Updated: Sep 21
By Sally Giesler
A whole new interest in wooden racing shells has taken off these days since the bestselling book The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown hit the shelves in June 2013. The book tells the story of the University of Washington Men’s Rowing team and their race to the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin Germany. The University of Washington beat the German team to win gold in a photo finish ending. The story is not just about the win in the Olympics, however, but of how the boys proved themselves to become the winning crew and how the boats themselves helped make them the best in the world. George Pocock, a champion rower and coach, dedicated his life to building exquisite wooden racing shells. He built the Husky Clipper for the UW crew, the wooden shell that carried the boys to the Olympic gold in 1936. It was a labor of love and artistry and vision. The hull of these racing shells were only 5/32 inches thick. A delicate piece of work, but crafted to perfection for speed. The wood used included old growth Western Red Cedar, Alaska Yellow Cedar, Sugar Pine, Sitka Spruce, Maple and Eastern White Ash. For decades to follow, Pocock shells incorporated these beautiful and functional woods.
The legacy of George Pocock’s perfect racing vessels lives on through Port Townsend’s Rat Island Rowing and Sculling Club. The club has one of the best collections of working wooden Pocock shells in the world. A small group of rowers founded the rowing club as a branch of the Wooden Boat Foundation back in the 90″s, and have been collecting wooden racing shells ever since. The mission of the rowing club is to “provide opportunities to youth and adults in the greater Port Townsend community to learn sweep and scull rowing skills through recreational and competitive rowing programs, to preserve and celebrate the legacy of the traditional wooden racing shells, and to be stewards of our marine environment.
The first wooden shell in the fleet was the Quinault, a donation from the Everett Rowing Association. This is a sweep boat for eight rowers and a coxswain, and was built in 1949 for the Navy Men’s crews. The boat migrated to the UW for training the freshman crew. Ironically, the UW beat the Navy in the Quinault at the US Nationals in 1951. While the Quinault is looking a little rough nowadays it is brought out for special occasions such as the Wooden Boat Festival.
The Quinault beating Navy’s “Great Eight” Courtesy Guy Harper Collections
In 2001, in exchange for a box of gooey éclairs, the club acquired the HOH, a sweep four built in 1959. This boat was the 1960 Olympic gold winner in Italy. Though in rough shape, a small group of rowers did repairs and got it back on the water. The club rowed it for three years before an accident in rough water ripped a hole in the hull. With the help of Steve Chapin, Master craftsman of Point Hudson Boat Shop, the HOH was completely restored back to its original glory. In 2005, Stan Pocock, son of George Pocock and a boat builder himself, was so impressed with the repairs that he asked for the HOH back for the Pocock Center. In exchange he gave the club three more boats; the OHO, a sweep four and the sister boat to the HOH; the Husky Challenger, a sweep eight; and the Lorna Smith, a fiberglass quad. Stan also persuaded Bill Tytus, the succeeding owner of Pocock Racing Shells, to give to Steve Chapin the forms, tools and some of the wood to build the cedar singles, just as his father had built them. The first one Steve built is the legacy, which resides above the boat shop in the Northwest Maritime Center.
In 2010, the Tuf as Nails Ladies Rowing Club took on the project of restoring the Husky Challenger. It took three years and over 800 volunteer hours to complete.
After many years on the water, the OHO was restored and finished in 2013, complete with a name change to Frank C.. The name honors the well known Seattle coach, Frank Cunningham, who passed away shortly before the restorations were finished.
The latest project which the Rat Island Rowing Club has just finished restoring is an Octuple; the Kathy Lazara Whitman, a sculling eight donated by the Ancient Mariners of Seattle. This boat is rigged for eight rowers with sixteen oars, and a coxswain. After realizing the major repairs the boat required, the club decided they could not afford to do this huge project without help. Throughout the month of March 2015 Rat Island Rowing Club did an online fundraiser and collected over $8,700.00. Pair that with the investment of over 800 hours of volunteer help cleaning, sanding, varnishing, and custom repairs by Steve Chapin within five months, there is a new shining star of the fleet.
Sally working on Kathy. Photo courtesy Barney Burke
Over the last 10 years many wooden shells have been donated to the club because of their commitment to preserving the legacy of George Pocock and his son. As a Rat Island Rower myself, I speak for the club when I say we love to row them, just as George wanted for his boats. In this way we like to think of our boathouse as a living museum, breathing life into these boats that could have otherwise become obsolete. As we say, ” The boys may be gone, but the boats live on.”
Steve Chapin will be giving a talk on “Building Wooden Pocock Shells” in the Discovery Room of the Boat Shop Building Saturday, September 12th at 3:45- 4:45pm.
The wooden boat race for all Human Powered Watercraft will be Saturday, September 12th at 10 am at the Northwest Maritime Center boathouse. Come early to see all the wooden rowing shells on the beach.