21 July 2022
By Chris Dodd
In another occasional outing with boat builder and rowing philosopher George Pocock, Chris Dodd accompanies him on a civilised voyage of discovery.
In 1952, George Pocock built seven boats plus oars and sculls for the American rowers at the Helsinki Olympics. Finland was about as far from his workshop in Seattle as you can get. The boats were crated and put aboard a Swedish freighter of the Johnson Line, the M.S. Seattle, bound for the Gulf of Finland. After loading them, George toured the ship’s facilities and was so impressed that he persuaded his wife Frances to accompany him on the next Johnson Line departure for Europe.
Thus, the Pococks’ steamship adventure began on 1 June 1952 aboard the refrigerated freighter M.S. Golden Gate under the command of Captain Gunnar Dahlquist. They sailed from Seattle up the Columbia River to Longview to pick up a load of timber bound for Hamburg. They continued south to San Francisco. ‘Life on board for the first five days was like having your own yacht with plenty of help,’ wrote George in his memoir. ‘Even better, you had no responsibility. Crossing the Columbia River bar was an experience in a rolling and pitching ship.’
After five days they reached San Francisco and Oakland where they took more freight aboard. After a further stop at Alameda, the Golden Gate docked beside a warehouse at San Pedro to load thousands of oranges for Antwerp. By now the ship carried nine passengers and was bound for the Panama Canal. They sailed along the coast in perfect weather until they hit a hurricane approaching Port of San Juan de Guatemala, a storm described by George as a ‘lulu’. In San Juan, they loaded 100 tons of wild honey. San Juan de Guatemala was horrible, George noted, a place where people threw garbage onto the street and vultures swooped from the coconut palms to eat it.
They sailed past San Salvador and Costa Rica to the Balboa entrance to the Panama Canal. First port of call after the canal was Curaçao in the Netherlands West Indies, a fuelling stop for ships of the world.
The Pococks enjoyed Halcyon days of attention and perfection aboard Golden Gate. There was swimming before breakfast, sumptuous food, much reading in deckchairs – read a page and sleep a chapter – all in perfect weather. There was coffee in the lounge after dinner accompanied by stories and experiences. Mr Speck, the Swiss consul to Ecuador, and his wife and daughter Margaret’s arrival brought the passenger complement up to twelve. Margaret was 24 and attractive, and the captain fancied her, saying that when he retired, he’d marry a girl of 24 who was well educated and attractive, and they would live on the Canary Isles. They danced together and played cards. But one evening she beat him at Russian Bank. She trod on his poncho, as they say in Ecuador. Their romance ended there. ‘Good for both of them, no doubt,’ George wrote. ‘How many a mismatch would have been avoided by a like incident, even though so trivial?’
George and Frances dined in a hotel in Curaçao. He observed that native West Indians were fine people, outnumbering the Dutch 20 to 1. The Dutch use military compounds to ‘assure control’. No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should, he thought.
‘Colonising does much good to a country of backward people until the backward people get enlightened, then the colonisers become a menace.’
One passenger was a 17-year-old Mexican boy, Pablo, who was the adopted son of John Huston, the film director. Pablo had worked for Huston on The Treasure of Sierra Madre and was now on his way to the Sorbonne. His 21st birthday was celebrated with a fake cake from Eleanor Roosevelt, enrolment as member of King Neptune’s Court and presents from everyone on board.
The ship left the Caribbean and sailed into the Atlantic. There was more reading, swimming, shuffleboard and canasta after dinner. The Pococks played every evening with Mr Spangler, a retired banker from LA, and his wife.
George decided to disembark in Antwerp in order to ensure arriving in Helsinki by 10 July. He and Frances took the train to Brussels and flew to Gothenburg via Amsterdam and Copenhagen. From Gothenburg, they crossed Sweden by Göta Canal to Stockholm from where they flew to Helsinki. Construction of the canal had been a Herculean task, a ditch hewn out of solid rock with 65 locks along its route. Road crossings were by way of hand-operated sliding bridges.
Two things in particular marked the Helsinki Olympic Regatta. The Soviet Union took part in the games for the first time, and the American boats commanded a lot of attention once George was seen fitting riggers, oiling slides and rowlocks and greasing oars. Foreign builders set up drawing boards and copied them. The Russians had German boats and a German coach, and asked permission to copy the Pocock fleet, just as others didn’t.
The organising committee were wary of Russians because Finland and the Soviet Union had been eye-balling each other and taking pot-shots for years. For this reason, they provided two Olympic athletes villages, one for East countries and one for West. This almost caused a diplomatic incident when the Soviet eight invited the American eight to lunch, and the American team management overreacted because the representative crew was Rusty Callow’s U.S. Naval Academy. The Navy defied the ban and, judging by the photographs in the River and Rowing Museum’s collection, a jolly good time was had by all. Evidentially more than tea was served.
George does not mention the above incident, but he found the Russians friendly. An oarsman from their eight came seeking a German speaker one day and said to him: ‘What goes on between Moscow and Washington has nothing to do with your men or our men. We are friends. We are all oarsmen. Olympic idealists.’
George describes the Russian stroke as ‘circular like a windmill’. The windmill proved inadequate in dealing with the coast guards whose eight won the gold medal. The Russians took the silver and the bronze went to Australia.
The American pair also won gold, to George’s prediction. Chuck Logg (6ft 5in) and Tom Price (5ft 11in) from Rutgers, trained without a rudder. George wrote in his memories: ‘Dad reckoned that a boat without a rudder would beat one with (a rudder) by at least two lengths. Chuck and Tom could row down the course as straight as a string. If they had had a rudder it would be only human nature for Chuck to use it against Tom for the last 1000 metres to hold him, and they would have lost.’
Two other pairs who had taken the advice to row without a rudder also won Olympic gold – USA’s Fifer and Hecht at Lake Ballarat in 1956 and Canada’s Jackson and Hungerford in Tokyo in 1964.
Thus ended George’s thoughts on travel by freighter and the secret of pair-oared steering. He flew home to Seattle with PanAm in 24 hours.