10 January 2023
By Richard “Rick” Stehlik
(photographs provided by the author unless otherwise is stated)
Rick Stehlik knows the art of restoring an 84-year-old single sculls.
Two years ago, I had the pleasure and honor to restore the bow section of the Donoratico Eight that Vesper’s Gold Medalists used in the 1964 Olympics. It was a piece of history that through serendipity resurfaced and was saved for posterity at the Vesper Boat Club.
This past spring, fate once again surfaced as a shell of great significance. The University of Pennsylvania was in the midst of a total restoration, expansion, and preservation of its boathouse in Philadelphia, portions of which date back to 1862. Sections of the Boathouse were totally torn down and rebuilt, the remaining were gutted and brought up to modern standards and needs. The only interior portion which was preserved was the second-floor meeting area, which has a beautiful oak truss exposed ceiling structure.
I was approached by Reed Kindermann, a University Barge and a Penn rowing graduate, to look at a shell which was in New Jersey and was recently brought to his attention by the distinguished Penn coxswain, John Hartigan. I was told that Robert “Bob” Hardegan, a neighbor of John’s, owned the original Pocock shell that Joe Burk used in the 1938 Diamond Sculls race and record setting performance at Henley. Amazingly, it had been with Bob since 1971 at his home in New Jersey.
I was greatly surprised, as with the Vesper shell, that such a boat still existed. Most members of the rowing community know who Joe Burk was, his racing resume and coaching career are one of the most prestigious in rowing history. Two-time Diamond Sculls champion; four-time U.S. Champion; Sullivan award winner; 1940 Olympic single sculler designee; Gold Cup recipient; World War II PT boat commander and hero; distinguished coach of University of Pennsylvania for twenty years; and universally respected and loved by his crews. His rowing style was unique (rowing Henley at a constant 42 strokes/minute), and, as I came to understand, so was his Pocock shell. Many articles are available about Burk and his career. Amongst others those by Peter Mallory in his book The Sport of Rowing.
Equally important in this story is George Pocock, the greatest of all American boat builders along with his son Stan. His wooden shells set the American standard for decades, and his constant innovations became part of his legacy. His collaboration with Joe Burk is a largely unknown story, but an integral part of the success of both of these distinguished men.
So, with some skepticism and excitement I met Reed at Bob’s house in New Jersey. Bob is a former Vesper oarsman who I knew many years ago. After catching up, I was ushered into his garage, and there, hanging from the ceiling, was a single, showing every bit of its reported 84 years of age. It did not look like a championship boat let alone a Pocock, covered in years of dark varnish, paint, and repairs. The riggers were rusted, the seat tray was now plywood, the decks a combination of plastic and old linen. But, the basic boat was there, and by all accounts had been rowed on Bob’s small lake until recently.
After my visit, and on our trip back, Reed said: “What do you think, I can get it for display at Penn’s boathouse.” Though having been a veteran of many repairs and restorations, I was a bit overwhelmed. My first reaction was that it can never look like new, and the best approach would be to stabilize it, and replace and repair what was feasible without destroying a fragile boat. I asked Reed, “When do you need it?” By September was the answer, at the Penn dedication. My immediate problem was that I was leaving for my summer place in Maine in two months, and this boat could not make such a trip. Also, I was not even sure this was the Burk boat, though it was reportedly procured by the new head coach, Ted Nash, after Joe had left it in Philadelphia when he retired. It remained unused on a rack in Wayne Neal’s work room at Penn. The challenge was also how to display it at Penn in line with the architect’s vision of the renovated space.
So, that started the adventure. Within a week under escort, it appeared at my home, Malta Boat Club, and I found enough space in the boat room to work on the shell and set a seven-week schedule. It became readily apparent there was more to this than had been imagined. As with any restoration it becomes a challenge to know where to draw the line. How much can you do and not cause harm; respect the object and its history yet make it presentable enough so it accurately reflects the original product.
As I took the boat apart, riggers, decks, foot stretcher, etc., I conducted research as to the provenance of the boat. There were no serial numbers, and there were no clear marks identifying it even as a Pocock. The trademark red cedar seat tray had been replaced by plywood. But as I examined and collected every available photo of Joe at Henley and his career, it started to match up. It had long been discussed how Pocock had provided him with a “tear drop” design; that is, the shell was wider towards the bow end of the tracks and tapered back after that. Also, there were no adjustable foot plates, and a rather unique set of riggers with a welded third brace. The boat was at its width over 12 inches at the seat tray, which is by most standards, then and today, fairly wide, and 26 feet long.
As part of my research, I contacted Bill Miller, the consummate rowing historian. Then, a real revelation, Bill provided from his collection, correspondence from Joe Burk to George Pocock in 1938 ordering the boat. The complete collection of this correspondence is now on Bill’s rowinghistory.net web site. Joe Burk was a man without exaggeration who knew what he wanted. His attention to detail in the correspondence showed his innovative thinking, and knowledge of rowing. He understood the results he wanted, the style he wanted to row, and the shell design he needed to make it all work. One can only imagine what George Pocock thought of a relative newcomer, but he too was an innovator and apparently understood Joe’s needs. He built a shell that fit the oarsman. In the days when rigging adjustments left little to the imagination, this became a collaboration of great mutual respect to get it right. There is a picture in which George is reportedly holding the recently completed shell.
As my work progressed on the boat, and now armed with letters which specifically laid out the measurements of the boat, I could match the actual boat to the specifications. To my amazement, it all matched. The spread, and in particular, the height differential between the starboard and port riggers of 3 inches (as opposed to a normal difference of about 1 inch). This had always been part of the Burk legend, that he rowed with his hands directly over each other thereby requiring a significant clearance. Also, Joe asked that the foot stretcher be screwed in without adjustment plates, because he knew where he wanted them. The shell confirmed these specifications exactly.
Gradually, I removed as much of the old varnish and repairs as I dared. Wood has amazing properties of resiliency, and this boat still had much of the red cedar in its original form, though sections of the hull had apparently been reskinned. As I removed the varnish from the cover plate just stern of the foot stretcher, something emerged, it was the Pocock seal which had been hidden. Much of it was able to be saved, and clearly cemented this as a Pocock shell, and its claim to being the boat used in the 1938 Diamond Sculls.
Work progressed on the shell. The plywood seat tray was replaced with red cedar planking to match the original. The two tracks apparently original were cleaned and reinstalled. The original brass hardware was preserved. The foot stretcher was restored, and thanks to Al McKenzie of Seattle, vintage leather clogs were installed since the old ones had been cut off at some point and replaced with rubber sandals. The riggers were sanded to remove the rust and repainted, along with cleaning the oarlocks which were brass with most likely a nickel coating.
The decking was not salvageable, with the stern section having been painted at one point with yellow paint. After removal, the decision was made to redeck the bow section, and to leave the stern open so the structure could be viewed. Once again, the folks in Seattle were a great help in advising the methodology used by Pocock of that era.
The final task was to carefully remove years of grime and some repairs made with epoxy and duct tape. It was not possible to restore the wood to pristine condition without causing damage to the wood and its patina. The wood had darkened with age, but in some cases stained, which unfortunately created a blotched appearance. The original fin, polished up beautifully as brass never grows old. Numerous structural braces had to be repaired.
One interesting addition, Joe Burk always carried an inexpensive pocket watch in the boat attached to the cross brace. Using this, he timed his performance, and probably calculated his stroke. Through the kindness of the daughter and son of Joe Burk, they supplied a stroke watch that belonged to him. With a curious inscription on the back. Finally, it was identified as having been given to him by his freshmen crew at Yale as he left to join Penn in 1950. A fitting addition, and it now is attached to the cross brace.
Though Joe Burk owned several shells throughout his career, all the evidence made it clear that this was the boat used in 1938 where he established the Henley course record which lasted for 27 years. Also, reviewing the numerous letters written to Pocock throughout the years (even in time of war), he never stopped thinking about ways to change the design to optimize a shell’s capabilities. Pocock adopted the successful “tear drop design” as one of his offerings for sale.
The restoration was completed by the middle of May of 2022, and ready for installation. When I returned in the fall, it was hung from the oak beams of the now renovated boathouse. On October 22, the boathouse was rededicated, and opened with a great assembly of former rowers, officials, and current Penn rowers – many of whom were coached by Joe Burk, and who saw him row this boat before practices on the Schuylkill River.
I can think of no other shell which was so tied to the rower in its design and use. Clearly, Joe Burk had developed a unique style of rowing and racing, not used since, and along with George Pocock built a boat to reflect that style. The often-stated quote by the English press at that time was “that he did everything wrong, but win”. He was a man of great modesty, who missed his chance at Olympic gold in 1940, but whose contributions to rowing created a legacy.
I have often said that after one works long enough on the work of a craftsman, you get into their head, and in a way they are there with you guiding you throughout. So, to Joe and George, thanks for honor. The word “legend” is often used without justification, in this case they both richly deserve that title.
Fabulous. What an amazing tale.
Wonderful restoration and research
Lovely article, thank you! I am old enough to remember wooden boats!!
What a wonderful story, well done Rick!!
This is a great story about great men who left their mark on this great sport