Dad Vail: Vespoli craft rule the rivers

From the Philadelphia Inquirer
By Ira Josephs
Inquirer Suburban Staff

In the old days, Mike Vespoli lived in an attic overlooking the banks of the Schuylkill. These days, he wakes up every morning in a cozy home in the historic New England town of Guilford, Conn.

In the old days, Vespoli tooled along Kelly Drive in a Volkswagen bug, no comfy feat for the 6-foot-5 former math teacher and crew coach.

When he arrives tomorrow at the edge of the river just north of Boathouse Row to watch the 67th Dad Vail Regatta, Vespoli will have plenty of leg room in his SUV.

As a college coach, Vespoli lived on a grand total of about $4,000 a year. Today, well, put it this way: If you don't know Vespoli boats, you don't know rowing.

Mike Vespoli is as unassuming as his boats are dynamic. Vespoli boats - the gems of the multimillion-dollar company that bears his name - are the fastest ride in competitive rowing.

"We've won 19 Dad Vail [championships], and I think we've won 18 in Vespoli boats," said Gavin White, the veteran Temple crew coach. "I wouldn't row any other boat."

His boats are made from "aerospace materials" - carbon fiber and honeycomb (a paper-like nylon derivative) held together by epoxy adhesive - that comprise a hull similar to those of sailboats in that they minimize drag. Vespoli sells about 500 boats a year.

That's about half of the total sales in the country, according to a competitor, at prices that range from $5,300 for a single shell to $28,900 for a luxury model eight.

At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Great Britain rowed to a gold medal in the men's heavyweight eight and Australia to a silver in Vespoli boats. In the last 25 Dad Vails, 24 men's heavyweight eight winners rowed Vespoli boats.

"He was one of the first to go with the plastic construction techniques," said J.B. Kelly III, president of the Vesper Boat Club. "He was a great oarsman himself and one of the leaders of the sport."

Vespoli's business philosophy is simple: Build boats that everyone can buy, from the richest rowing club to the smallest high school.

"He's a very aggressive competitor," said William Tytus, the president of Pocock Racing Shells in Everett, Wash.

In November, Vespoli USA, which is based in New Haven, Conn., and employs about 50, will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Vespoli, 58, was a rower long before he became an entrepreneur. A "grade B" basketball player by his own account growing up in Orange, Conn., Vespoli was urged to try rowing when he attended Georgetown University in the 1960s.

He was a member of Georgetown men's heavyweight eight that won the 1968 Dad Vail championship, and Vespoli, like thousands before and after him, fell in love with the Schuylkill and the Dad Vail.

"People would identify me as a Philadelphia guy," Vespoli said. "The Dad Vail has been a significant thread in my life since I was 17.

"The Dad Vail is as significant to Philadelphia as the Mummers Parade."

After Vespoli graduated in 1968, Father Anthony Zeits, the moderator of the crew program at Georgetown, left to become president at St. Joseph's Prep and offered Vespoli a job teaching math and coaching crew.

Vespoli moved into the Vesper Club attic and began training under coaches Allan Rosenberg and Dietrich Rose. On most days, he trained in the morning, taught five math classes at St. Joe's Prep, and coached the school's crew in the afternoon. His days usually ended with an evening workout.

The work was rewarded. Vespoli won the first of several national championships in 1969 with the Vesper coxless four, placed fifth in the coxed four at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, won a world championship in 1974, and was named an Olympic coach in 1980.

After four years, Vespoli left Philadelphia in 1972 to coach crew and attend the University of Massachusetts on a fellowship. He wanted to become a school principal.

He hooked on as the freshman coach at Yale, and it was during a trip to Henley in 1977 that Vespoli saw the forefather of the shell that changed his life.

The British firm, Carbocraft, was building shells that sandwiched honeycomb between composite fibers.

"I saw a very advanced shell, realizing, in America at the time, we were rowing in either traditionally built wooden shells or a wooden shell frame with fiberglass skin over it," Vespoli said.

So Vespoli persuaded Yale head coach Tony Johnson to buy a Carbocraft boat, which the heavyweight eight used to win the prestigious Eastern Sprints crown in 1978.

Not long afterward, Vespoli became a Carbocraft agent, importing the boats to the United States. Then he had an idea.

Vespoli paid a licensing fee for Carbocraft's technology and molds and began taking orders. He started out making 12 boats a year. That's a good week these days.

"His self-confidence helped him deal with the risk," said Vespoli's wife, Nancy. "He's very outgoing and not afraid to speak his mind."

Vespoli, who has been married to Nancy for 26 years - their daughter, Lauren, is 13 - now golfs more than he rows. But his eye is still on the future.

"I'm not looking at it in the perspective of what I've done but what I'm going to do to set the company up to benefit rowing for the next 25 years," Vespoli said. "What makes it extremely special is it's in the sport I love.

"It's rowing."

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