Crafting custom-made oars in a cow barn
Morrisville, Vt. — Fourteen-foot-long handmade ovens hug the north wall. Parts from an old farm machine that once blew corn into the silo have been reconstructed into a wrapping machine.
A disassembled swing set serves as a sawing stand, the honeycombed plastic seats storing nuts and bolts.
What does all this hand-assembled, recycled gadgetry add up to? A makeshift factory producing racing oars for Olympic rowing boats - tucked amid the farm-dappled hills of rural Vermont.
Up Route 100, sandwiched between the stylish resort town of Stowe and the farm community of Morrisville, Concept II is the brainchild of brothers Peter and Dick Dreissigacker. In a renovated barn shared with four cows, the brothers have been spewing out custom-made oars since the summer of 1977.
''We've supplied the US teams for the world championships for the last five years,'' says Peter as he circles the former hayloft, now cluttered with dozens of oars.
This year, notes this athletic, younger brother of the two, ''is a big year.'' Indeed, the work crew of 12, including Peter's wife, Bari, has worked overtime constructing the technologically advanced, synthetic oars for this summer's Olympics.
Harry Parker, men's national sculling coach for the Olympics and men's varsity rowing coach at Harvard University, says the United States Olympic rowing team will use Dreissigacker oars this year because they are lighter, more durable, and less prone to damage.
''There are some good wooden blades we could buy,'' he says, ''but another advantage is their uniformity. When you put a set together with a crew, you have better equipment.''
The US rowing teams will probably use the oars in all 14 of the Olympic rowing events to be held Aug. 4 and 5. In the two rowing categories (sweep rowing and sculling), different oar lengths will be used: Sweep rowing (where each rower uses only one oar) requires oars that are 121/2 feet long, while sculling requires two 91/2-foot oars per person.
The only oar factory of its kind in the United States, Concept II has also supplied Olympic oars to such countries as China, East Germany, Japan, and New Zealand.
Yet it was far from the Vermont homestead that the first Dreissigacker oar came to roost. In 1976 the two brothers, both engineering graduates and former rowing partners (Dick crewed in the 1972 Munich Olympics), began their pursuit of the perfect oar in an apartment kitchen in Palo Alto, Calif. Their tinkering resulted in a synthetic prototype that may well presage the extinction of the wooden oar.
Today, the factory produces these oars in a three-day process. A tapered aluminum form is coated with a release agent, resin, and a graphite/glass substance, then wrapped with tape. This shaft is then placed in an oven, where the material shrinks as the resin cures from the heat and becomes hard. Finally, the exterior tape is removed.
The blades are cut and trimmed from a fiber-glass-and-graphite mold, says Peter, then buffed and sprayed with a primer at a body shop in Morrisville. He says the turned basswood handles ''are made by a fellow who lives in Morrisville whose dad was the last person to farm this farm.'' Inspection includes immersing the oars in water to check for leaks.
The final product is a light custom oar that allows rowers to cut wind resistance by about 35 percent, the brothers say. That is just one of many advancements.
''Before these,'' Peter explains, nodding at racks of seemingly homologous oars on the wall, ''all oars were made out of wood and were similar to a wooden ski - there's a lot of lamination and it's a very beautiful thing, but a very complex process.''
Because wooden oars were hollow and shaped from a box of wood, he says, it was a time-consuming process to make them. Yet the Dreissigacker oar not only cuts this production time, but is more durable than a wooden oar.
''When skis were made out of wood,'' Peter says, ''a pair of skis would last a racer maybe a season. When oars were wood, the top teams would retire oars every year, because they would start losing their rigidity.''
Yet in the period of five years the brothers have tested their oars, the synthetic material has not deteriorated at all, he says.
Kathryn Reith, who as director of communications for the United States Rowing Association will cover the Olympic rowing events for Rowing USA magazine, says Concept II is now pretty much the standard oar in the United States for top rowers.
''Because of the construction and the materials, they're much more durable than wooden oars,'' she explains.
''I have a set of wood oars and I'm getting ready to buy a pair of Concept IIs. With wooden oars, every year you need to revarnish them, and you get nicks in them, particularly at the end of the oars when you're shoving off from the dock or if you hit something,'' she says.
Yet Ms. Reith isn't convinced synthetic oars make much difference in the performance of rowers. And there are minor drawbacks to the oars, she avers.
''It's a little bit harder to balance when you've got a lighter oar, because you're using your oars to balance yourself much as a tightrope (walker) uses a pole. . . .'' That, she says, requires a more experienced rower.
But after their kitchen experiments, the brothers were so certain of the superiority of their product that they decided to attempt small-scale production. Little did they realize their venture would boom into a profitmaking business.
''We started making (Dreissigacker oars) with the idea that they'd be the real high-end oar, with super materials and super length and super everything,'' says Peter.
''Turned out that when we got through, they were cheaper than what people could buy from overseas, were 20 percent lighter, and more durable.''
Today Concept II vies for overseas business with a few European companies that produce their own version of the synthetic oar. Yet as crewing has increased in popularity over the years (the US Rowing Association has doubled its membership since 1979), Concept II has amply padded its sales with requests from colleges and high schools - so much so that this year the business is expected to exceed last year's ballpark production figure of 2,000.
But why the pilgrimage from California to set up shop in the farmland mecca of Vermont?
In addition to the New England appeal, ''old farms were available inexpensively,'' Peter explains. ''The size of these barns is very cheap in terms of square footage, and we could renovate it. . . .''
To the Dreissigackers, renovation means limitless potential. Dick and a friend who will participate in this year's Olympic rowing events are renovating the old grain silo into a five-story house with a circular staircase. Along with a panoramic view of Vermont, the top floor serves as an exercise room - complete with a rowing machine connected to a computer that paces rowing speeds via miniature crew boats.
And the five-story climb? These athletes say they don't mind it a bit.