Boat builder crafts shells for victory

Men’s lightweight coach Andy Card said his lightweight team still has several Vespoli crafts in its fleet.
Men’s lightweight coach Andy Card said his lightweight team still has several Vespoli crafts in its fleet. Photo by Stephen Dobeck.

When in 1978 the Yale crew won Eastern sprints for the first time in 25 years, other coaches attributed the Bulldogs’ victory to a “magic boat.”

Yale’s coach, Mike Vespoli, had recently traveled to England, where he encountered a new kind of crew shell — called a Carbocraft — that was significantly lighter than the traditional wooden boats. Realizing the competitive advantage the new boat could give his rowers, Vespoli, who coached Yale’s crew from 1977 to 1980, brought a Carbocraft shell back from England.

Workers in New Haven’s Vespoli factory lay fiberglass on the hull. Vespoli is a leading manufacturer of crew shells worldwide.
Workers in New Haven’s Vespoli factory lay fiberglass on the hull. Vespoli is a leading manufacturer of crew shells worldwide.

After Yale won the 1978 Eastern sprints in one of the boats, Vespoli said he saw the shell’s potential as a business opportunity. He worked for three years as a Carbocraft salesman and importer, but eventually realized it would be more efficient for him to open his own factory.

Enter Vespoli USA, Inc., the boat company Vespoli opened in Hamden, Conn., in 1980. The first U.S.-based manufacturer of the Carbocraft, which is made using adapted aerospace materials and building methods, Vespoli is one of the largest producers of crew shells in the country and the self-proclaimed No. 1 producer of crew boats in the world . As the company’s CEO and founder, Mike Vespoli has supplied elite national and collegiate crews, including Yale’s, with racing shells for more 30 years. The company produces between eight and 10 racing shells each week .

And Vespoli boats are the most common make among Ivy League women rowers, said Carolyn Nash ’11, captain of the women’s crew.

A Connecticut native who has rowed Vespoli boats for most of her racing career, Nash said a Vespoli boat “becomes part of your body in a way.” In fact, she said, her coaches often make fun of her and her teammates for being like “princesses with the pea” because they can detect even the slightest differences about the shells they are rowing.

Fairy tales or not, Vespoli’s business model appears to be working, despite an evolving crew boat market.

“What do you say after 30 years?” Vespoli said. “We’re just a good, stable, tax-paying company, and we’re bringing in money from all over the world into the community.”

Going with the flow

Vespoli got his start in rowing when he walked on to the crew at Georgetown in 1964. After a victory with the 1974 World Championship Eight and several coaching positions in the 1970s, including with the Yale men’s team, he decided to start his own company.

Although he was only able to produce 12 boats in the first year, with the help of his late father and a boat-builder from England named Peter Smith, Vespoli was able to get his company going.

In its early years, Vespoli said, the company survived because he and his staff were financially conservative and did not take on debt.

“From the beginning, if we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t do it,” Vespoli said.

When women’s teams sprung up across the country in the late ’80s, Vespoli said his was the first company to offer size-specific boats for male and female rowers.

Since then, Vespoli said, his boats have been a mainstay at boating competitions around the country and the world. Between 1997 and 2000, the U.S. Men’s eight won three consecutive World Championship gold’s in Vespoli boats, and Great Britain won its first gold medal in over 80 years, rowing in Vespolis at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. More recently, the Yale women’s crew has raced to three Varsity NCAA eight championships over the past four years in Vespoli shells.

Now, Vespoli said his hull designs are the most advanced in the world, especially because Manolo Ruiz DeElvira, the main designer of the 2003 America’s Cup winning boat, joined Vespoli as an engineer several years ago.

Changing tides

This year, Vespoli said, the company’s sales have come back to their historical level after declining in 2009 in large part because “Wall Street types” were not donating to school rowing programs. But despite its success with national teams, Vespoli said the company no longer courts as many high-profile crews as it used to.

After 2000, “it would have been the logical conclusion to continue doing what we were doing,” Vespoli said. “But it was actually hurting our business with smaller teams.”

Vespoli said small teams used to assume that boats made for world-class athletes were different from those required by less skilled rowers. As a result, smaller teams, which compose a larger market than the most elite rowing teams, were not purchasing Vespoli boats. Furthermore, elite national programs expected to receive their boats for free, Vespoli said, forcing his company to raise the prices of the boats it actually sold.

When Nash trained at the under-23 selection camp for the national team this past summer, for example, the racing shells were all made by Wintech, a smaller, newer company, she said.

Men’s lightweight coach Andy Card said that in recent years the Yale men’s lightweight and heavyweight crews have similarly shifted away from Vespoli boats in favor of the company’s newer competitors.

After intentionally transitioning out of providing boats free of charge for national programs, Vespoli said the company has been marketing itself aggressively to less prestigious high school and college programs and has found itself competing with cheaper, Chinese-made boats at the low end of the market, as well as more expensive German crafts on the upper end.

Now there are five major companies that produce racing shells, Card said. In addition to Vespoli, they are Rhode Island-based Resolute Racing Shells, Seattle-based Pocock Racing Shells, Ontario’s Hudson Boat Works, and Germany’s Empacher.

Although the Yale men’s teams for many years had rowed Vespoli boats, they switched to imports a few years ago after the Harvard crew began using them, Vespoli said.

“If you look around at the elite level, virtually all crews row in [shells made by Germany-based Empacher],” said Derek Johnson ’11, captain of the heavyweight team.

Card said his lightweight team still has several Vespoli crafts in its fleet, along with several Hudson boats and one made by Resolute Racing Shells, a company founded in 1994 by recently appointed heavyweight coach Steve Gladstone.

Card said that although coaches inherit fleets when they take up new positions, teams also test different makes and models. Since most boats cost between $25,000 and $35,000, buying one is a major investment for a crew program, so the decision is always carefully considered, he said.

Card said sales pitches about technological improvements and new designs rarely impress him. Fluid dynamics such as wetted surface area and waterline always come up with every manufacturer, he said, but he compared picking a boat to buying shoes: You need to try it on for fit.

But fundamentally, Card said, the boats should not play too big of a role in the sport.

“It’s the horses, not the chariot,” he said. “But it doesn’t hurt to have a nice looking chariot out there.”

Comments

  • Yalemom12

    Thank you for a most interesting article. As the mother of both a high school crew member and a Yale student, I was unaware that Vespoli has a production facility in New Haven or that the Vespoli name has a Yale connection – very cool!

  • Calgaryrower

    I love Vespoli boats. But I don’t agree with this quote: “It’s the horses, not the chariot.” It COULD be the chariot if FISA (governing body for rowing) would allow change. A generation ago, a few German rowers started crushing the competition with a fixed-seat, sliding-rigger boat design. Just like Vespoli did with Carbocraft vs. wooden shells…but FISA disallowed the fixed-seat boat design in competition.

    When Bill Koch started winning races with ski-skating…new ski designs were allowed and new events were added to competitions…
    When tennis players saw the difference large-headed rackets made, everyone switched…
    Technology can be a game changer and often makes the sport more interesting.