Pocock 8: Searching for Your You of You’s…

George Yeoman Pocock (1891 – 1976), master boatbuilder, pictured in 1938.

15 November 2022

By Chris Dodd

At the beginning of this occasional series drawn from George Yeoman Pocock’s memoirs Chris Dodd quoted Pocock quoting Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II: ‘There is a history in all men’s lives.’ There is certainly a history in the life of Seattle’s legendary boat builder.

George Pocock was raised at Eton, where his father Aaron was manager of the school’s boathouses. Pocock junior spent his teenage years rowing boats, building boats, racing boats and showing others the way. He and his brother Dick sought work in Vancouver as lumberjacks, and while Dick eventually took up residence as boatman at Yale, George became the prime shell builder of America. Born an Englishman, he settled in Seattle as an American citizen on the Pacific northwest frontier.

Previous pieces have touched upon George’s life as it was shaped by mingling with the professional scullers of England, contributing to the rowing programme at the fledgling University of Washington, building hundreds of floats for Mr Boeing’s flying boats during World War I, and touring the world with U.S. Olympic teams. This final meander through his memoirs contributes a lucky dip into people, places and incidents encountered. 

Conny turns Keystone Cop

Hiram B. Conibear (1871-1917). Picture: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College.

Hiram ‘Conny’ Conibear, who introduced rowing and the Pococks to the University of Washington on America’s northwest frontier, tried two innovations on Lake Washington. The first was in 1912 when California and Washington universities held races for Varsity and Junior Varsity crews. 

Conny’s innovation was to start the Varsity boats at one end of the three-mile course and the JVs at the other. The JV race would start as the Varsity race finished, the umpire swinging his launch round followed by the flotilla of motor boats that customarily followed the races. Conny was both starter and umpire. 

In the event there was a delay in starting the Varsity race, and an impatient official let the second race go before the first had finished. Crews and their pursuing launches met head-on halfway along the course and stirred the lake into a maelstrom of crabbing, panicking, foaming ripples and dodging manoeuvres. Conny, architect of the disaster, is reported to have angrily bashed his megaphone repeatedly on his boat. He couldn’t believe it. It was like Keystone Cops on water. 

Logged out!

A postcard showing a regatta on Lake Washington c.1908.

Conny’s second innovation was to hire a train for spectators to ride alongside up to six miles of rowing water on Lake Washington. There were many oarsmen in the Northwest with Scandinavian roots who possessed the physique and skills of lumberjacks. Conny arranged for logger oarsmen to fell several miles of lakeside trees on privately owned land to create a clear view from the train. 

The regatta and the spectator train ran well, but the University of Washington was faced with lawsuits over felled timber, settlement unknown.

Down memory lanes

The Poughkeepsie Regatta, Finish of the Freshman 8 race, June 22, 1936. Picture: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College.

Poughkeepsie on the Hudson River staged America’s big annual college regatta for over fifty years from 1896. The regatta’s migration to the Ohio River at Marietta in 1950 saddened George. The move ‘deprived it of its flavour,’ he writes. ‘The singing of songs at lodging houses was memorable.’ Accommodation was like an army camp, with crews eating at one big table. 

The river at Poughkeepsie was broad enough to race a dozen boats side-by-side for over four miles. The course was shortened to three miles in 1947, and two years after arriving at Marietta, the fixture landed at Lake Onondaga near Syracuse, N.Y., in 1952. 

The splendid online archive of Marist College has illustrated records of the Poughkeepsie Regattas held between 1895 and 1949.

From Battery to White House

1914: James A. Ten Eyck’s secret weapon? Picture: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College.

Jim Ten Eyck, who in his time was a distinguished coach at the U.S. Naval Academy and Syracuse University, was also a mean sculler. He once raced a German champion from the Battery at the south end of Manhattan to the NY Central railway bridge in Albany, a distance of 150 miles on the Hudson River against the stream. 

At Poughkeepsie, the halfway point, Jim was in the lead but feeling bushed, so he rolled out of his boat onto a dock to rest. His Dad, Ned Ten Eyck, who was following in a motorboat, gave him a swig of brandy, which made him sick and feeling the worse for it. 

When his rival’s flashing oars came into view he was forced to get moving again. He sculled across the river to the more sheltered side of the Hudson and crept along the shore, in company with a railroad track. After a while he spotted a trickle of water emerging from the bank. As luck would have it, a trackwalker was at hand and answered Jim’s call for water. 

The sculler took a long draught from the proffered can and revived to continue the race. He arrived at Albany’s railroad bridge about an hour before his opponent reached it. His estimated time was in the region of 20 hours for 150 miles. 

Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. President 1901-1909, in rowing kit at Harvard, c.1877. He called rowing ‘a great and permanent amusement’. Picture: Harvard College Library.

Teddy Roosevelt, an enthusiastic follower of sports and a keen rowing (and boxing) fan, invited Ten Eyck to the White House so that the President could hear his story from the horse’s mouth. A model of Ten Eyck’s Putney built shell is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. 

Coaly Tyne and the fate of lapstrakes

From The Illustrated London News, 29 November 1845, “The great race between Henry Clasper, of Derwent Haugh, near Newcastle, and Pocock, of London, on the Tyne.”

When George Pocock’s ancestor Bill raced the great Harry Clasper on the River Tyne, Bill’s boat was wrecked by a huge chunk of coal that landed on it, likely dropped from a bridge by a rogue in cahoots with a bent gambler. 

On the occasion of the return match on the Thames that Pocock won, he took his Geordie visitor, like himself a builder of boats, to the Pocock workshop to view his experimental keel-less boat that was under construction. It had planking of one wide sheet on each side joined at the keel, thus eliminating ‘lapstrakes’. 

After Clasper returned to Newcastle, he constructed a similar ‘keel-less’ boat, the forerunner of the modern racing shell. Clasper claimed authorship of the innovative design, but an article in Bell’s Life in London asserted that the originator of the keel-less boat was not the Geordie genius, but George Pocock’s ancestor Bill. 

Cedars of Washington 

Thuja plicata, Western Red Cedar, ‘the wonder wood’. Picture: Wikipedia.

In 1927 George adopted red cedar as his favourite wood. ‘Western red cedar is a marvellous material. It is rot-resistant; it swells and shrinks very little when seasoned for three years, as we do. You might say it is practically inert. It is very light in weight and the cells composing it are complete, each one containing dead air. Some of those first shells we built of it are still in use 45 years later.’

Bend it like a banana

George trying to stop one of his boats bending?

Some western red cedar boats built by Pococks were dubbed ‘banana boats’. These very successful craft earned their nickname because some of them developed excess camber that turned the end up like a banana. 

‘The feature is NOT built into them,’ George emphasises. ‘The boats are built on a 1-beam which is perfectly straight. The excessive camber comes into them AFTER they are built. It is caused by the strange characteristic of this cedar. While a board of it shrinks or swells very little across the grain, lengthwise it will swell or extend as much as one inch in sixty feet.’ 

At least one banana boat found a permanent home in England when Yale brought a Pocock four to Henley Regatta during the 1960s and left it with London Rowing Club. 

Hail to the Crew…

George with a special crew, “The Boys in the Boat,” all on their way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

‘Not having publicity or advertisements boosting our boats gives me licence to say… Whenever a foreign boat is used to win a race, or foreign oars are used, the makers crow about it from the rooftops, as though the boat or oars won the race and NOT THE CREW. We have always revered THE CREW. They and they alone are responsible.’ 

The Galumphing Major

Bert Barry found something better than Shredded Wheat to train on.

On the day after Christmas in 1927, George umpired a race for the professional championship of the world between the Australian sculler Major Goodsell and Bert Barry of England. The match was held over three miles on the Burrard Inlet near Vancouver. The stake was $1000 a side, a tidy sum. Goodsell led until Barry caught up with him at halfway and went ahead. At this point a motorboat appeared, equipped with an attachment on its bow that generated a large bow wave. The boat positioned itself behind Goodsell and pushed him along with its bow wave. This was a ‘dirty, dirty trick,’ writes umpire George. ‘Goodsell plainly eased up… It was a pre-planned ruse… However, Goodsell fell farther behind and I did not stop the race… If Goodsell had gone ahead, I would have stopped the race and disqualified him.’ 

The umpire who presided over Bert Barry’s great victory was anxious to point out that ‘Major’ was Goodsell’s given name, not his military rank. 

Citizen Pocock broadens his vista

George’s journey from Eton in England (top) to Seattle in the United States (below).

‘It was a lucky day for me in 1920 when I became a citizen of the United States,’ George writes. ’It afforded a broader vista for a young man, an outlook impossible in Old England… There is a great joy in getting back to where one has dropped one’s life’s anchor; in my case, Seattle, Washington, USA.’ 

Touching the divine…

George pictured in a scull in the U.S. sometime in the 1920s or 1930s.

‘It is a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why, it’s nearing perfection – and when you reach perfection you’re touching the divine. It touches the you of you’s which is your soul.’

This is the final article in Chris Dodd’s eight-part HTBS series on the wit and wisdom, life and adventures of George Yeoman Pocock. Links to the others are below.

Pocock 7: Golden Gateway to Helsinki

Pocock: Playing at Home

Pocock in Berlin: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Rowing Boeing

Gordon Bennett!

Messing about on the River

The Wisdom of Pocock

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