Andy Hay pens a tribute to the colour, characters and some of the centrepieces of the 1978 World Rowing Championships.
“Believe me my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Ratty to Mole from ‘The Wind in the Willows’.
This is a story about boats. Boats that came by ship or plane, were freighted in on containers and crates, towed out of Karapiro by car, truck or dusty Holden ute and became the locomotives for generations of Kiwi rowers.
Sorry, that’s the best I could come up with to get an allusion to rail into the line.
The reference to rail is important because this is a story for train spotters who also love boats.
And like any story for train-spotters, this one also partly takes place in a big shed.
But let’s start quickly with the man who got the trains running in the first place.
Don Rowlands was a great dealmaker. He’d been chasing the dream of hosting the World Championships at Karapiro for a long time and got official discussions going in 1973 with the head of World Rowing (FISA back then).
After five years of lobbying, delegations to Europe, pitches to anyone with influence, New Zealand welcomed 27 other rowing nations and their fleets of A-list boats to the first world champs regatta ever held outside the Northern Hemisphere.
It was a big deal however you measure it; whether it be the number of Kiwis who turned up to watch world class racing, or the number of special edition Leopard lager cans they sold in that toweling-hat beginning to summer in November 1978.
But one of the biggest deals was that as a condition of being awarded the championships, Rowlands and his tight-knit organising committee agreed to buy the guest nations’ boats at 80% of their factory price.
The boats would stay in New Zealand and be on-sold. Rowlands and co forked out $390,801 for them. (Almost $3m in today’s money).
Around 150 boats would be made available to the New Zealand rowing community.
Most were pre-purchased through a points system that rewarded clubs and schools who’d bought a certain number of boats from local manufacturers in previous years.
Waikato Rowing Club bought up large. Star and Te Awamutu picked up a lot of the beautifully crafted wooden women’s boats, some rowers and coaches dug deep into their own pockets to buy one, and the clamour for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity led to what one rower called the worst demonstration of sportsmanship he’d ever seen.
When the dust settled our club, school and international rowing soared to a new level, our boatbuilding industry got a big shot in the arm and to this day there’s hardly a rower in New Zealand who hasn’t directly benefitted from those boats of nearly 50 years ago.
There's a moment that perfectly captures the spirit of the championships and New Zealand at the time.
Think Sir Richard Hadlee launching for the crease on a blazing summer’s day at the Basin Reserve, Dick Tayler winning the 10,000m on the opening day of the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, arms flailing like he’s about to take off and that ridiculously infectious look of joy on his face, matched only by Cambridge-born Jaynie Parkhouse’s captivating smile after winning gold in the 800m freestyle a day later. At Karapiro in ‘78 it was the group of local swimmers who paddled out to offer a couple of cold beers to the East German (DDR) crew after they won the Men’s Eight on the final day of the regatta.
There’s a mystique about the DDR and in 1978 their crews were the benchmark for international rowing performance (performance-enhanced notwithstanding). They won 8 of the 14 golds on offer in ‘78 and nothing signified that dominance more than their red BBG eight crossing the line first over West Germany and New Zealand.
The Rowlands deal meant that for the first time, the DDR’s rarely seen plastic and timber composite boats would be left on foreign soil. Waikato bagged the men’s eight and it was to become the flagship of their rowing dominance for the next two decades.
Chris White was finishing his final year at Gisborne Boys’ High School in ‘78 when he made the long haul to join the massive crowds along the bank at Karapiro Domain.
“I was trying to find a decent seat underneath the grandstand...dodging beer cans. Me and my mates had come up for the day.”
Between ducking for cover he did get to see the red eight come down the course.
“Little did I know that a year or two later I’d be sitting in it, which is still surprising to me now,” he says.
It was the beginning of an incredible run of 11 successive Red Coats in the Red Eight for Chris White.
“One of the things I liked about the red boat, it weighed a ton, we weighed it one time, it was 120kgs plus. It was heavy, but it was big, so there was plenty of room for everyone to thrash around.”
It had been designed especially for Karapiro by the Godfather of boat design, Klaus Filter.
He’d been messing about with boats since the 1940s and was East Germany’s principal designer through their golden period.
Filter made a special trip to New Zealand before the ‘78 champs to see for himself what conditions were like at Karapiro, and discovered what we all know. The side chop on the course can be brutal.
So he went home and designed the East German boats for 1978 with extra high gunnels and cranked the seats and foot stretchers up off the floor as well.
It had an imposing presence whether you were in it or chasing it.
“I think it became a psychological thing,” says Chris. “Not only for us, but for the guys trying to race us and probably for no good reason other than it was an Eastie boat, and it had won in 1978, and sometimes those things grow legs that they don't deserve.”
The boat had other apparent attributes for those notoriously fast and aggressive-starting Waikato crews.
“Harry [Mahon] told us that he thought the wake that came off it was significant. I don't know whether that's true or not. I guess if it's got a big wake well that's not a particularly efficient boat. But if we could get a length, we were thinking you start washing the other crew. Did it actually mean anything? Probably not. Was it fun to think about? Of course. Any advantage you could get, you would take.”
“It was built strong,” says Mark James, who stroked the Kiwi eight in ‘78 that year but like Chris White, sat in Big Red during his career at Waikato.
“You could see it had been built by a person who said, ‘Right, we need a big strong piece of wood here, we need a bit of doweling along the top, we need a good strong knee there, and we need glue between it’, and when they glued the joins, the glue squeezed out of the joint and it was still there. And then they slapped some varnish over it.”
The lustre remained for a long time. From 1981-1996 Waikato won 16 consecutive titles in Big Red.
As Mark says: “The [DDR] boats were just robust, they were strong and reliable, and like Big Red, took a beating.”
But very rarely got beaten.
Big Red’s just a memory now, Chris White hates the thought that it got cut up after he’d finished at Waikato. But a key thing survived.
And that’s because Auckland Grammar coach Colin Cordes used his own money to buy the other red DDR boat, the women’s boat which won silver and, despite the long-held belief of many, had the same hull as the men’s boat.
Bob Rout was an apprentice boat builder to Alan Turner at Croker in Cambridge in ‘78. He was also a novice rower. So he was busy to say the least in the build-up to and during the champs - by day he helped with repairs, rigging and setting up all those boats, and by night he and the other Cambridge rowers were running the public bar as a fundraiser for the club. In fact, there was absolutely no getting away from the rowers because the New Zealand squad was also staying at his parents’ Valmai Motel in Cambridge.
It couldn’t have been a better introduction to the sport for the man who went on to build around 2000 boats under the Kiwi International Rowing Skiffs banner.
Rout’s first memory of the Empacher coxed four that was to become a central part of this story still leaves him shaking his head in disbelief.
“I remember seeing that arrive. It was shipped in for the US crew. When the box was opened at Karapiro it was in two pieces. It was almost as if the stevedore just took a bloody hacksaw to the boat, chucked it in the box and nailed it shut. So Malk Bergen [from Stampfli], myself and my boss Alan Turner glued it back together.”
The see-through hull of the Doc Dardik Empacher in 1978. That’s Phil Stekl in two seat with Chip Lubsen in the bow and Bob Jaugstetter coxing.
The restored Doc Dardik, with its transparent honeycomb hull, helped the Americans to fourth in the A Final at Karapiro.
That piece of surgery was a surprise to Phil Stekl, the two seat of that American crew, when I tracked him down to his home in Seeboden, Austria.
“No!!!!, [I had] absolutely no idea. Absolutely no idea. The first time we saw it...was at the venue.”
The Dardik was definitely an upgrade on anything he’d rowed before.
“I mean, it wasn't brand new, but it was stiffer than anything that I had remembered. I mean most of my early career we didn't row in good boats. We weren't rowing in Empachers, [that’s] for sure. And so to get a boat like this was pretty special.”
And while they were disappointed to just miss a bronze medal in their “fly and die” race for the line, 1978 will always be a defining year in Phil’s life: his first national squad, his first world champs, his first time out of the States, and while waiting for a shuttle bus with his crew that November at Karapiro, he met an Austrian double sculler who would later become his wife.
The Doc Dardik ended up in the hands of the North Shore Rowing Club, who were just emerging as serious Boss Rooster contenders.
3rd in ‘79, 2nd in 80 and 81.
Bob opened his own business not long after those nationals in 81. His first mould came off the Doc Dardik, borrowed from North Shore in exchange for them getting his first hull. The North Shore boys fitted it out and built their own riggers for the upcoming season.
The 1982 National Championships were at Lake Waihola and North Shore finally cracked the Boss Rooster in Bob Rout’s Empacher-shape KIRS.
Like Phil Stekl, the ‘78 world champs would be pivotal for Bob as well.
“It definitely had a big influence on my life because on the 1st of May, 1981, I started in business. And I was only 20 years of age. And within a year I'd won the Boss Rooster and the Springbok Shield.”
The revolution was underway.
It’s time to take you inside that shed I mentioned. The shed that housed some of the locomotives.
You see not all those overseas boats sold immediately via Rowlands’ pre-purchase points system. Months later there was an auction. I tried to track down a catalogue. Bob Rout reckons he had a copy marked with all the sale prices and it’s tucked away in a Manilla folder in a filing cabinet at Laszlo Boats.
Luckily, one of Don Rowlands’ lieutenants, Cyril Hilliard, put it in his ‘Narrative of the 1978 World Rowing Championships’.
“Finally, all the boats purchased by the Organising Committee [excluding those already taken away] had to be de-rigged, labelled and transported to Auckland to be sold by auction [in the old Panmure Youth Centre building]. What was left comprised 2 eight oared skiffs, 2 coxed fours, 1 coxswainless four, 2 coxed pair oars, 8 coxless pair oars, 4 quadruple sculling boats, coxed, 5 coxless quadruple sculling boats, 10 double sculling boats and 6 single sculling boats, a total of 41.”
One of those eights was a bow-coxed Empacher snapped up by Hawke’s Bay. Former rower Cedric Bayly reckons they bought it for about $7,000.
It might just be the best $7k the club ever spent. Their lightweight eight won five successive national titles between 1978-82.
Cedric was either five or seven seat for the entire reign. They won in a wooden Litecraft in ‘78 and ‘79 but the dynamic went off the dial when they hopped in the old West German boat for ‘80, ‘81 and ‘82.
“We just knew that when we stepped into that boat you had to do things right," says Cedric. "You could feel everything. You could feel what was going well because of the speed of the boat and the run and the bubbles and that sort of thing. The wooden boats used to sort of be a bit dull, if you like, because the wood would absorb the feel of the boat at times.”
And like Big Red up at Waikato it gave its crew that sense of invincibility.
NOW AND THEN: Nearly 50 years on and still going strong. Hawke's Bay's cherished Empacher gets a row with some of the club's current athletes. The club's invincible lightweight eight in 1980 after winning the title at Horowhenua, with Cedric Bayly in five seat.
“It was like jumping into a race car. It just cut through any wash or waves or whatever. I think it displaced the water well around the bow and back along the canvas. It didn't just cut at the bow so you actually got quite a smooth ride.”
It’s been fun tracking down some of these old boats and the crews that rowed them. The conversations have been long and eaten into the days over the holiday break. Inevitably it comes to the big question.
“Hey Cedric, is the boat still there?”
After nearly half a century?
I hold my breath for the answer.
“Yeah, it's still a very slippery boat, you know. It always goes through the water well. I guess the important thing is that it's almost 50 years old and it's still helping younglings.”
I feel like jumping in the car and driving the five hours to Napier just to see it.
Getting on the trail of one boat was a train-spotter's dream. It was like searching for the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
At the height of the rivalry for the Boss Rooster, the East German men's coxed four would become the jewel in the crown from the ‘78 sale.
Waikato got some incredible boats, but they didn’t get this one. They were beaten to the punch by Gisborne Rowing Club, who paid $5,000 for it.
It attracted a big crowd when it arrived at Anzac Park on the Waimata River not long after the champs. The Gisborne Herald sent out a reporter for a story headlined “Rowers pleased with ‘golden’ shell”, with coach Murray Whittaker saying, “it was the most sought after one at the championships.”
Murray knew they’d landed something special. “This is probably the most technically advanced coxed four shell in the world. The East Germans spare no money when they go into research,” he told the Herald.
The caption beneath the picture of the boat on dumps said: “ALL we need now is the crew....”
Well, it got a crew alright, a unique bunch of “country boys” for a unique boat.
Peter Clark (str), Peter Scammell (3), Peter Godwin (2), Peter Johnson (bow), Barry Swarbrick (cox).
The Four Petes.
The Four Petes head out for a race at Lake Karapiro in the boat everyone admired from the 1978 World Champs.
Peter Clark’s in Blenheim these days and we get together on the phone but quickly work out we’ll have to talk via text or email. He’s just had a tracheotomy and is nil by mouth, after first being diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2002.
But as he says in one exchange: “I’m still here. Which confounds a few doctors 3 different cancers later.”
Clark and Johnson had been in the New Zealand Colts for two years, Scammell and Godwin also making an age-group boat under Peter Irvine in Whanganui.
Peter Clark says they were serious podium contenders in the Boss Rooster once they learned to row that red BBG.
“I have to admit we were all over the place for the first few rows with balance. Much lighter and more lively than the old wooden boats.”
He thinks their best ever race was when they just “took off’’ against, as he remembers it, a highly-fancied Petone crew to win their heat for the Boss Rooster at Lake Horowhenua in 1980.
Could it have been their year? We’ll never know because they had to withdraw from the final because of illness, Peter having to go to hospital suffering from Hepatitis A. The title was won by Waikato. Which, as you’re about to find out, had quite an edge to it all.
The East Germans had two winning coxed fours at Karapiro in ‘78. The women winning their 1000m final in 3.48.47, nearly 4 seconds up on the United States.
Two beautiful red boats, two gold-medal winning boats. Gisborne getting the bigger men’s boat, Waikato somewhat disappointed at getting the smaller women’s boat.
Possibly hard to tell apart when it came to collection day.
Clark says he’s never received an apology for what happened next.
He remembers arriving with the Gisborne trailer to pick up their boat only to see a Waikato crew down at the dock preparing to row it back to their shed at Flynn Cove, the women’s four on the rack.
I suggested it could have been a case of mistaken identity.
100% not. The men’s boat was standard rigged, the women’s boat tandem. Easily and clearly identifiable.
“We rushed down and said they had the wrong boat. They disputed it and it turned a bit nasty with name calling and threats... a member of Waikato said possession is 9/10 of the law so a Gisborne club member punched him... They were trying to bully us and we weren’t going to give up so a couple of us just picked the boat [up] and walked off with it and tied it onto our trailer while the arguing continued.
“It was a horrible thing that should never happen. It was not just a bit of mistaken identity it was theft...One of the worst bits of sportsmanship I ever have seen.”
If you put Viv Haar’s voice through an AI transcribing app you get this scattered through your return word document.
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”
Verbatim, seriously. But a good way to bring a laugh back into the story.
Viv was in the New Zealand Men’s Coxless Pair in ‘78 but was also one of three local boatbuilders Rowlands needed agreement from to execute his plan to buy all the boats and on-sell them.
There were obvious downsides if you’re trying to keep a business going in a market flooded by a whole lot of state-of-the-art boats from overseas going for great prices.
But there was also an upside.
Viv calls it ‘flopping’ boats: getting a mould off a boat and reproducing the shape and fit-out, just like Bob Rout would go on to do hundreds and hundreds of times. And then there was the refurbishing all those Empachers, BBGs, Stampflis, Kaschpers and Donaraticos would eventually need.
Viv flopped plenty of those shapes, Bob Rout did too. As well as the Doc Dardik, he got Auckland Grammar’s DDR women’s eight, and Hawke’s Bay’s West German Empacher. He got the East German coxless pair rowed by Bernd and Jorg Landvoight, the famous twins, who between 1974 and 1980 lost only one of their 180 races together.
The Doc Dardik mould was the shape for all Bob’s coxed fours until 1991.
His pair and double shapes continued through to 1996.
His East German eight went all the way to 1998, and his Empacher shape got all the way through to 96.
So, if you rowed in any of those KIRs boats there’s a bit of ‘78 in all of them.
The final search
Plenty of people knew strands of the story about the attempted heist but only one person knew what eventually happened to the men’s boat.
Peter Clark thought it had ended up in Blenheim at the Wairau Rowing Club.
I got hold of Mark James, the man who stroked the Kiwi eight against Big Red all those years ago. He was getting off the water from a training row.
Yep, Wairau bought it off Gisborne with plans to mount a serious Boss Rooster campaign years ago.
It never eventuated. It stayed on the rack unused and Mark hoped Marlborough Boys College might row it when they came onboard. But that never happened either.
Space was tight these days, Andy.
I was holding my breath, hoping.
We burned it last month mate.
I nearly cried.
A Personal Footnote
One of the first boats Bob Rout built when he was at Croker was a new senior eight for Westlake in 1978. It was called the Eric Craies in honour of the man whose influence is still huge in New Zealand rowing. Just ask Malcolm McIntyre, who’s co-coaching the Men’s Coxless Four for this year’s Olympics.
I steered the Craies for three years before joining North Shore and jumping into the Doc Dardik. I would describe it as “industrial” with all that aluminium in it. But definitely a fast boat. At Nationals in 1982, I was also given dispensation to cox Waikato's Chris White and Andrew Stevenson in their green DDR 2+. Incredible boat and I learned the value of knowing when and when not to talk. It was my first Red Coat. By August of that year, I was sitting in a new generation Empacher eight at Lucerne. ‘83 nationals, winning the Boss Rooster in that very fast Bob Rout coxed four. I’ve been lucky with boats.
The other day I got in the car early on a beautiful Auckland morning and in a slightly cringy way put Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ full bore on Spotify and headed to rowing training with a big smile on my face.
It might just be the best song ever. It reminds me of heading for Lake Casitas in the van with the radio blasting in the North American summer of 1984 with my crew and my coach.
And despite the disappointment of being just a couple of weeks late from saving that East German four, I dug up another treasure.
I'm now the proud guardian of an abandoned Stampfli eight from that life-changing '78 regatta.
I love this sport.
First image credit: Reg Buckingham Collection, Cambridge Museum
Author note: Please get in touch if you have any memories/info on the boats from the 1978 World Championships. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article has been crafted from research but also a number of interviews in which we are reliant on memory recollections from over 40 years ago. If there are any discrepancies please get in touch as we would love to correct anything that is incorrect/not accurate.
Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.