The man behind Seattle's boys in the boat
The old wooden rowing shell that hangs in the University of Washington crew team’s dining hall doesn’t look all that remarkable. You see boats like it in many nautical-themed restaurants.
But this particular wooden boat — the Husky Clipper — is special.
It carried nine UW athletes to an Olympic gold medal at the 1936 games in Berlin.
Daniel James Brown chronicled their come-from-behind victory in his bestseller “The Boys in the Boat.” But those boys were a UW legend long before Brown ever wrote his book.
“We honor the ’36 crew,” says UW head rowing coach Michael Callahan.
Every incoming freshman memorizes those rowers’ names and the story behind the boat that hangs above them at mealtimes. Photos and other memorabilia from the era are on display alongside the Husky Clipper. They’re tangible reminders of the Husky crew team’s long, proud history.
But just as important as the boys in the boat is the man who built the boat — George Pocock.
“When you say 'Pocock' here,” says Callahan, “it’s almost the spirit of the boathouse, the spirit of rowing. We would not be the same program without it.”
George Pocock and his brother Dick Pocock emigrated from England to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1911. They paid for the journey with money George Pocock won in a professional sculling race.
The brothers had learned the boat building trade from their father, who was the boatman at Eton College. After the brothers arrived in Vancouver, George found a job with the Vancouver Rowing Club.
Soon after, the Pococks started their own company. News of their skill quickly spread across the Northwest.
A year later, UW rowing coach Hiram Conibear traveled north to recruit the brothers to work for his fledgling Seattle program. Although Dick Pocock moved to Connecticut to build boats for Yale; George Pocock maintained a shop in the UW shell house, where he built the team’s boats and dispensed rowing advice to the athletes and their coaches.
“The boat builder was really part of the crew then,” explains Bill Tytus, the current owner of Pocock Racing Shells. “This was the boondocks, as far as rowing goes, and George had more experience than any of the [UW] coaches. He grew up with rowing.”
Back then, rowing was front-page news in Seattle. The 1936 Olympic victory had resonated across the city. When the crew team rowed by, kids ran down to the docks and cheered them on. Rowing was in the spotlight for most of the 20th century.
Tytus first met George Pocock more than 50 years ago. The boy was riding his bicycle through the area that’s now the UW’s Montlake parking lot. In those days it was the town dump.
“It was huge and vast,” Tytus laughs, “and it had these metal boxes, like portable barbecues with eternal flames to burn off the methane gas.”
One day Tytus rode his bike past the flames to a building on the shores of Portage Bay. He peeked inside and fell in love.
“It was all these old guys, working away. I put one foot in, nobody yelled. You put two feet in, and pretty soon somebody will talk to you.”
That somebody was “a marvelous old man with a lilting English accent”: George Pocock.
Tytus started to hang around Pocock’s shop most weekends. At that time, the company’s boats were hand-crafted from Western red cedar. Tytus says the professionals never let him touch the wood, although he did build brass oarlocks one summer.
After Pocock died in 1976, his son Stan took over the business. By then, most racing shell manufacturers had switched from wood to fiberglass. That’s what many customers wanted. But Stan Pocock was slow to make the change.
By 1985, discouraged by the company's plummeting sales, Stan Pocock planned to close down Pocock Racing Shells.
That’s when Tytus stepped in with an offer to buy the company. To him, George Pocock was a rowing icon, and his company an institution.
“He [Stan] was going to shut the doors, and it just seemed so wrong that I offered to buy him out,” Tytus says.
Tytus has spent the past 30 years refining and updating shell designs. Although several cedar single boats hang in his shop, now located in Everett, these days every Pocock product is crafted from fiberglass or carbon fiber. Tytus estimates it takes his employees more than 250 hours of labor to make each boat.
“This is the height of industrial art,” Tytus explains. “It’s hand work.”
The company’s latest model is crafted from a super lightweight material Pocock calls hypercarbon. The boat weighs just over 200 pounds, the minimum allowed under international rowing regulations, and less than any single athlete who rows in the boat.
The University of Washington owns one of these new racing shells. Head coach Michael Callahan says it’s a significant improvement on the last model.
“For a company 100 years old, they’re a success story of innovation,” Callahan says. “They’re a smart company.”
But the new Pocock racing shell won't travel with the Husky crew for the 2016 Olympics.
Collegiate crews no longer represent the United States in the Olympic Games. Although individual Husky rowers might qualify to compete in the Rio games, most of them are focused on the task at hand; the Huskies have won five consecutive national championships, and they’re gunning for a sixth.
READ MORE: “Why I row,” by arts reporter Marcie Sillman
Senior Sam Helms isn't likely to even try out for the Olympic team. He hopes to row for the UW in the national championship regatta.
Helms says whenever he’s training hard to meet that goal, with aching legs and lungs, the boys in the 1936 Olympic Boat inspire him.
“When I'm deep in the pain cave," he chuckles, "knowing that the guys from ’36 rowed on the same water that we did, that’s a surreal feeling!”
The national championships will be held in late spring. You can see Helms and the other Huskies before then. They take on crews from Stanford, Cambridge University and Russia on Saturday, May 7 at the 30th annual Windermere Cup regatta on the Montlake Cut.