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Thursday, May 3, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wooden-boat heritage gets a boost with revival of historic Pocock shell

NW Weekend boating columnist

Pocock shell christening today


The Northwest Maritime Center and Wooden Boat Foundation's Pocock cedar single rowing shell will be unveiled and named on the front lawn of the Seattle Yacht Club, 1807 E. Hamlin St., at 2 p.m. today. On hand will be Stan Pocock, son of George Pocock, and Bill Tytus, current owner and president of Pocock Racing Shells. The public is invited but warned that no parking will be available at the club.

Boating columnist returns


Opening Day of boating season marks the return of freelance writer Eric Sorensen, a former Times staffer, as Northwest Weekend's boating columnist. A Sorensen column from last summer, "Managing Mistral," about his stewardship of a classic sailboat for Seattle's Center for Wooden Boats, won a national writing award from Boating Writers International. A Kenmore resident, Sorensen this week bought a 24-foot Yankee Dolphin, which he plans to sail out of Edmonds. E-mail him with column topic ideas: svwhim@yahoo.com.

On the radio


Seattle Times boating columnist Eric Sorensen joins other boating aficionados on KUOW's "Weekday" at 9 a.m. Friday (94.9 FM) to talk about Opening Day of boat season.

This Saturday, Seattle's Montlake Cut will feature a conga line of boats so long that, jammed bow to stern, they would stretch for more than a mile and cost more than a good-sized gated community. There will be horns honking, snappy salutes, loud music, gold-braided admirals (and at least one admiralette), brass buttons, varnish to make your eyes hurt, and the year's first big whiff of diesel and sniff of island adventure. Standard Opening Day stuff.

With less fanfare, a single boat will slip out near the head of the fleet, powered by a single rower. His craft will be one long wisp, 26 feet of nearly pure waterline displacing less than 36 pounds.

The boat will be brand-spanking new, but it will be a boating coelacanth, a living fossil from an era before carbon-fiber hulls and superyachts with helicopter tenders. In all but a few obsessive-compulsive details, it will be the same boat built and raced to victory nearly a century ago by a 17-year-old British kid whose name is now synonymous with Northwest rowing.

To those who notice, it will be a startling contrast: a minimalist boat, with a one-human-powered engine and a cedar hull thinner than an Andes mint, followed by a nautical freight train — the Opening Day boat parade — long enough to force an hours-long crossing delay at the Montlake Bridge. But whether you measure pound for pound or foot for foot, that little boat will say more about boating in the Northwest than most every other vessel on the water.

The boat is called a Pocock single, as in George Pocock, whose winnings from a professional race on England's Thames River helped launch a singularly successful boat-building business and several competitive rowing dynasties. From 1924 to 1956, when American college teams consistently won the gold medal in eight-man boats, or "eights," the eights they rowed were built by George Pocock Racing Shells Inc. of Seattle, Wash.

Pocock boats carried the University of Washington to its earliest athletic prowess and helped raise its national stature to that of the Yales and Harvards of the world.

Crossing the pond

Four years ago, Pacific Northwest Magazine counted 44 rowing organizations and three major rowing centers with 900 or so members between the Fremont and University bridges. The boats of other builders now crowd Lake Union on calm mornings, but if it weren't for Pocock, there might not be nearly as many.

And were it not for a renaissance in rowing, the Pocock cedar single would be nearly extinct. But a plucky nonprofit venture by Port Townsend's Northwest Maritime Center and Wooden Boat Foundation now plans to produce the boats in their mission to bolster the region's maritime traditions. The single in Saturday's festivities is the first off the line.

"We're kind of catching a wave here," said Stan Cummings, the center's executive director. Port Townsend alone has perhaps 100 rowers, 30 of whom he would rate as "dedicated." The Pocock shell, he said, creates a strong feeling of history in the community, including the community of rowers, uniting young newcomers with an older crowd that remembers when boats were made of wood.

"It connects people and the values of generation to generation," Cummings said.

The Pocock tradition covers four generations, from George's fraternal and maternal grandfathers to his son, Stan. George's father, Aaron, was boatbuilder at Eton College, the prestigious British prep school, where he took George on as a five-year indentured apprentice.

George rowed his first single at 12, then rowed and won his first race at 15. At 17, his father entered him in the professional race at Putney on Thames and set him to building his own boat with one piece of advice: "No one will ask how long it took you to build it, they will only ask who built it."

He won. His prize of 50 pounds in 1912 paid his fare by boat and train to Vancouver, B.C. "I rowed my way from England to Canada," he would say. After an assortment of jobs, he and his brother Dick were asked to build two singles for the Vancouver Rowing Club. Their waterlogged floating workshop was awash in orders and an occasional rising tide when Hiram Conibear, the rowing coach for the University of Washington, clumsily rowed a skiff to their door.

Conibear told them of a ship canal that would one day link Lake Washington and Lake Union, and he invited them down to Seattle to build 12 eight-oared shells. He only had money for one shell, but it led to an order from Stanford University and, with Pocock suggestions on how to stroke, a much improved UW squad.

Soon they were working in Seattle, building boats for UW and other schools, then pontoons for Boeing seaplanes. When the company went to metal airplanes in 1922, George returned to boatbuilding, "my old love."

He labored to overcome the impression that anything built west of Chicago had to be inferior, with his own shells slighted as "western, clumsily built" boats. But by the mid-1930s, at the classic Poughkeepsie Regatta, he noticed that all 30 shells were Pococks.

From father to son

Last month, Stan Pocock was walking around the Pocock Rowing Center off Eastlake Avenue when he was asked how many Olympic gold medals were won in Pocock shells. From memory, he ticked off the years: 1924, Uncle Dick's Yale team in Paris; Cal in 1928 and '32; UW in '36; Cal again in '48; the Naval Academy in 1952; and Yale in '56. And those were just the eights.

Stan, a UW graduate in civil engineering, gradually took over the shop, tweaking designs, streamlining the production process and easing the boats out of wood and into the era of fiberglass and carbon fiber. In 1968, they built 125 boats.

"I was almost hiding from customers because we were so snowed under."

The last single built by George Pocock hangs from the rowing center ceiling, its oars held out by wires, a Pocock label on the deck. He built it in 1975 at Stan's request as a memorial for the family on his retirement, then died only months later.

Stan himself retired in 1985, selling Pocock Racing Shells Inc. to Bill Tytus, champion sculler and coach of the Lake Washington Rowing Club, who moved the company to Everett. In 2003, the firm produced its last cedar single with the retirement of Bob Brunswick, an employee of 54 years.

Tytus was faced with what to do with a collection of forms and templates used to build the wooden singles. Stan arranged for him to give the materials to the Northwest Maritime Center and Wooden Boat Foundation.

"Piece of history"

In its effort to extend the Pocock wooden-shell heritage, the Maritime Center's initial goal is to get donations of $20,000 or more from eight people, called "the Pocock Eight," each of whom will get a "gift" boat. Their donations will finance the start of a larger shell-building business and a reserve fund, while passing Brunswick's knowledge on to Steve Chapin, rower and co-owner of the Point Hudson Boat Shop in Port Townsend.

"The building of these is passed through one family," said Chapin, who rowed an old Pocock Eight at the College of St. Thomas in Minnesota. "That's pretty amazing. And that's one of the things that really attracts me to this project, to somehow capture that piece of history."

With no drawn plans to guide him, Chapin has to work off pencil marks on forms and jigs, pictures, a few old singles, planks and parts from Tytus, and Brunswick's tutelage. In many ways, he is learning to build a Pocock single the same way Brunswick and Stan and George and just about every boat builder learned before them — from someone else.

"I'd just do what George told me to do," Brunswick said recently as he sat in a Kirkland living room filled with handmade wooden furniture and whatnots. "Oh, I watched what they did and they'd give you little jobs. It took me about four, five years to really learn."

So if you see that single go under the Montlake Bridge Saturday, you'll be seeing boatwright Steve Chapin of Port Townsend on a new boat, but you'll also be seeing the broad sweep of craftsmanship, sportsmanship, perfection and athletic grace led by George Pocock.

"It would seem to me," said Stan Pocock, surrounded by 100 shells at the rowing center and looking at the old shop under the Interstate 5 bridge, "that it would be a memorial to my dad. I used to joke that if you saw a rower out on Lake Washington or Lake Union, it was my dad.

"Then it would be my dad or me or both of us. Now you go out in the morning and it makes your hair stand on end. I don't know how they don't row into each other."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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