George Pocock is a British boat maker who revolutionized the boat making process and helped lead the 1936 Washington men’s crew to gold at the summer Olympics in Germany and made several other Olympic boats for America in his lifetime. George Pocock was a famous boat maker who moved from England to Washington to build shells for America’s rowing venue. Pocock was born in Teddington, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom, or, more simply, a town about 40 minutes away from London. He and his brother, Dick, learned how to make boats from their father, who was an accomplished sculler and who provided boats for Eton college. George was also a very good sculler, and his victories in the single on the Thames River. This river is a significant location for rowing in Britain, many colleges and clubs practice on it and it is host to one of the oldest and famous regattas in rowing history, The Henley Regatta) provided him enough money to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia with his brother in search of better business prospects.
History: Rowing never really became a sport until the early 18th century, where ferrymen would race in their small taxi boats. This evolved into what rowing is known as today; boat makers started to make slimmer and longer boats for Cambridge and Oxford colleges (these two colleges raced each other every year in a race called “the boat race,” it still takes place today).
Terminology: At a current regatta (a rowing race), one could find a variety of six different boat classes.
- Single (1x)one person with two oars
- Double (2x) two people with two oars
- Pair (2-) two people, one oar each
- Four (4+) five people, one is a coxswain, and four rowers with one oar each
- Quad (4x) four people, two oars each
- Eight (8+) nine people, one coxswain, eight rowers, one oar each.
The boats that have two oars per person are sculling boats, and the ones with one oar each are called sweep boats.
George’s Rowing career in Britain was challenging, and not because he was a bad rower. Pocock’s family moved from the small town of Teddington to another one in the more sophisticated Thames area. The equivalent of this move in America would be like moving from a small rural farming town to an upper-crust Ivy league college neighborhood. Pocock wasn’t taken seriously because of his different accent and ways of life. This only drove him to become a better rower, and eventually, he got the respect he deserved. This same preserving attitude helped George and Dick in their endeavors in America.
In 1911, the brothers found a boathouse that they could use to live and make boats in. The boathouse was cold and wet, and in low tide it would sit on the mudflats, and when the tide came in, the lower floor would often flood. The brothers work for nearly a year without much luck in the way of recognition or money, but salvation came on a cold and rainy day as Hiram Conibear, Washington crew head coach, rowed out to the brothers’ boathouse and offered to buy twelve new eight-man shells. The brothers were ecstatic. They immediately headed down to Seattle to get to work, but they were sorely disappointed. The Washington crew program was underdeveloped and only had enough funds for one of the twelve eight man boats that the Pococks were promised.
History: Eventually, rowing grew into a popular sport in England. Rowing moved across the puddle into America, where it took hold in New England Ivy League colleges such as Yale, Princeton, and Cornell. From there it migrated over to the west coast, particularly Washington and California. Rowing grew to such popularity that at its peak, it was comparable with today’s NFL. The boats that the ferry-men in England rowed in were wide and ungainly, something that you would see someone fishing out of. Fortunately, once rowing became a popular sport, boat makers developed sleeker and longer shells, using thin planks of wood molded around a skeleton, usually made of a stiff wood like ash. This style of boat making prevailed until George Pocock transformed the way shells were made.
Despite the initial let down in Washington, the shell Pocock made for the crew won the Pacific Coast Championship against Cal university and went on to win the Washington crew third at the National Championship on the east coast. Boat orders started to roll in from teams around the country, until 1916 when America began to get involved in WWI. The brothers shifted to making and designing plans for Boeing until 1922, when new technology began to make wood planes obsolete. Dick took a job offer from Yale university as a boat maker, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Eventually, George returned to boat making but unlike his brother, he sold his boats all across the country.
Most sweeping boats (except the pair) have a coxswain, who is incharge of steering and calling race plan moves. When rowing, a person would sit on a seat that rolls on a track facing the stern of the boat. Using legs, body, and arms one propelled themselves backward with the oar(s). For sweep rowers, steering is more difficult, hence the coxswain, but for scullers, the two oars allow for easier maneuverability. A sculling oar is about 9.5 feet, with a six inch handle and a blade that looks like a cutting board (sort of). A sweep blade is about 12 feet long, with a handle that is about a foot long so it can be gripped by both hands. The two main seasons are spring and fall, spring being the more serious of the two. Boat lengths range from 23 feet (singles) to 62 feet (eights). Fall is long distance (about 4-5 kilometers), and spring is a 2 kilometer sprint.
Being based in Washington, Washington’s crew got the best of Pocock. Pocock’s boats were excellent, possibly the best in the nation at the time, but his rowing knowledge was of much greater use to Washington head coach, Al Ulbrikson. Ulbrikson was an extremely strict and stoic coach. He had been an accomplished rowing himself and had helped Washington win the Pacific Championship against Cal. Pocock would often give Ulbrickson and Bolles (the freshman coach) advice on how to perfect their rowers. George would often row up to the eights in his single to give them up close advice. This along with all the other perks of having Pocock working on top of the Washington boathouse made Ky Ebright, the Cal crew head coach extremely jealous. Pocock however, always made a point of giving Ebright coaching tips whenever he saw him at regattas. During the couple of years leading up to the 1936 summer olympics, Pocock and Ulbrikson worked non stop to create the perfect crew. Months of cold, wet, hard training, and a combination of wins and losses in America produced a crew that had a chance to win on the international stage. To learn more about the 1936 olympic crew, read The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel Brown. Pocock remained in Washington for the rest of his life, making boats and teaching rowers. He had developed a better way to make faster boats, the boats that became so desired by colleges across America. Boats made by other producers weren’t as streamline in the water, mainly because the shell was made from individual planks connected to the skeleton inside the boat. Pocock’s boats were made from one extremely thin piece of cedar, which was steamed to make it more malleable. Pocock would form and attach the cedar around the skeleton. This design was lighter, more streamlined, and added more life to the boat. Over time, the cedar would tighten, giving the boat more camber, and a more lively feel. George’s boats went on to win several more national championships and Olympic events, even today his boats are used in clubs, high schools, and colleges. Today’s shells are made from fiberglass and extra light carbon honeycomb. The Pocock boat company sells all over America and even has a large club called Pocock Rowing Club that is based in Seattle.
Pocock’s contributions to the rowing world are some of the most important and influential of the past century. He transformed the University of Washington’s rowing program into one of the best in the world and his boat making method, along with other advancements on rowing technology, have lasted ever since. George’s life is an example on how we should live our lives. Not of course as boat makers, but as fighters. George was thrown into adversity and challenged at every step in his life. His move to Thames brought a distinct change in his life, as for the first time, he had to cope with what so many feel today, the stigmas towards foreigners. Even though Pocock was from Britain, spoke the same language, played the same sport, learned the same things at school, his different accent was enough to set him apart. Instead of giving up and falling into place, as the Thames boys would have wanted, George became one of the best rowers in the area, showing that despite his differences, he could still be great.
Next George and his brother travel to North America in search of better business prospects. The adversity they faced there is one that most people face at least one time in their life. Having to pick up and move, creating a new life in an unknown environment can be scary, especially when work isn’t a guaranteed thing. The Pococks lived in an awful house in an awful location, and yet they still carried on doing what they loved, making boats. Their hard work eventually paid off, when Conibear recruited them to build Washington 12 boats. This brief respite in their difficulties was broken when Washington could only pay for one boat. The disappointment the brothers must have felt is felt by people all the time.; the expectation of something great or some redeeming event that is stripped away. What should one do in this case? The Pocock brothers stayed in Washington, and eventually, their efforts paid off. They became nationally recognized and boat orders began to pour in. Unfortunately, good things don’t last forever, and in 1918, when World War 1 was in full swing and the market for rowing shells was greatly depleted, the Pococks had to find new sources of income. They left the boat industry to work for Boeing when they had to find a job that would provide enough money. However, once the war was over, the brothers returned to boat making, and George in particular became world famous once again when he built the boat that would win the 1936 Olympics.
George did not only build boats, he built a legacy that remains to this day in boat houses, coaches, and regattas.