THE BOYS IN THE BOAT


crew

The warm October sun clings to the lost days of summer like the shorts on the long-limbed girls strolling along the bank of a flat calm lake. The two boys rowing ten feet off shore aren’t unmindful of the tanned walkers. One of the boys yells a loud “Hi”, and the girls giggle.

I have just finished reading “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, and was sorry to see it end. It tells the stories of nine boys from the University of Washington who came from poor and sorry circumstances in the Great Depression, yet worked their way through to obtain college degrees and become the finest crew team in the world.

Rowing is an ancient sport, and at both the University of Washington and the University of California they give it deep respect. Crews from both schools have captured gold medals at the Olympics, and Washington’s biggest win was when they did it at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, leaving Hitler red faced and in an especially foul mood, as it had been planned and expected that Germany would grab the gold in all events, and for awhile it looked as if they would. Berlin and the surrounding Olympic venues had been sanitized for the Olympic events, everything depicting a picturesque and sublime Bavarian life, but the terror of the Holocaust had already begun and lurked behind scenes, resuming when the Olympic flag was lowered.

Race rowing was a big sport at Eton College and Westminster School in England, and the elite sport then spread to the east coast of the U.S.A. and from there to the west coast.

The racing shell, unlike the ordinary rowboat, is an extremely narrow, extremely long boat, originally built of wood, and outfitted with long oars and sliding seats. The boat for an eight man crew is sixty feet long and 24″ wide! An eight man crew actually has nine men, eight rowers and a coxswain who is in charge of the steering and navigation of the boat. He sits facing the oarsmen and shouts his orders while the boat ghosts along the water, the long oars dipping in unison and leaving not a ripple. Bobby Moch of the UW team was one of the finest coxswains in that or in any time.

A second generation boat builder whose father built boats for Eton, George Yeomans Pocock came from England to the University of Washington in 1912 and began to build boats used by nearly every college in America.

A champion sculler himself Pocock worked out of a boathouse on the campus of the UW and built his beautiful wood racing shells over the next half century. Shells today are made from reinforced carbon fibre, strong and graceful for sure, but the polished beauty of the wood boat is gone forever. Pocock was a mentor to many of the rowing coaches of the day, including Al Ulbrickson, head coach at Washington, and Ky Ebright, head coach of the University of California, Washington’s rival, for whom Pocock also built boats.

For the four years the boys struggled to stay in college and stay in the boat, Ulbrickson drove them hard and Pocock gave them gentler suggestions steering them toward their biggest victory in Berlin in 1936. During this time, Seattle’s most famous sports writer, Royal Brougham, registered every win and loss of the UW crews, and helped fuel the enthusiasm for crew racing still felt today. Seattle is a big sports town and partly because of the lack of TV coverage in those days, the public swelled with pride at every win heard on the family radio and every word of praise in the local newspaper.

Brougham traveled with the team to Berlin and reported every move of the American teams. His excitement was boundless and on the day of the varsity win over Hitler’s teams, Brougham pounded out probably the greatest column of his 68 year career with the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Unfortunately it was never seen because of a union strike the next day in Seattle.

You might ask why my great interest in the story told in this book? We grew to love Seattle and the University in th years we lived there. One of our daughters and her children graduated from the University, and we attended every sports event for five years. We still fly up for occasional college football games.

Living on the banks of Lake Washington, the vision of rowers, crew or single sculls was an everyday pleasure. Here in California, we of course also root for the Cal boys in their boat since that was Dr. Advice’s school. They row down the Oakland estuary, which lies beside my old home on the island of Alameda. While living in Connecticut in the 30’s I watched the Harvard and Yale crews rowing on the Thames river in New London. The Thames was also the water in which I learned to swim. I don’t seem to be able to get too far from water!

As a final irony in Berlin, Bobby Moch, coxswain from the winning University of Washington, stood on the podium alone to receive his gold medal. Unbeknownst to Hitler and his band of evil, intent on the destruction of an entire race of people, Bobby Moch was a Jew.

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Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

20 thoughts on “THE BOYS IN THE BOAT”

  1. What an inspiring story. Well told and I especially liked ‘ October sun clings to the lost days of summer like the shorts on the long-limbed girls strolling along the bank of a flat calm lake.’.

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  2. Great story and thanks for that bit of rowing history. I took up rowing last year and love it. Don’t get out as much as I should but now the weather is improving, I’m hoping to remedy that. Haven’t quite made it into a racing boat yet so I row in a timber and fibreglass ‘tub’. (Don’t tell the coach but I love that tub – it’s quaint. :D)

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    1. Good for you. Rowing isn’t just good exercise, it’s good fun as you know. Gets you off in your own world where there aren’t any telephones, TV’s, kids, or respected loved ones! You could even take the book out in your boat and get some rowing tips!

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      1. It’s also good for keeping the dementia away – you have to think of a gazillion things at once for it all to work properly. I love the idea of reading and rowing but I row on a Very Busy River and have enough trouble avoiding the school eights and fours and other single scullers as it is. (I once ran into a semi-submerged tree branch while trying to stay out of the way of an eight. The boat stopped, I kept going. Lucky it was a tub so I landed in the bottom of the boat instead of in the river. But in the words of a character on a popular Australian TV show “How embarrassment!”)

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    1. And that’s what it’s all about. These poor kids competing in an elite “gentlemen’s sport, nearly breaking their hearts over it, and against all odds,— winning. I wonder if Hitler ever knew the medal went to someone whose family he probably sent to the death camp?

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  3. The book sounds fabulous, and there’s so much of the history I didn’t know. I’ve always associated rowing with England, and the Northeast schools. I had no idea it was a Big Deal in your part of the world, too. You certainly did tell its tale well, and the fooling of Hitler was perfect.

    Now, for the great laugh. Saturday morning — yes, two days ago — I looked out the window from my computer, and lo! there in the middle of the large marina fairway, this is what I saw. Eight men and women and one female coxswain, just sitting there. I think I know where they came from, and they would have had quite a row to show up outside my place. After a while, everyone came to attention, and off they went.

    I love the photos, but I was wondering how I could put them to use. Now we know!

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    1. Since it really WAS more of an eastern sport, it was always a surprise to the rest of the rowing world that the west could also come up with talented oarsmen.

      Don’t you think it’s weird that you happened to see that crew the other day? Maybe I had started to write this one!

      I love the pics. I’m sure you will think of something to use them with.

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      1. Well, it certainly is serendipitous! I just love that I could send along some pics from the “Third Coast,” as we like to call it. It’s also another example of why I love my place so much. I never know what I’ll see from day to day. When I’m really old and more limited in mobility, that may be a great virtue.

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  4. Wonderful summary of Boys in the Boat. I, too, have read the story–so well written and so many interviews went into its writing. I would offer one small correction, AK, and that is that Jews are not a race of people. They are a group of many different ethnicities, bound together by a food, music, language, and religious beliefs. There are the black Jews of Ethiopia (most of whom who have emigrated to Israel), Hong Kong’s Jews, Iraqi Jews, etc. The Sephardim are from Spain and Portugal; the Ashkenazi from Eastern Europe, many of whom were gassed in the concentration camps. The one thing they have in common is their diminishing numbers. Sad to know that at this time, anti-Semitism has never been so high in Europe as it is now.

    In Boys in the Boat, I couldn’t get over the main character’s girlfriend’s patience and also his horrible step-mother. Despite his family upsets, poverty, pressure to perform in the boat and be a student, earn money, and keep his self-esteem in tact, he held his focus and mustered the courage and strength to win in Berlin.

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    1. Thanks Cheri for correcting my sloppy writing. Of course I am aware of the many ethnicities, and I am glad you spelled that out.

      Yes, Joe Rantz’s stepmother was an unbelievable witch. I also found the epilogue to be truly heartwarming, The deep friendships formed in the years the boys rowed together remained strong to the end.

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  5. Not all that comes out of London and Westminster is good. At his coronation in 1189 (time immemorial, according to Common Law), Richard I, “The Lionheart”, banned all Jews from the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Some leading Jews appeared bearing gifts and he had them stripped and flogged. There followed a massacre of Jews throughout the City. Richard of Devises, a 12th Century chronicler, monk and anti-semite, called it a “holocaust”.

    There was another pogrom in 1215, the year of Magna Carta.

    In 1272 hundreds of Jews were hanged on suspicion of adulterating the coinage and in 1290 all were expelled, spat upon or killed in a mass exodus from the City.

    They drifted back over the centuries masquerading as Christians, but it was Cromwell who finally granted the right of settlement.

    According to Walter Scott, there are three sorts of persecutors of Jews, “the credulous and prejudiced vulgar”, “the greedy and rapacious nobility”, and the religious bigot.

    Since these types are still very much around, perpetual vigilance is required.

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  6. Frightening, and anti-Semitism is again on the rise. The history you supplied should be enough to enlighten people that the Holocaust can happen again. I wonder if the 12th century monk was the first to use the word “holocaust”.

    Watching Putin’s activities, it sadly echoes precisely Hitler’s rise.

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  7. Hi, We loved the Boys in the Boat…gave it to my Dad and he did as well. I think Uncle Sam gave this to Chris so a big thanks to Dr. Advice!

    How is that eye of yours? Hope you are feeling well. I am up at the cabin for a little R and R and then off to Chico tomorrow to see my Dad and Tyler and all.

    Take care, Love Linda

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    1. Hope you are or did have a great time in Chico. I’m behind in my replies! The eye is OK, I’m so glad you all enjoyed the Boys in Thhe Boat. I adored it and it certainly brought back all the early mornings I watched those boys working out on Lake Washington. It was a grant time for us.

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