16 February 2022
By Chris Dodd
“There is a history in all men’s lives” quoth George Pocock from Will Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II in his memoirs 50 years ago. In an occasional series, Chris Dodd revisits the life and times of the celebrated Seattle boat-builder with the help of his own words.
George Pocock was born an Englishman and died an American. He was raised on the Thames at Eton, where his father Aaron ran Eton College’s boathouses, known as ‘Rafts’. George became a skilled teenage sculler in a boat that he built for himself, and he passed on his skills to Eton boys. When he left the local secondary school, he and his elder brother Dick sailed for British Columbia, in the Canadian Northwest, to seek work as lumberjacks.
George built the wooden floats for flying boats at Mr Boeing’s factory in Seattle during World War I. After the war, he returned to his workshop by the University of Washington campus and became boat builder to America. He built state-of-the-art craft for many U.S. Olympic crews and got to know the most influential coaches of the continent.
Fifty years ago, George wrote out his memories in longhand, and his son Stan, who followed in the family firm, added notes. The memoir is the basis for much that has been written about George. Episodes range from growing up by the Thames at Windsor and Eton, dialogue with the top rowing coaches of America and journeys to Olympic regattas in Berlin, London, Helsinki and Melbourne. What makes them special, however, is that George was a reader and a deep thinker, and he was an excellent writer. Trawling his memoirs for gems is an enlightening pleasure.
The Pocock brothers began their American life at Vancouver Rowing Club on the shore of Coal Harbor at Stanley Island until Hiram Conibear enticed them to the University of Washington where he was setting up a rowing programme. Not only did the best racing craft emerge from the brothers’ Seattle workshop and spread through the U.S. college rowing scene, but the many immigrants from Scandinavia on the Northwest frontier provided bodies to row them and coaches to teach them how. Let George introduce you to a few of them.
Dick Glendon coached the U.S. Naval Academy eight who won Olympic gold in 1920 in Antwerp. George’s acquaintance with Glendon was only hearsay, but he was known as a hard taskmaster who doled out work without relaxation. But Glendon had the wit to engage the 1920 Olympic sculler Jack Kelly Sr to cheer up his men. ‘Fear of being beaten was never in Jack Kelly’s makeup,’ writes George. The sculler’s habit of taking everything in his stride ‘was contagious, and the Naval Academy crew caught it and went on to win.’ George borrowed from Longfellow to summarise it:
They felt their hearts beat lighter
And leap onward with the stream.
In 1924, Ed Leader, a Washington oarsman and coach, was in charge at Yale. His tactics, suggests George, were similar to an old-time sailing ship skipper who would strike a man down with a belaying pin if he did not obey an order instantly. Leader was a perfectionist who could reduce a man to dust verbally, but his crews were ‘a thing of beauty to watch, perfection itself’. Remembering Leader’s crews reminded George that the ability to get a run between the strokes had been lost by the 1970s. ‘The hallmark of a good crew viewed from a fair distance gave the impression that they had stopped rowing, then suddenly the oars would strike.’
Ben Spock, an oarsman in Leader’s Yale eight at the 1924 Paris Olympics who became a famous ‘baby’ doctor and urged his generation of ‘babies’ to burn their draft cards during the Vietnam War, told how Leader banished their landlady’s surprise feast on the eve of the final. When the silver salver of lobster was presented in the dining room, the coach ordered it out. His crew were saved from possible food poisoning, and they won the gold medal.
George recalls that Carroll M ‘Ky’ Ebright had Olympic gold success in 1928, 1932 and 1948. Ky always asked himself if his crews were attaining the best speed for the energy expended? George overheard some Italians who were watching the 1932 final at Long Beach remark that the U.S. boat was a freewheeling crew. ‘Freewheeling could not describe it better,’ George wrote. ‘A crew must be lifted beyond themselves to do well. Failing a sparkling goal to attain, their thoughts sink back into themselves, with the result, more mediocrity.’
Next on his Olympic list is Alvin Ulbrickson, another Washington coach whose crew won gold in Berlin in 1936. Al was dubbed the ‘Dour Dane’ by the press. He kept all his thoughts of the qualities of the men under his command to himself, and kept them guessing. It was Al who discovered Don Hume, the natural stroke of The Boys in the Boat.
‘Hume gave those behind him plenty of time to effect the proper run between the strokes,’ George says. ‘An eight-oared crew to be of championship calibre, must have confidence in each other so that they can drive with abandon, knowing full well that no one man will get the full weight of the pull. When this confidence is not present, men tend to ‘row with the boat’ – they will not drive faster than the boat is going. A good run between strokes is impossible under these conditions as they have to rush up on the slide for the next stroke to attain a higher beat. The 1936 crew with Hume at stroke rowed with abandon, beautifully timed, a good run.’ Al never let up on his demand for excellence.
George accompanied Washington’s Olympic crew to Berlin: he had built the Husky Clipper for the trip, sandpapering it down and re-varnishing it at the New York Athletic Club where the party stayed before boarding the Manhattan for Hamburg. They swam and sunbathed on the club’s Huckleberry Island, completely cut off from the mainland except for its ferry. It had one telephone, but if you picked up the receiver you were hit in the face by a jet of water.
The 62-foot one-piece shell was driven through New York City to the Manhattan’s dock and had to be loaded up the ship’s baggage chute to reach the boat deck out of harm’s way. George was proud of his Husky Clipper. ‘The other six boats brought across the Atlantic for the American crews were very, very old,’ he wrote. ‘I thought them a disgrace. They were the worst boats in Berlin.’