Magical Boats

Later this month, in the autumn issue of the Swedish rowing magazine Svensk Rodd, No. 3, 2009, I will have a review published about Darryl J. Strickler’s book Rowable Classics: Wooden Single Sculling Boats and Oars. Here is the article just slightly revised in English.

There is something special with wooden boats.

Before I moved to the U.S. in 2000, I was out sculling almost daily on the canals in my old hometown of Malmö, in the south of Sweden. If the canals were not frozen or the weather was not too bad, I would scull both in the morning and in the evening in one of Malmö Rowing Club’s wooden singles. It was magical to make the boat glide and to feel the connection between the wooden hull and the water. The boat, built by Karlisch in Germany, came to the club in 1980, and was one of many wooden shells that the club owned.

When I began to row at Malmö RC in the 1970s, most of the shells in the boathouse were built out of wood. The boats were built by, to mention a few, Karlisch and Pirsch in Germany, Henry Larsen in Denmark, Sims in England, and by Holger Eklund, who owned and operated the boat building company Ramsövarvet, located outside of Stockholm. The Sims coxed four was a small sensation at her first regatta in Copenhagen, I was told. The regatta was held during the Second World War, and it was amazing that she had made it from England through blockades and other trade barriers. I do not know how she was smuggled to Sweden.

I came to think about the beautiful wooden boats at Malmö RC when I read Darryl J. Strickler’s book Rowable Classics: Wooden Single Sculling Boats and Oars, which was published by Wooden Boat Publications in 2008. Strickler, who is a sculling addict and a collector of wooden singles, has written a unique book about wooden racing shells. While other so called coffee table books with beautiful illustrations about the sport of rowing have seen the light of day, there has never been a book that entirely tells the story about the boat builders, the wooden singles they built, their design, and about some of the current owners of these shells. The closest I can think of is G.C. Bourne’s Textbook of Oarsmanship (1925), which mentions some of the most important English boat builders who built the eights for Oxford and Cambridge.

Strickler is, of course, concentrating his book on builders in England and the U.S. In different chapters the author is writing about English boat builders like, Edwin H. Phelps, Carl Douglas, and the big boat building family, the Sims, who had at least eight men building boats, if I count them correctly. It seems, however, most of them could not agree on anything, so four of them started their own boat building businesses. In the U.S., George and his son, Stanley Pocock in Seattle, are the most well-known builders, while Joe Garofalo and his Worchester Oar & Paddle Co. is the best known on the American east coast. Garofalo became known among his customers as the man who could build everything. He told his customers that he could build them a ‘Pocock’ or a ‘Stämpfli’ if they wanted one – of course for less money than the originals. Graeme King, who originates from Australia, is now running a boat building company in Putney, Vermont, and he is one of the very few that still builds wooden boats. In Canada there is Kaschper, Levator, and Hudson, and in Australia there is Sargeant & Burton and Jeff Sykes.

When it comes to boat builders in Europe, only the most renown have got their story told by Strickler. Therefore, you can read about Empacher, Pirsch, Stämpfli, and Filippi, but that is it. No Scandinavian boat builders are mentioned. Karlisch in Möln is in the book, but only as an oarmaker, not as a boat builder (although, it is mentioned in the text that they also built larger boats). In the special chapters on wooden oars, their makers are mentioned, aside from the above mentioned boat builders, also Aylings, Collar, Sutton, and Crocker, to mention some.

The publisher has done a great job when it comes to the book’s design; it is a fine book with beautiful illustrations in colour. For the most part, the author has done a terrific job too, although there are some flaws and mishaps here and there. To mention some: the famous boat builder Harry Clasper did not move from Newcastle to London in the 1850s to build boats at Putney, that was his son, John Hawks Clasper, who did that in the 1860s. The Henley Royal Regatta was established in 1839, but the Diamond Challenge Sculls was instituted first in 1844. The students at Cambridge began sculling for the Colquhoun in 1837, not in 1835. The public’s interest for sculling got a real boost in 1830 with the Wingfields Sculls for amateurs, which Strickler correctly writes, but he fails to mention the equally important Championships of the Thames for the professionals, which started the year after, in 1831. It is true that the Americans were first to found a rowing federation for amateurs, the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (N.A.A.O.) in 1872, and ten years later the British Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) was founded. The ARA was, however, not a newly founded association, it was merely a name change from the Metropolitan Rowing Association, which existed already in 1879.

I also find it unnecessary to repeat some information in both the sections about the boat builders and the boat owners, so that the owners’ accounts mirror the author’s text about the builders, which feels redundant. The editor for the book should have rewritten, removed or done some editorial changes of these parts. I also think that the chapters dealing with the boat owners’ stories of how they acquired their shells, often raving about how wonderful their boats are, are at times too long and too similar to each other. Darryl Strickler does point out in his preface that his book is dealing with wooden singles built after 1946, and that it is not a ‘history’ book on rowing, although historic flashbacks are given. Personally, I believe it is a pity that it is not a rowing history book with facts and stories about the old boat builders from the 1800s, the Claspers, Matthew Taylor, Swaddle & Winship, etc, who came up with amazing innovations and famous racing shells.

But, I guess, then it had been another book, and it is wonderful and magical as it is. So, well done, Mr. Strickler!

Darryl J. Strickler: Rowable Classics: Wooden Single Sculling Boats and Oars (2008), $29.95. Order your copy on the Wooden Boat Publications’ site by clicking here.

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