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.