Where Boats Grow On Trees

Pic 1
Tim Koch at Lake Cowichan, British Columbia, the place where legendary boatbuilder and coach, George Pocock (1891-1976) found the best red cedar trees to make his famous racing shells.

Tim Koch writes from Victoria, British Columbia, where he has spent the Christmas holidays.

It is said that inside every block of marble there is a statue. I would like to think that inside every red cedar tree around Lake Cowichan on Canada’s Vancouver Island there is a Pocock racing eight. In his impeccably researched book on the University of Washington crew that won Olympic Eights in 1936, The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown writes about George Pocock’s ‘eureka moment’.

The son of an Eton College boatbuilder, George Yeoman Pocock immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, in 1911. Many disasters and false starts followed but the performance of George’s boats in the 1923 IRA Championships ‘began the legend of Pocock Racing Shells’. In Brown’s words:

[Pocock] did not just build racing shells. He sculpted them.… A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as a maker of machines and as an artist.

Brown states that even when modern labour saving power tools came onto the market in the 1930s, George continued to use hand tools as they gave him more precise control over his work and because he thought that craftsmanship needed a quiet environment.

Mostly, though, it was because he wanted more intimacy with the wood – he wanted to feel the life in the wood with his hands……

Pic 2
George Pocock. Picture: coach-con.com

Until 1927, shells were made from Spanish cedar, actually a mahogany expensively imported from South America. Encouraged both by Washington crew coach Ed Leader and by observations of light and durable Native American cedar canoes, Pocock experimented with building boats from the native western red cedar, abundant in Washington State and British Columbia. The results were astonishing. To quote at length from Daniel James Brown:

Western red cedar (thuja plicata) is a kind of wonder wood. Its low density makes it easy to shape… Its open cell structure makes it light and buoyant… Its tight, even grain makes it strong but flexible, easy to bend yet disinclined to twist, warp, or cup. It is free of pitch or sap but its fibres contain chemicals called thujaplicins that act as natural preservatives… (It) can be polished to a high degree of lustre, essential for providing the smooth, friction-free racing bottom a good shell requires… Soon (Pocock) was scouring the Northeast for the highest quality cedar he could find…. He found just what he wanted in the misty woods surrounding Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island… From the cedar stock he found there… (he) could mill elegant planks of wood twenty or more inches wide and sixty feet long…. And from these planks he could shave… delicate sheets of cedar just five-thirty-seconds of an inch thick, each a mirror image of the other… (ensuring) perfect symmetry in the boat’s appearance and performance.

Pic 3
Thuja plicat, Western red cedar, ‘the wonder wood’. Picture: Wikipedia.
Pic 3a
Tim viewing a model of a First Nations eleven man canoe on display at the excellent Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.

Today the Pocock shell used by ‘the boys in the boat’ in Berlin is hanging in the University of Washington’s Conibear Shellhouse and some splendid pictures of it are here  (click on ‘previous’ and ‘next’ for more views). There is also a video on YouTube of the Clipper in situ.

Pic 4
The Husky Clipper hanging in the Coinibear Shellhouse. Picture: Vince Stricherz / washington.edu

It is good to start the New Year with a confession. Mine is that I had not, until this Christmas, read The Boys in the Boat, a shameful admission for a rowing history geek. It was worth the wait as The Boys is one of those books that you do not want to end, even though you already know the result of ‘the big race’. Further, reading it in British Columbia, an area very similar in parts to Washington State where most of the book’s action is set, made it extra special. Before reading The Boys in the Boat, my biggest fear was that non-rower Daniel James Brown would not really ‘get’ what the sport was about. However, I did not have to read many pages to know that my concerns were unfounded. I am not going to re-review the book; HTBS editor Göran Buckhorn plus many others have already done a far better job of that than I could do – but I will add some of my impressions and thoughts.

Pic 5
The book’s rather understated American cover.

From a personal point of view, I was pleased that my brief summary of the history of the Washington Crew’s quest for Olympic gold first posted on HTBS in 2011 held up against Brown’s meticulous research. The amount of background work that Brown did is revealed in a recent interview that he had with worldrowing.com. He was asked how long the book took from inception to publication:

DJB: It was almost six years…… For some of that time I was finishing up an earlier book….  So when you subtract that time I probably worked about four solid years on The Boys in the Boat. Most of the time was consumed doing research; only perhaps a third of it was the actual writing, editing, and revising.

Happily, my original statement that ‘the amazing thing about the 1936 Huskies and the story of their performance in Berlin is that, if it were not true, it would be dismissed as a ridiculous collection of film clichés which would insult all but the most undemanding viewer’ was confirmed and strengthened by reading The Boys in the Boat.

Pic 6
The German version will be available in April 2015 as ‘The Miracle of Berlin’. The subtitle translates as something like “The nine rowers who forced the Nazis to bend at the knee’’.
Pic 7
The slightly homoerotic cover of the French paperback. They Were One Man: The True History of the Rowing Crew that Humbled Hitler.
Pic 8
The British paperback cover puts great stress on the ‘Nazi’ part of the story. No doubt it was done to appeal to the British obsession with the 1939 – 1945 War.

Greg Denieffe has already written about the front covers of various editions of The Boys in the Boat. I find it interesting to see how some play up the ‘Nazi angle’ and some do not. When the British humourist Alan Coren published a collection of his writings, he called it Golfing for Cats and put a large swastika on the front. He did this because he found that the best selling books in Britain were about golf, cats or Nazis. More covers are illustrated on The Boys In The Boat Facebook page.

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The Boys. Picture: huskycrew.com

Finally, in his HTBS review, Göran Buckhorn stated:

.…the University of Washington (crew) were the sons of farmers, fishermen, and lumberjacks. Although Brown’s narrative is about all the boys in the boat – their way from freshmen on Lake Washington to Olympians on Langer See, a three-to four-year voyage not always on an easy, straight course  – it is the human story of young (‘7’ man Joe Rantz’s) struggling life of Dickensian dimensions during the Depression that grabs hold of the reader.

This covers two things that struck me in particular. One is that those of us who today live in wealthy countries have a very easy and privileged life, one that we mostly do not acknowledge or appreciate. How many of us could cope with the social and economic disasters that befell Joe Rantz and many of his contemporaries? For example, when his family effectively abandoned Joe at the age of 15, he simply got on with life, finding what honest work he could – but he still attended school.

The second thing in Brown’s book that impressed me was, despite the fact that the boys were from poor, working class backgrounds, it did not deter them from attending college and finding time for study, work and sport. While they may not have been typical of their class, this was something that would have rarely happened in Britain at the time. It was a manifestation of the stereotypical but admirable American desire to improve one’s lot in life, whatever one’s origins.

In some ways, The Boys in the Boat is a very American tale – but in other ways it is a truly universal story. Almost uniquely perhaps, it is a record of an important part of rowing history that will appeal to rowers and non-rowers alike. It is, in short, a gold medal performance by Daniel James Brown.

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