25 July 2018
Greg Denieffe writes:
The tightknit argumentation of rowing historians has lost one of its finest members with the death last week of Rob van Mesdag (18 January 1930 – 18 July 2018). HTBS hopes that a suitable obituary will soon be published but felt his passing should be acknowledged promptly. If you have a memory of Rob, you are warmly invited to share it in the comments section.
Rob was born in Hilversum in the province of North Holland, Netherlands, a country that he represented admirably in the 1950s. In the 1940s, he attended St. Andrew’s School, Delaware, USA, a school that he rowed for and remained in contact with for more than 70 years. According to John Dak Morton, Rob sponsored the St. Andrew’s Alumni Racing crew twice at Leander Club for the Henley Masters’ Regatta in 2010 and 2017.
His next port of call was Dublin, Ireland, where as a student of Trinity College, he joined the Dublin University Boat Club and represented them with distinction, most notably in at Henley in 1950 where he reached the final of the Diamond Challenge Sculls. Raymond Blake, author of In Black & White – A History of Rowing at Trinity College Dublin, writes about that race which was raced shortly after Trinity was beaten in the final of the Ladies’:
Mesdag, who had faced A. D. Rowe of Leander Club in the final of the Diamonds exactly an hour before. He was beaten by three lengths, but this could not take away from the gallant way in which he reached the final. Against his fellow Dutchman, C. T. Neumeier, in the semi-final, he sculled himself to a standstill, and just held on to win by three feet. It was a performance that endeared him to the aficionados amongst the Henley crowd, and it was a tribute to the single-minded perseverance and dedication which he brought to his training.
In all, Mesdag sculled four times for the Diamonds, and although he never managed to claim a ‘Pineapple Cup’, he went close on each occasion, losing trice to the eventual winners and once to the beaten finalist.
Internationally, he represented The Netherlands in the European Championships from 1951 to 1956, winning a bronze medal in 1955. He also raced at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki and was perhaps at his peak four years later, but The Netherlands did not send a rowing team to the Melbourne Games.
Rob van Mesdag won the Holland Beker in 1956. Perhaps this is the only video of him sculling although I understand that there is a recording of him racing in Helsinki in 1952.
London Rowing Club, of which Rob was a long-time member, announced his death on their Facebook page and not surprisingly, dozens of tributes have been left in the comments section.
Rob was a regular attendee at the bi-annual Rowing History Forums held in Henley-on-Thames since 2007 and often wore his Dublin University Boat Club colours to events. In fact, he presented two papers to the forum: Venetian rowing grows on you (2009) and From foetus to Olympian; student rowing in Holland (2013). It was at these events that I met Rob and knowing he was a distinguished alumnus of Trinity College we chatted about rowing in Ireland and his love of the club and Trinity Regatta.
When he found out I was from Carlow, he brought up my fellow Carlovian, Seán Drea, who won the Diamond Sculls in 1973, 1974 and 1975 in the colours of Neptune Rowing Club, adding a World Championship silver medal in the latter year. I thought I was on safe ground to give him the benefit of my knowledge on Seán until Rob told me that he had coached Drea when he had spent some time rowing out of London R.C. That was followed shortly by the sound of my jaw dropping.
Last Wednesday, Rob collapsed on the Thames while getting into his sculling boat. He was doing a photo-op for a Dutch documentary unit that was putting together a special on his extraordinary life. He was rushed to hospital and died shortly after arrival. Details of his funeral arrangements and a full obituary will be published on the website of London R.C.