The Martini Achter 1973: ‘The Race of the Century’

At the 1973 International Heidelberg Regatta, United States was the winner of the “Martini Achter 1973”: Bow Larry Gluckman, 2 Calvin Coffey, 3 Hugh Matheson (GBR), 4 Mike Vespoli, 5 Hugh Stevenson, 6 Terry Adams, 7 Tim Mickelson, Stroke Ken Brown and Cox Paul Hoffman. Coach was Steve Gladstone. From Peter Mallory’s “The Sport of Rowing”.

11 September 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

Göran R Buckhorn remembers interviewing the 1974 Worlds champion Mike Vespoli and boat builder Graeme King about the Martini Achter 1973, a boat Bill Miller wrote about yesterday.

In a fine article on HTBS yesterday, rowing historian and Olympian (coxless four, Munich 1972) Bill Miller recaptured the story of how he and some other oarsmen from Vesper BC and Potomac BC went on a European tour to compete at regattas in Germany and Britain in 1974. At these regattas they used the Martini Achter 1973, an eight that had been won by an American crew (with the help of a Brit) the previous year at the International Heidelberg Regatta.

In a previous article from July 2013, I wrote about the Martini Achter 1973. Here is how that story goes…

In 1973, after having raced at the European Championships in Moscow, a U.S. crew went to compete at the Heidelberg International Regatta in what was then West Germany. At Heidelberg, the Americans were short of one man in the eight race, the “Martini Achter Race”, where first prize was a brand new wooden eight, which was built by the famous German boat builder Empacher in Eberbach. Joining the American oarsmen, Larry Gluckman, Calvin Coffey, Mike Vespoli, Hugh Stevenson, Terry Adams, Tim Mickelson, Ken Brown and cox Paul Hoffman, was the British rower Hugh Matheson (known to HTBS readers from entries about Chris Dodd’s brilliant book Pieces of Eight and as Chris’s co-author of More Power, their biography about Jurgen Grobler).

In Peter Mallory’s splendid book The Sport of Rowing (2011), bow man Larry Gluckman is quoted saying that ‘Everybody wanted to win this beautiful Empacher wooden boat. It was like a piece of furniture.’ Norway entered a crew, too, and after the Americans had won the race and the boat, Gluckman continued saying, ‘the Norwegians said, “Good row, America… and God Bless the Queen” because they knew one of our borrowed rowers, Hugh Matheson, was a Brit.’ The Martini Achter 1973 stayed in Europe and came to belong to the so-called National Rowing Foundation’s fleet.

The following year, 1974, a slightly different U.S. crew went to compete at the World Championships on Rotsee in Lucerne, Switzerland, using the Martini Achter 1973. The crew were: Bow Tim Mickelson, 2 Ken Brown, 3 John Everett, 4 Mike Vespoli, 5 Mark Norelius, 6 Richard Cashin, 7 Hugh Stevenson, Stroke Alan Shealy and Cox David Weinberg. Coach was Allen Rosenberg.

Here is a 3-minute amateur film showing the eight practicing in the early summer of 1974 on Candlewood Lake in Connecticut before moving on to another training camp at Princeton, and then to Lucerne.

On the Rotsee, in an extremely tough race, which came to be known as ‘The Race of the Century’, the U.S. eight competed in the final against the world’s best rowing nations at that time, East Germany, Soviet Union, New Zealand, Great Britain and West Germany. New Zealand was in the lead for the first 1,800 metres, but then the crew in the Martini Achter 1973 put on a spurt which gave the Americans a slight lead. They managed to hold on to it and crossed the finish line as the World Champions. Another remarkable crew were the British who took a silver medal, despite having been dead last for most of the race. New Zealand came in third, East Germany forth, the Soviets fifth and West Germany sixth.

The Martini Achter 1973, which was brought to England, was afterward used by the men’s varsity eight from Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, to win the 1976 Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley Royal Regatta, and by the University of Washington men’s varsity eight to take the 1977 Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. Later the boat was sold to a club in England.

In a 2013 comment to HTBS, Mike Vespoli wrote that some English oarsmen

rowed it over a submerged shopping cart and tore a big hole in it. It sat in rack at the Thames Tradesmen Rowing Club where I found it and bought it for 500 British pounds and brought it back to the U.S. I contacted my boat mates from the ‘74 crew and we all chipped in to get the boat restored so that we could take a row in 1999 at the world champs in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, to celebrate our 25th anniversary. The restoration cost four times the original sale price!

For 20 years, the “Martini Achter 1973” hung at the South Gate at Mystic Seaport Museum. Photo: Göran R Buckhorn.

The Martini Achter 1973 was restored by boat builder Graeme King in Putney, Vermont, USA. He spent around 200 hours restoring the boat to its former beauty, he told HTBS. It took 420 hours to build it originally and then the hull was formed by vacuum with three layers of Spanish cedar veneer over a mold. After that, the framework was fitted in. When restoring the boat, King used 3/32” plywood, then laminated on a sheet of 1/32” African mahogany veneer.

Here is some data of the Martini Achter 1973:
Builder: Empacher boat builder, Eberbach, Germany.
Length: 57 feet
Weight: 250 lbs (boat), 8 oars, total 60 lb.
Top Speed: Over 3 miles, 18 feet/second; in a sprint, 22 feet/second

This is a model of the “Martini Achter 1973”, owned by Bill Miller. Courtesy of Bill Miller.

For two decades, the Martini Achter 1973 was hanging from the ceiling at the Visitors Reception Center at the South Gate of Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. During 2008-2014, the National Rowing Foundation’s National Rowing Hall of Fame was housed at the museum. It was a fitting spot to display the Martini Achter 1973, which played such a remarkable place in the history of American rowing.

In the July 2013 interview, Mike Vespoli told HTBS: ‘If Mystic Seaport ever decides to remove the shell from public display then we [the ’74 crew] will take possession of it. It was also agreed that we could use this shell in 2024 to celebrate our 50th!’

This is just what happened. In the autumn of 2019, the Martini Achter 1973 was removed from the museum’s Visitors Reception Center and put into storage. At that time being an employee of the museum and knowing the history of the vessel, I reminded the institution about Mike Vespolis’s words. The Martini Achter 1973 went back to Mike Vespoli and his crew. I like to think that I hastened up the process.

One comment

  1. I wonder if ,in 50 odd years time , someone will be writing about a lovingly restored carbon fibre boat ?

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