long Island on Peconic Bay). I keep Determination in Flanders.

What is your background in rowing?

Kai Stürmann

This is kind of a funny story; I hope you’ll forgive me when I’m relating the long version…

I grew up on the water, sailing dinghies and doing watersports. Rowing never appealed to me because of the slow speed. In college, there was a rowing club and I thought it rather dorky so I had no interest.

My graduate medical training took place in Massachusetts and I lived on a small lake not far from Worcester. A neighbor of mine had an old Empacher suspended from the ceiling in his lake ‘camp’ living room and eventually we got to talking about it… I had never seen it in the water at all. He told me that he used it, once, but fell in the water, so he hung it up inside. My medical training period was coming to an end and I guess looking at that sleek boat now and again, I began to think about taking up rowing once back in New York, primarily for exercise.

I started making some telephone calls to the local area college coaches seeking advice on a boat. One of them steered me to the company Advance Rowing Shells in southern Connecticut. They had just developed an ABS plastic boat (The ‘Boston’) for reasonable money and apparently Harvard had bought several of them to be used as trainers.

Just before leaving my little lakeside cottage in Massachusetts, I mentioned to my neighbor that I might get a boat and he said: ‘Me too’! I was a bit puzzled given that he already had one of the best of the best and hadn’t used it at all in the three years that I knew him. We talked for a while and he mentioned that he would like to get into rowing again, in a more stable boat, and maybe even get another one for his wife! I was a bit amused and wished him good luck.

Within a week of moving back to Amityville, New York, I got a call from him: ‘Kai, guess what?? I’m a dealer!!’ He went on to tell me that he had visited the factory after our last conversation and promptly placed an order for three boats! He offered one to me for wholesale price ($700) and I quickly (very quickly!) agreed to the terms.

Within a week of getting my new shell home, I ran into an old friend of mine who worked with my dad about a mile from our house. I told him that I had just bought a rowing shell and was pretty excited about regular rowing workouts. He told me that he had ‘always wanted to do that’ and asked me if he could go in ‘halvsies’ with me and pay for his half share of the boat. I insisted up, down and sideways that I did not want any money – the boat was his to use whenever he would like. Nevertheless, he insisted, saying that paying his share would increase his motivation, so the next day he arrived at my house with $350. I tried very hard to talk him out of it, but he insisted, saying he’d be back to row. Sadly, he never did. Not once.

I rowed the ‘Boston’ hard for five years – year around through all kinds of weather and occasional snow squalls. By that time, I was long hooked and sought out rowing opportunities wherever my travels would take me. One of my favorite places was ‘Open Water Rowing’ in Sausalito, California. It was there, I was introduced to Maas shells. I bought an Aero in 1991 and rowed that boat until it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy five years ago. The Aero has since been replaced by a new one and has joined my Maas 24 and the Maas Double, which my wife and I gave to each other as a wedding present.

When did you buy the Garofalo boat?

In March of 2015.

How did you find it?

I was ‘killing time’ on the internet, scanning classifieds on Row2K.com when I came across an ad describing a Garofalo-built wherry. Not knowing exactly what a ‘wherry’ was, I looked over some images and became intrigued. I established an email dialogue with the seller and was really taken by the pictures he sent, one in particular that featured the name, faded on the bow – Determination.

With the help of acquaintances in the rowing community, especially Dana Avery at the Mystic River Boathouse in Noank, Connecticut, I was able to arrange for transportation from Kansas City to Noank by ‘hitching a ride’ on a cross country delivery from Maas Boats. My wife and I picked up Determination at the Mystic River Boathouse in June of 2015 and drove it home on top of our car. So, bought in March, took delivery in June of 2015.

Did you have a lot of experience of restoring shells before?

None. I had made some rudimentary carbon repairs on my old Maas Aero and I built a ‘Bevins Skiff’ as part of a Family Boatbuilding project sponsored in part by ‘WoodenBoat’.

Did you have help from anyone?

Yes, for sure. In several ways. I gave much thought to how I would do this project and toward that end leaned on many friends and acquaintances for help and inspiration.

Before I took delivery of the boat I looked over many images – a ‘Sausalito Wherry’ in particular caught my eye. She was built by a very capable builder by the name of Mike Lawler. He was kind enough to spend a fair amount of time on the telephone with me and was very helpful. It turned out that what I had hoped to achieve (integrated wooden riggers) wasn’t possible with this boat, but I am very grateful for the encouragement and inspiration that Mike provided. I’m sorry to say that Mike died before I got very far on the project. I would have loved to show him my progress.

I’m very fortunate to count as a friend a local shipwright of world renown: Donn Costanzo. I met him through a mutual friend several years ago. Donn’s shop, appropriately called ‘Wooden Boatworks’ in Greenport, New York, has built traditional yachts of the very highest caliber. Donn and his crew were very patient with my many questions and they provided invaluable advice and encouragement.

Tech support staff from several companies, most notably West System epoxies, were consistently available and consistently outstanding.

In terms of physical help, one friend in particular – John ‘Chad’ Chadwick of Coastal Marine Systems and my brother Claus were extremely helpful.

Kai’s old Garofalo training single with sculls from Worcester Oar and Paddle Company.

Any objections from your family when you started restoring it?

None whatsoever. My wife is super-understanding. I think she had faith in me despite the initial appearance of the boat. Her enthusiasm grew along with the progress we made. To give her due credit, I took over an entire room of our house for this project! My daughters took it in stride. Our (then) 11-year-old was quite helpful in reproducing the original Garofalo builders’ decal/logo.

How did you go about getting information about Garofalo boats?

I was made aware of the ‘Worcester Oar and Paddle Co.’ through the book Rowable Classics by Darryl Strickler. Even though I spent three years living near and working very near his shop, I had little interest or knowledge in rowing then, so I never got to meet him or see his shop. Garofalo died several years ago and his shop was disbanded entirely. My ‘break’ came when I found an obituary on the internet that listed surviving family members. I was able to track several of them through internet searches and a niece and nephew in particular were very helpful. By ‘cold calling’ local (Worcester area) rowing coaches I’ve found a couple of people that once worked for Mr. Garofalo in his shop. That information was quite valuable as well. Also, I tried to track the provenance of this particular boat and had some limited success with that (still ongoing).

Any particular problems restoring the boat?

Several, but that made the project the most fun. There were innumerable obstacles I hadn’t encountered before and thinking things through, asking for advice and opinion from friends, and finding solutions was the most gratifying part of this experience.

It became apparent as I was stripping the old finish that the interior of the boat was in cosmetically fine shape. I planned from the get-go to sheathe the exterior in a glass/epoxy coating, both for structural rigidity and for water tightness. It also became apparent that the appearance of the exterior was well beyond the ‘desirable patina’ stage and a clear finish wasn’t all that desirable. At some point I got the idea that a carbon fibre skin might look really good next to the beautiful varnished woodwork and I slowly became obsessed with the idea of making that work.

Interestingly, opinion on the carbon was divided – more than a few people told me to stay away from that – that I didn’t understand the physics behind carbon fibre and that glass fibre was a better choice. Others were intrigued but… no one could tell me that it had been done before. All the more reason to…!

So, applying the carbon fibre skin (which we did with vacuum bagging) is a story in itself.

The other major ‘problem’ was that I discovered that the hull framing has separated and the boat had become distorted. Several frames were deteriorated at the bottom end and became entirely disconnected from the keelson. Pulling that back together involved structural work not a part of the original. Donn Costanzo’s advice with that was invaluable. The best part is that I did it all myself and it came together beautifully!

Work on rigger replacement was also substantial. While I had the original Garofalo riggers, the spread was too narrow and I wanted something that was optimized to my personal dimensions. I talked to several people. In the end, Carl Douglas of Douglas Racing Shells in England fashioned riggers that are truly spectacular!

There were multiple other ‘challenges’ but altogether, the challenges were the best part of the experience.

If you were to warn someone, who is going to start a boat restoration work like this, to not make the same mistake you did, what would that be?

Very good question. The most important issue is to ask yourself the question: ‘Do I have the commitment to see this through?’ Ability is less important. I’m a firm believer in ‘learn as I go’. Resources are important but not the end all and be all. What you don’t have today you may be able to get tomorrow. One has to be realistic though regarding time and financial budget. Commitment is essential.

Regarding mistakes – in retrospect, I probably hurried the stripping process a little more than I should have. I was seriously tempted to get out the power washer but multiple blog entries and internet posts advised strongly against that approach (and I actually listened!). The best way to remove old finish is with a good methylene chloride based stripper and jusdicious use of appropriate scrapers. (Disclosure: you’ll find no shortage of strong objections to the use of methylene chloride and chemical strippers in general!). The key, in my opinion, is good scrapers, kept sharp. Then, high quality sandpaper, replaced frequently as necessary. The biggest challenge is the interior with its concave surfaces. If possible power sanding should be avoided. (I didn’t).

Any funny story about what happened when you restored the boat?

Nothing in terms of a single funny experience. Great question though. High stress as it was, we had a great time applying the carbon fiber sheathing. Biggest source of laughs is likely my friend Chad, taking one of the vacuum hoses into his mouth and pretending to ‘pull vacuum’ for the camera!

How long did it take for you to restore it?

I didn’t do a tally on total number of hours (nor on dollars). It took essentially a full year’s work when not working and not tending to family. I work 50 hours per week and we have two young daughters. Most if not all of my ‘free time’ during that year was devoted to the boat.

There is something special with wooden boats.

What did you enjoy most about the restoration work of the boat?

Problem solving. Things rarely go as planned in life but in this case nearly everything worked out!

How did you find the oars/sculls?

I use several sets of sculls. My favorite pair are my contemporary Dreher carbon sculls made by the Durham Boat Company. They actually look quite good with the boat given its carbon outer shell. For display purposes, I was fortunate to source a pair of original Garofalo sculls (with intact original decals). That took a fair amount of hunting and a ‘wanted ad’ in Row2K. The best pair I found I got through the Rowable Classics site from Darryl Strickland’s son. I have another pair near Springfield that I still need to pick up!

Are you out rowing the boat weekly?

No. I intended Determination as a ‘special events’ boat from the get go. No small part of the motivation that saw this project through, on a deadline no less, was that I intended to row her in the Great Peconic Race, held annually in September. It was incredibly rewarding to make that around 20 statute mile trip in open water and in the company of world-class open water rowers. Likely the first time she had been in the water (other than the prior day’s (!) ‘shakedown cruise’) in 20 years.

I row regularly but most often in one of my Maas boats. I hope to complete other distance rows with Determination. I have my eyes on ‘Rocking Manhattan’.

Kai with his beautiful 1967 Volvo Duett.

As a Swede, I cannot help but to ask you some questions about your beautiful Volvo Duett. How did you ever manage to pick a special car like that?

My father was the manager of what was the largest volume U.S. Volvo dealership (Volvoville USA). I still have a distinct memory when, at around age 13, the last truck load of Duetts arrived to the dealership. I couldn’t believe these were ‘new’ cars. The Corvette Stingray was already out by then! The Duett looked positively ancient. With time, I warmed up to them. I began to imagine one redone as a ‘woodie’. Back in the 1980s, I saw one abandoned on the Block Island airport parking lot and later in the late 1990s, I saw one apparently abandoned in a construction site in Manhattan. Those images stuck with me and when my wife suggested ‘a project’ several years later, the first thing I thought of was the restoration of a Duett!

This is a 1967 Duett?

Yes, that’s correct. The Duett was last made in 1968 but imports to the U.S. stopped with the 1967 model year. Mechanically, they are the most advanced (12 volt electric system and furthest development of the B-18 engine and 4 speed transmission). Appearance wise, my preference is for the older versions – solid steel wheels, more appropriate interior appointments. As a cost-saving measure Volvo would put the same wheels and the same interior fittings on all of its models. The 140 series was out already by then and the 140 interior fittings and slotted wheels just don’t look right on a car that was designed in the late 1940s. So I ‘retro-fitted’ with earlier model cosmetic components to bring the appearance in line with a late 1950s version.

How did you get hold of it?

Sort of the same way I got Determination, via an on-line advertisement, though in this case it was a very active search for (ideally) a 1967 Duett.

How was the car’s condition when you bought it?

I actually got the car from the original owner’s family. It needed substantial work and they felt it was time for the car to get a new home. At one time, it was an east coast car, but when I bought it was located in Colorado. There was substantial rust but the car was entirely original.

Was it a problem finding spare parts for it?

Virtually no problem at all. I was not surprised that mechanical components were widely available; Volvo made a habit of sharing parts across their entire model range. It might surprise many that the running components of the car (engine, transmission, wheels, etc) are virtually identical with the P1800 sports car of the time – the one driven by Roger Moore in the television show The Saint [the editor’s favourite Volvo!]. So, those parts are plentiful and easy to locate. I was surprised by the availability (at the time) of body panels and body parts, some original, some reproduction.

Were you in contact with anyone, Volvo club etc, in Sweden?

Yes, for several years I was a member of the PV Klubben, an enthusiast group devoted to the ‘round fender’ Volvos. I don’t speak Swedish but was able to make do. The two back doors and the exterior visor were sourced in Sweden and shipped to me here in the States.

Could you restore it yourself?

I did essentially all of the mechanical work myself. The list here is substantial, including engine work and replacement/rebuilding of the entire brake and suspension system. I do not have the skills for metal work. I was super fortunate to find a skilled ‘body guy’ within 2 miles of my house. He did outstanding work at beyond reasonable prices. Any body rust was cut out and new metal welded in. Once I saw the car with paint, I abandoned any thoughts of turning it into a ‘woodie’. Instead, I fashioned new interior panels from mahogany and made the interior a focal point as well. Upholstery was done by someone else that was recommended to me.

What did you enjoy most about the restoration work of the car?

Similar to work on Determination – problems invariable come up that call for novel solutions. I learned quite a bit in the process and that is what I find most satisfying.

Have you taken the Duett to any car shows?

Yes. I prefer car shows with variety rather than going to club meets where most of the cars and most of the interests are similar. When we first got the car back on the road, my wife, after working all night, followed me to Lyme Rock in our trusty Subaru where I entered the car in the inaugural Hemming’s European Sports and Exotic Car Show. Hemming’s is a very big deal – like WoodenBoat but for classic autos. There were dozens of vintage Porsches, more than a couple of million dollar (literally) Ferarris, not to mention various other exotics. Imagine my surprise when told that the Duett won the ‘Editor’s Choice Award’! They really liked the fact we drove (not towed) it there.

I go to occasional local ‘cruise nights’. It’s amazing how much attention the car gets.

The Duett engine.

How much do you drive the car?

As much as I can, but realistically that’s less than a couple of thousand miles per year. I’m blessed to keep it in a beautiful part of Long Island. I love to take it to the beach with my family and to visit my older children who live in Sag Harbor. However, I struck a deer while returning from a ‘cruise night’ during the summer. Thankfully no one (other than the deer) was hurt. Repairs are under way and I hope to have her back on the road within the next couple of months.

Kai, thank you for chatting with HTBS and good luck with Determination and the Duett!

Thank you sincerely for giving me the opportunity to share this with you and the HTBS readers.

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