1974: Vesper/Potomac Goes on a European Tour

Vesper/Potomac launching in Mannheim.

10 September 2020 

By Bill Miller

After reading Chris Dodd’s recent article about the Brits going to the 1974 Mannheim Regatta, Bill Miller remembers Vesper/Potomac’s trip to Mannheim and some other European regattas in 1974.

In June 1974, Vesper Boat Club organized a pre-Worlds tour. Eight rowers plus coxswain were selected from a group of Vesper and Potomac Boat Clubs veterans. Some were former U.S. team members from “small boats” (pairs and coxless fours). The group trained and raced in pairs to be selected for the trip but had never rowed together in an eight. Dietrich Rose was the coach and organizer of the excursion. The scheduled regattas were Mannheim, Ratzeburg, Nottingham and Henley. The Vesper contingent flew from Philadelphia to Mannheim two days before the regatta.

Leo Wolloner, the Empacher manager, delivered a brand new Empacher (wood) eight to the team. Perhaps you read a recent story in the Rowing News magazine about the Martini Achter 1973. There’s more to the story that is interesting to reveal.

The Prize
First, to recap part of the story about the International Heidelberg Regatta described in Rowing News. The 1973 U.S. eight had a very disappointing performance in the final at the Moscow European Championship. Dietrich Rose coached the “small boats” in Moscow and suggested that the eight stay on in Europe for another week to race in Heidelberg where the victorious crew would win a new Empacher eight. The regatta was sponsored by Martini International and the new eight would be named Martini Achter 1973. Two of us from the Moscow eight had to return to the States, so two recruits took over our seats. The U.S. won the championship eight and would receive the new boat for the next season.

The 1974 Tour Begins
The next season was 1974 and the first crew from the U.S. to race in Europe was a Vesper group beginning their campaign in Mannheim. The group included coach Dietrich Rose, coxswain Bob Jaugstetter, Jim Moroney, Mark Borchelt, Terry Adams, Hugh Stevenson, me, Bill Jurgens, Jack St Clare and Tony Brooks. The brand new Empacher was delivered to Mannheim on Friday of the regatta weekend. The Saturday/Sunday regatta was run as two separate series of races. On Saturday, we raced in a coxed four and coxless four. Neither race on Saturday was noteworthy. On Sunday, we would race in the international eight event.

The Empacher Eight
Dietrich Rose and Wolloner rigged the new eight a day or so before our Sunday race. We carried the Martini Achter 1973 down the embankment for its first meeting with the water. From the first practice stroke, the boat seemed to be alive ready to spring out like an eager racehorse chomping at the bit. Satisfied with the rigging, we put the boat back on the rack and waited to launch for the race.

Vesper/Potomac launching in Mannheim.

Mannheim Race Course
The race course was a shipping canal just off the Rhine in an industrial site with high walls and 1800 meters long. A solid wall greeted the crews a short distance after the finish line. Crews launched from a graded embankment near the finish line. It wasn’t a pretty place like Lucerne, but we weren’t there to sightsee.

The Race
The entries for the race were Vesper/Potomac, ARA-Leander/Thames Tradesmen (GB national team), the West German “Konstanz & Company”, and two other German crews. The Konstanz crew was impressive. Sitting in the boat were the Bulls of Konstanz (the 1972 Olympic coxed four champions) and three more seats were manned by what would become the 1976 Olympic bronze coxed four. In the remaining seat sat a newcomer, Peter-Michael Kolbe, the future multi-year world singles champion. This was a very impressive eight.

We launched the Martini Achter 1973 and headed to the starting line. Again, the shell slid along very nicely. After a couple of racing starts, the crews were called to the line. We lined up with the Konstanz eight on our port side and the GB crew a few lanes to our starboard.

Vesper/Potomac proceeding to start (bow-Tony Brooks, 2-Jack St Clair, 3-Bill Jurgens, 4-Bill Miller, 5-Hugh Stevenson, 6-Terry Adams, 7-Mark Borchelt, stroke-Jim Moroney, cox-Bob Jaugstetter).

The starting command, “Partez!”, was shouted and the Konstanz boat shot ahead. After a dozen or so strokes, the crew next to us commanded a half-length lead, but then we started to feel the speed of the Empacher. Konstanz could not build on their half-length lead. Now, both crews were moving out on the other three boats. It became a two-boat race, each attacking the other with power moves. The Empacher was flying. The Konstanz crew was throwing everything into their effort, trying to hold their slim lead. The two crews crossed the finish with the same margin as was established off the start. Both crews went under the course record.

Mannheim result

The reputation of the Martini Achter 1973 began that day in Mannheim.

The Vesper/Potomac crew was scheduled to race next in the Ratzeburg Regatta. Deitrich scurried around to find rides in cars travelling north toward Ratzeburg. He arranged to have Bob Jaugstetter and me sit in the back seat of a BMW 2002, which was pulling the shell trailer to Hamburg, Martini Achter 1973 on top. Sitting in the front seats were two of the West German coaches who chatted (in German) as we travelled north.

We stopped for dinner along the highway. Walking toward the restaurant, Bob whispered to me “Do you know what they were saying?” I didn’t understand German, so said “No”. Bob understood German and he explained that they were dumbfounded that a makeshift crew just off the plane, not practicing in the eight, rowing a freshly rigged boat, could be so close to the Konstanz crew. We didn’t know it at the time, but that freshly rigged boat was fast and all we had to do was not slow it down.

We had an enjoyable training period in Ratzeburg with nothing to do but row, eat, joke around and rest. We were a very compatible group.

The regatta, as in all the European regattas, had separate events on two days. We rowed small boats in the Saturday events and like Mannheim, there were no noteworthy results. On Sunday, we were to race the eight again. As we arrived at the Ratzeburg Ruder Club, we were handed a flyer. I looked at it and saw a drawing on an eight with the label “Mannheim Achter” and chopping through the eight was drawn a hatchet labeled “DRV” (Deutscher Ruderverband).

My jaw dropped when I realized that the DRV, the West German national governing body, had forbidden the Konstanz eight from racing again. I asked why, and a woman answered: “They were deemed to be slow because they barely beat Vesper in Mannheim.” Yikes! 

The Mannheim race resulted in a drastic move by the DRV administrators.

The lesson I learned was how a governing body sometimes gets too wrapped up trying to control circumstances that should be left to a much more organic process. To this day, I believe the Konstanz eight would have won a medal at the World Championships in Lucerne later that summer. Instead West Germany was well off the medal stand.

In Ratzeburg, the eights’ race was exciting. The ARA crew arrived to Ratzeburg for another go. We led most of the way, but the ARA caught us in the last few strokes to win by a few feet. West Germany was well behind. It showed that GB was tenacious and had great speed in the last 500.

Ratzeburg result and times.

Vesper went on to race at the Nottingham Regatta, placing again second, after the USSR, followed by the East German crew while the ARA-GB eight was fourth. Next was Henley where we drew the Russian crew in the semi-final.

While sitting at the starting line, we looked over and saw the Russian Trud Club in the Martini Achter 1972 and we sat in the Martini Achter 1973. The official Henley report shows Vesper a canvas behind after ¼ mile, one-length down at the Barrier, ½ length behind at Fawley and a canvas down at the Mile post. The verdict at the finish was Trud by ¼ length.

The Martini Achter 1973 flew down the Mannheim race course and the three following regattas that we entered that June would confirm that the boat was magical.

The U.S. won the World Championship in Lucerne rowing the Martini Achter 1973 and the GB eight won the silver medal. Only one Vesper rower was selected for the U.S. eight, Hugh Stevenson. Seven others were on the U.S. team in small boats.

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