11 March 2022
By Richard “Rick” Stehlik
(photographs provided by the author)
Rick Stehlik tells the story of a remarkable Olympic eight.
On December 12, 2021, an important piece of rowing history, which was almost lost, was returned to its home at Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia. Like all good stories, this one had its twists, turns and surprises.
To start from the beginning, we must go back to the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. As many of you know, the eight event was won by the famous, and somewhat infamous, crew from Vesper Boat Club defeating the United Team of Germany, who had won the eights at the Olympic Games in 1960. The eights had previously been dominated by the United States since 1920, so this upset was a shock to the U.S. rowing community.
The crew, which was assembled by Jack Kelly and coached by Allen Rosenberg, was a diverse mix of rowing experience, age and personalities. After many changes, Rosenberg found a winning combination that won the Olympic trials defeating Harvard, after which the Vesper crew then journeyed to Tokyo for their eventual victory.
However, less documented is the role played by a shell of radical design from what had been the standard in the United States for decades. The shell was named the Doc Riggall and was built by the Cantiere Navale Donoratico boat works in Italy. Up until that time, the predominant boat of choice in the U.S. was produced by George Pocock and used by most colleges, high schools and clubs for many years.
The Donoratico shell was shorter than the Pococks of that day. It was deep and featured a V-shaped hull (notoriously difficult to set up). It was designed and constructed under the watchful eye of master Donoratico craftsman Lido Filippi (sound familiar, but more later). It was a three-sectional boat, 57.5 feet long with a bow section of 10.5 feet (joined at the bow seat), a middle section and a stern section joined between the 7 and stroke seats. Vesper Boat Club already had a Donoratico eight in its fleet, the John B Kelly, in which the crew had won the trials, and it also made the journey to Tokyo.
At some point, it was decided to commission a new boat from Donoratico specifically for the Olympics. Because of the timing, the new boat could not be produced and delivered until the Olympics and therefore arrived in three crates less than two weeks before the crew’s first race in Tokyo. It was immediately assembled under the expert eye of assistant coach and rigger Dietrich Rose. After training in the boat, the coach and crew decided that it was the shell to use, and the already arrived John B. Kelly became the spare. The Donoratico eight arrived with the name Doc Riggall painted on its bow. Interestingly, no record could be found of it ever being christened.
Who was Doc Riggall? Dr. Charles W. Riggall, Jr., was at that time the President of Vesper and long-time advocate and sponsor of the sport. His rowing career can be traced back to 1916, when he competed for Malta Boat Club of Philadelphia, and he apparently joined Vesper after the war, becoming its president in 1928. He was a prominent dentist in Philadelphia for many years. He died in 1968.
The Olympic race has been well documented by Bill Stowe in his All Together: The Formidable Journey to the Gold with the 1964 Olympic Crew (2005) and Emory Clark in his Olympic Odyssey (2014). The crew won the gold medal on a windy night in Tokyo – a tribute to the skilled crew who was able to leverage a boat that developed great speed and navigated the choppy waters to victory. The shell was a magnificent example of Italian craftsmanship.
After the Olympics, the journey of the shell became somewhat murky. It returned to Philadelphia, and the next year went to Henley with a revamped crew finishing second to Ratzeburger Ruder Club (Germany) in the final of the Grand Challenge Cup (after defeating Harvard again in the semi-final). It is known that shell was damaged on its journey to England but repaired for the race. After its return to Philadelphia, its future became cloudy and not documented. There are several accounts of it having continued use within the club by St Joseph College and other crews.
At some point, the shell was most likely conveyed to another organization outside of Philadelphia. Then years later, in an amazing twist of fate, Bill Stowe, stroke of the 1964 eight, came upon the shell in a boat yard in Florida. Recognizing the boat as the one he rowed in at the Olympics, he arranged that the bow section was saved. The fate of the rest of the boat is unknown to this day. Bill contacted Hart Perry of the National Rowing Foundation (NRF). The bow was donated in 2003 (strangely under the name “Dr. Riddell”) to the NRF, which placed it in the Watercraft Hall at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, where NRF’s fleet of rowing boats was held. When the NRF’s National Rowing Hall of Fame at Mystic Seaport Museum opened in 2008, the bow was set on display. Unfortunately, its exact whereabouts and usage from approximately 1970 until 2003 is still a mystery.
In 2014, when the Rowing Hall of Fame and its exhibition space lost its home at the Museum, the rowing artifacts and records were distributed to storage. The bow section came to rest inside the Watercraft Hall again with the NRF’s vast collection of historic boats.
One of my hobbies is the construction of racing shell models, which has been previously documented on Hear The Boat Sing. In 2019, I decided to model the Vesper Donoratico eight from 1964. As a young oarsman who joined Malta BC in 1965, I remembered the beautiful shells that would daily come out of our neighbor Vesper, being rowed at that time by many of the members of the 1964 crew, including Bill Stowe. They were truly works of art as well as top of the line shells.
In order to construct my model, I conducted extensive research of Donoratico and this shell in particular. I quickly found out that little information existed, and certainly no plans. As I pieced together old photographs and recollections of the surviving crew members, including Stan Cwiklinski, Boyce Budd and Emory Clark, the history of the boat began to take shape as well as its design and construction details. I was able to track down measurements of a similar sectional Donoratico eight in England and found photographs at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley and also one shell in Perth, Australia.
During course of a conversation, someone said, “Oh I think the bow of the boat was at Mystic Seaport”. This was a surprise to me, but Stan Cwiklinski (3 seat in the 1964 crew) confirmed with a picture of him with the bow on display at Mystic. Now the hunt was on, and I contacted Göran Buckhorn, who was working at the Museum and was a NRF volunteer helping with their rowing collection. Göran said he would check in the Watercraft Hall, and indeed, there the bow was tucked away amongst all the other boats. He sent me several photographs of it standing on its base.
I realized that now I had real information to help construct my model, but I also had an opportunity to see the piece of the boat, and possibly have it returned to Philadelphia. Göran informed me that it still belonged to the National Rowing Foundation. I contacted Bill Miller, who graciously got permission from the NRF to donate it back to Vesper Boat Club, who was totally unaware that this portion of the shell still existed.
I offered to stop by Mystic and pick it up to bring it back to Philadelphia. Then of course, Covid became a reality, and all was put in a state of flux. However, I was able to continue to work on my model with the new information and pictures from Göran, and my other research.
Finally, in the fall of 2020, I was able to pick up the bow section at Mystic Seaport Museum, and with great anxiety placed it on my car and drove it to Philadelphia fearing that if anything might happen to it on the journey, my name would forever be in disdain. I also had the partially completed model inside my car.
The bow was in remarkably good condition, some evidence of past damage, probably redecked at one time, but cosmetically requiring only minor restoration and refinishing. It was still impressive of its beauty, lightness and quality of construction. What was missing was the name “Doc Riggall”. The pictures I had were not of sufficient detail to clearly show the name from 1964. However, the shadow of the originally painted “Doc Riggall” name was miraculously there and gave a perfect guide for a professional painter to duplicate the name on the boat.
The bow was mounted on a new display plaque with appropriate information about the crew. After a long delay due to Covid and getting everyone in Philadelphia together at the same time, the bow section was hung on the Vesper wall amongst John B Kelly’s single and double from the Olympics of 1924. In a wonderful afternoon of stories by Stan Cwiklinski, Boyce Budd and Emory Clark the dedication was complete. Also present was the daughter of Bill Knecht, the nephew of Bill Stowe and JB Kelly. I was also pleased to present my finished model at that time. Also, finally after 57 years, the Doc Riggall was christened.
Thus completed a long journey for a shell and its crew which revolutionized rowing in 1964. And finally, remember Lido Filippi, he considered this shell to be his finest work, and went on to found Filippi Racing Shells, now one of the major boat builders in the world. Of great importance is that very quickly shells from European boat works such as Stämpfli and Empacher became more prevalent, and forever influenced the design of U.S.-made shells along with rowing styles and training.