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Making the Boats That Win

"The Boys in the Boat" won in a racing shell built by a company still in business

July 5, 2016

In 1936, nine working-class young rowers from the University of Washington went to the Berlin Olympics and won gold, beating out Adolf Hitler’s elite German crew. It’s a riveting story that was captured in the bestselling book The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The winning shell was called the Husky Clipper, made of cedar, spruce and ash and built by the legendary George Pocock.

Now, when the UW crew takes its sleek, 60-foot boat out of the boathouse, they pass under the Husky Clipper, which hangs above the upstairs dining hall.

Pocock Racing Shells is still in business after 105 years. Once a workshop in the mezzanine of the UW boathouse, with George himself looking down on young rowers, the factory is now located in Everett.

Even though the company was bought by avid rower and Pocock devotee Bill Tytus in 1985, the Pocock legacy lives on.

Says John Tytus, son of Bill Tytus and general manager of Pocock Racing Shells, “When my dad purchased the company, we talked about changing the name. And he was adamant about not changing the name.” Tytus adds, “In fact, my middle name is Pocock, even though there’s no blood relation.”

What is different about the Pocock shells of today? The same thing that makes the Boeing 787 different from the 707, or bicycles of today different from your 1970 ten speed — technology and materials. Carbon fiber, specifically. The shape and size of an eight-man boat is the same, but that’s about it.

“The definition of ‘shell’ was not from anything other than from an eggshell,“ Tytus explains. “The old wooden boats had a frame and a shell fitted around the frame and that shell was a very thin layer of western red cedar about an eighth of an inch thick, and if you stepped in the bottom of the boat, you would push your foot right through the bottom of the boat.”

Today’s Pocock shells are born in a fiberglass mold, and then built from the outside in, using precise layering of resin-infused carbon fiber strips. Instead of bolted-on metal oar struts, aluminum wings straddle the shell and flare out on either side of the boat to where the long oars are pinned. The seats (carbon fiber too) roll on bearings instead of the chiseled cedar seats rolling on brass wheels. There are special shoes that rowers strap into. Electronics are part of today’s boats, especially speaker systems for communication.

Tytus relates the famous 1936 Olympic heat with the Husky Clipper battling the vaunted German rowers, who were expected to win.

“It was so loud as they were coming through the grandstands that the only way the coxswain could communicate with the crew is by beating on the side of the boat.”

With all the technology available, one would think the rowing sports governing bodies have issued rules and regulations about shell design and properties.

In fact, says Bill Tytus, “There is only one rule, basically, and that is weight.”

An eight-man boat must weigh at least 96 kilograms, or about 210 pounds. A wooden shell like the Husky Clipper weighed in at about 300 pounds.

What really makes these boats fast is not that they are 30% lighter. Some of today's faster speeds are due to advances in oar technology. But the real difference is that rowers are bigger and stronger.

“Rowers spend a lot more time rowing than they used to back in ’36. The overall skill level is higher,” says Bill Tytus.

Son John Tytus agrees. “The difference between the world record speed now and the record in the '50s is more related to diet, training and athletic prowess than it is a change in the equipment. The boats are still long and skinny, and we’re still trying to take x amount of square feet through a very viscous medium — water.”

Though Pocock shells have been part of the Olympics for decades, the company's focus is on building boats for the top collegiate crew programs in the United States. And after all these years, Bill Tytus is definite about the best part of his job.

“I really enjoy it when a crew in one of our boats does well. To be a part of that is a big thrill.”

Historical Footage courtesy of Ulbrickson Family Collection.
Additional Byline: Researched by David Nguyen, KCTS 9 intern.


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Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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What there was of this short video was interesting. I'd like sometime to see a video of how George Pocock and his generation made wooden boats such as the Husky Clipper, the skiff that went to the Olympics, etc.

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