Skip to main content
Original Issue


Which crew is really No. 1? The Vespers thought they had answered the question in Tokyo, but Ratzeburg beat them two weeks ago at Henley and last week settled the matter in a furious row-off in Germany

Before the race Karl Adam, coach of the European championship Ratzeburg Rowing Club crew, did his best to pretend it was all in fun. "This race does not interest me," he said with studied offhandedness. "My crew has not had time to practice. They have been all over the country, working out in ones and twos. Until last night they had not even rowed together since Henley." But despite this effort to dash spray in their eyes, the spectators crowding the shore of the Küchensee near the little German town of Ratzeburg were not fooled. Even though the hastily arranged "rubber race" between Ratzeburg and the American Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia had no official status, all rowing fans knew that the crews considered it, de facto if not de jure, the rowing championship of the world. Vesper had stolen Ratzeburg's Olympic title away from it in Tokyo last October. Ratzeburg had revenged itself for the defeat nine months later by beating Vesper at Henley. Now the two crews stood all even, and everybody knew they were there at Ratzeburg to prove to themselves and each other, once and for all, which was the better.

Actually, though Vesper's patron, Philadelphia Brick Merchant Jack Kelly, was eager for the match, it was a retired Ratzeburg rower who got it going. A German newspaperman and former sculling champion, Karl-Heinrich von Groddeck, urged his paper's sports editor to persuade a friend in the German branch of the Gillette safety razor company to promote the race. Gillette responded with a silver cup and $2,000 in expense money, and the stage was set.

For crews as evenly matched as Vesper and Ratzeburg, it is the little things that make the difference, and both coaches exploited them—tactically and psychologically—from the moment the race was scheduled. The Vesper rowers, who were on vacation and hence had nothing else to do, arrived at the lake almost a week before the Germans, some of whom have jobs, This put Vesper one-up as far as practice was concerned, but there was a hitch. Vesper Coach Al Rosenberg had no launch to do his coaching from. Ratzeburg's Adam kindly offered Rosenberg his own boat, provided he (Adam) could go along to drive it—and take a good look at his rivals. Score one for Adam.

When the practice began, the Vespers made a habit of turning up at the boat-house in their Olympic sweat suits, in case the Germans might have forgotten who won the gold medal at Tokyo. Another leg up for Rosenberg. Adam, however, countered with a ploy of his own. When the Vespers were out practicing he followed them with a movie camera. All even. "These things don't bother the boys," said Rosenberg. "They just make them a little mad. There's a great feeling between us all. We're friendly guys. But only one of us can win."

As the race approached, the battle of nerves began to assume the tone of a TV shoot-out with the quiet German lake taking the place of a dusty drag in Dodge City. When the Ratzeburgers finally arrived in town, Vesper's Rosenberg spent the whole afternoon sitting at his hotel window, training a pair of high-powered binoculars on the lake in the hope of seeing his rivals at practice. After waiting in vain, he finally decided to give up and get some dinner. No sooner had he left his post than the Ratzeburg shell shot out from cover for a brisk workout.

The first oarsmen on the float the day of the race were the men of Ratzeburg. Their faces grim, they put their oars on the dock with the blades in water and the leathers resting on the edge, ready for greasing. A tiny little man wearing a funny white hat darted out of the crowd milling around the patch of lawn at the water's edge, found a can of grease under an onlooker's foot and went to work on the oars. He was Berthold Mainka, the Ratzeburg cox. The curious crowd pressed so close that Mainka almost got pushed into the lake.

A few minutes later the Vespers appeared, wending their way past rowing club members who were quaffing their beers in the shade of the clubhouse veranda. The Vespers looked as grim as the Ratzeburgers, but there was a question whether their stern faces reflected the earnestness of the battle ahead or just plain hunger. The race was scheduled for late in the day, and Coach Rosenberg had allowed his men only one meal. His theory is that a hungry oarsman is a faster oarsman.

Vesper carried out its oars and greased them, then the crowd was parted by the police as the German crew marched its shell down to the water. A minute later the Vespers shucked their sweat shirts, blazoned with "Kelly for Brickwork" in honor of their sponsor, and followed suit.

"Make good luck!" said a rotund Ratzeburg official to Rosenberg, stepping heavily into a launch and leaving the Vesper coach on shore to wonder how and if he was going to get to see his crew row. None of the Germans had thought to offer Rosenberg a place on the launch. A Vesperman with German connections finally got him a place in a private boat and they all headed out across the lake to the starting line some 2,000 meters away. A loudspeaker blared martial music with Germanic efficiency at the lakeside.

The music gave way to a series of rapid-fire gutturals from the race announcer as the shells laboriously backed and filled themselves into position for the start. Then the starting gun boomed, 16 blades dug into the water, 16 shafts bent, 16 backs bulged with muscle, 32 legs straightened and two coxswains roared. The race was on, but as far as Vesper was concerned it was as good as over. "They won the race in the first 40 strokes," said Vesper Stroke Bill Stowe sometime later. "It was just like Henley."

Just as at the English race a week before, the incredibly powerful German crew had caught the Philadelphians off guard at the start and moved out at a quick, hard 50 strokes a minute to establish a lead of nearly a length. Straining to regain the lost distance, Vesper settled down to a long stern chase, their red-and-white blades churning at 38 to 39 strokes a minute. Vesper's prerace plan had called for a spurt near the halfway mark, and Vesper did indeed begin to catch up at that point. But the plan had not called for giving so much away to the Germans at the start and, as Vesper applied extra pressure to make it up, one of its oars caught something very close to a crab. "We used it all up by the middle of the race," said Stowe.

"Vesper was a little bit ahead of us at 1,700 meters," said the Ratzeburger's Klaus Behrens, "but then we came on again." If this was true, the Vespers didn't know it; as far as they were concerned, Ratzeburg never stopped coming on. The Philadelphians held on heroically, but Ratzeburg was still pulling strongly and crossed the finish line at a steady 40 strokes a minute, a few critical, but nonetheless decisive, inches (and exactly one second) ahead. Because of the closeness of the race and the angle of the finish line, few ashore knew who had won. But when the German victory was announced over the loudspeaker, someone on the shore suddenly yelled:

"Sieg Heil!"

"Heil!" roared the crowd in response.

"Sieg Heil!"

"Heil!" shrieked the crowd.

"Sieg Heil!"


"Heil" is not exactly what Bill Stowe said when the race was over. "We're going home to practice nothing but starts," said the Vesper stroke. "Then if we can raise the dough to come back over here for the European championships we'll take 'em on again."


The exhausted Ratzeburgers (foreground) sweep over the line one second ahead of the Vespers.