The Old Shell Game
February 27, 2003
© 2003, Ed C. Monahan

"Every boathouse should own a Hoover"

One of my Connecticut rowing acquaintances, Lance Johnson, owned a beautiful Garofalo racing single, and in the 1996-97 winter he, along with one or two others, drove up to Worcester, MA, to visit Joe Garofalo and discuss the possibility of getting some repairs made on this shell. While there, the semi-retired boat builder sold one of these visitors a somewhat strange looking, narrow, old rowing boat made out of plywood. This boat was reputed to have been made along the lines of an earlier such rowing boat made by Walter M. Hoover, an internationally acclaimed rower who in the 1920ís won four national sculling titles (one "senior" and three "elite") of the then National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (the NAAO), and in 1922 won the Diamonds Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta on the Thames.

Upon returning to Connecticut they reported that Mr. Garofalo had in his rafters another Hoover of the same design, but this one made of solid cherry planking. It was suggested that this plank version might be the original one built by Mr. Hoover, presumably in the 1930ís. In spite of being made of 1/2" planking, this racing boat had a beam of slightly less than 11". Perhaps the most unusual feature, given that most shells have hulls that are semi-circular in cross-section, is that cross-sections through this boat, anywhere along the aft half of itís 25í1" length, could each be described as a true rectangle, while cross-sections forward of the splash-box are slightly trapezoidal in form, with their tops being of slightly greater width than their bottoms. But while the bottom of any such cross-section was a horizontal line, from fore-to-aft the bottom showed a marked camber, with the greatest draft just forward of amid-ships. But even here, assuming that the deck is awash, i.e. that the boat has no freeboard, it only draws 6"!

Walter Hoover's Box Boat plans - B. Miller

I was intrigued enough to call Mr. Garofalo, and when he offered to sell me this old boat for the same price he had sold Lance the plywood one, I bought it sight unseen. So in early June of 1997 I, and my always-to-be-counted-upon doubles partner, Jack Sauer, made the slightly-over-an-hour drive to Worcester, and I picked up "my" Hoover. It had been modified somewhere along the line before I got my hands on it Ė certainly the plank now supporting the sliding seat tracks raised them, and the seat, further above the water then in the original configuration. But the old riggers, which positioned the oarlocks barely 58" apart compared to the modern span of 62" or 63", appeared to be original, and the fore and aft decking, which turned out to be reversed and painted oilcloth, certainly seemed vintage!

For this boat transport venture, I ended up turning my sturdy wooden boat rack up-side down across the Thule cross-members, as certainly the hollows on the "tops" of the plywood forms would not provide a good fit with this hull, given its essentially square cross-section. And, truth be known, I might have been able to strap this Hoover racing boat directly onto the two Thule cross-members, given the strength and rigidity apparent in this old boatís construction.

I was naturally anxious to try out this vintage watercraft, and I quickly determined that, as the reader might have inferred from its dimensions, it had been intended from a rower considerably lighter than my 190+ pounds. When I was at the catch, water would roll up the afterdeck to the rear of the splashbox!

Fortunately I had a colleague at work who had rowed in college as a lightweight, and Phil still was quite trim. At my urging, he took this boat for a trial on a nearby lake, where he, as all of us who have rowed this boat, had some trouble dealing with the marked overlap of his hands resulting from the use of oars with typical modern inboard in the relatively closely spaced oarlocks. Then, with no further practice in this 60 or 70 year old boat, he good naturedly agreed to row it in a masters singles event at a regatta on the Seekonk in Providence, RI, in the Spring of 1998. Given that this Hoover "Box Boat" weighed all of 75 pounds, given its other idiosyncrasies, and given that Philís late entry could only be accommodated if he rowed down one class, it is not surprising that he did not manage to win his 1000 meter sprint. But it seemed to me fitting that my colleague Phil, who had competed at Henley half-a-century after Hoover, got to row the "Box Boat" on what we expect will be its last competitive outing.

In the fall of that same year I carried the Hoover "Box Boat" , along with another single, on the pipe rack on my pick-up truck up to Saratoga Springs where I was to row in several events in the Head of the Fish Regatta. I did not attempt to race the Hoover, but rather I entered it in the "Vintage Rowing Concours" put on that year by the host Saratoga Rowing Club, where it easily took first place in the "rowed" (probably it should have been called, "rowable") category. And while I received, along with the rest of the boat, a bronze medal for our 3rd place finish in the open quad event in that Head of the Fish regatta, I also received a brass plaque, mounted on a sardine can, for "winning" the "Concours"!

While I had repainted the old "oil cloth" decking of the Hoover before I entered it in the "Vintage Rowing Concours" in 1998, I re-decked it fore and aft with new "Oil Cloth" in January 2003, days before I presented it, with the encouragement of Hart Perry and the National Rowing Foundation, to the Mystic Seaport for their permanent collection of rowing materials. Walter Hoover, Jr., the son of the builder, was present at the Seaport on that occasion.

Editor's Note: The Friends of Rowing History, National Rowing Foundation and Mystic Seaport Museum wish to gratefully thank Mr. Monahan for his generous contribution of the Hoover Box-Boat to the rowing shell collection stored at Mystic Seaport.

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