I watched the rowing events at the '76 Olympics in Montreal from the $3 standing-room-only embankment and stood enthralled as Finland's Pertti Karppinen rowed down West Germany's Michael Kolbe in their classic single-sculls duel. As I watched, I thought to myself, "I could do that. Or at least I want to try to do that." Fortunately my perspective didn't allow me to gauge the real size of these titans.
Before the '76 closing ceremony, I arranged to buy a used Pocock racing shell, so all I needed were oars. From Montreal, I went to Seattle, where my first stop was Pocock's shop on the shore of Lake Union. Stan Pocock, son of the late George Pocock, tolerated my intrusion into his busy enterprise; I received enough of a tour to fix forever in my mind the smell of fresh-cut red cedar, and I bought a pair of oars for $297, two pairs of grips and a Pocock T-shirt.
On my way down the stairs I met Conn Findlay, the quintessential amateur sportsman. He not only teamed with Dennis Conner to win a bronze medal in the Tempest sailing event in Montreal but also had two Olympic gold medals in the toughest of all rowing events, the pairs with coxswain. Findlay had won his rowing medals in Pocock shells. This was my chance to learn from the master, so I introduced myself and asked if he could give me some advice.
Findlay glanced down for a moment at his huge, callused hands and said, "All I can tell you is that it might take a little longer than you think." He was right, of course, as I eventually learned. Every oarsman seems to learn something different from the discipline of rowing. I was fortunate; with Conn's help, I acquired within the four walls of Pocock's shop all the knowledge I needed for a lifetime of rowing.
Now comes Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing (University of Washington Press, $19.95), which tells the story of George Pocock and the exceptionally fast Pocock racing shells that have dominated the rowing world for four decades. The smooth combination of Gordon Newell's historical narrative and excerpts from Pocock's extensive journals makes the story come alive. The title was Pocock's choice, and in this age of teasing titles he showed a poet's insight—every English-speaking oarsman, upon reading the first two words, will involuntarily add the missing third word: "Row!"
Newell describes the upbringing of George and his younger brother, Dick, the sons of a second-generation boat-builder, in Eton, England; the brothers, both scullers, even won their passage money to North America by rowing. After sailing from England in steerage, they took the train to Vancouver. There they worked in a sawmill, but after George lost two fingers in an accident, they changed careers and established their own business, a boatbuilding shop on a floating clubhouse in the middle of Coal Harbor on Vancouver Island.
But Vancouver was no match for the bright lights of Seattle, and after a year the Pococks opened a new shop on the University of Washington campus. (The Pocock-University of Washington connection has been a splendid partnership—the union survives today. A decade after the passing of George Pocock, his son still runs the shop.)
During World War I and its aftermath, George made a six-year detour from boatbuilding to work for Boeing. He returned to the boats in 1922, and with the proliferation of his craft, American rowing entered a golden age. Victories in six Olympic Games brought Pocock shells worldwide recognition, but George's passion remained with the college programs.
One of the best things about Ready All! is its revelation of George Pocock's sensitivity to the rowing spirit. He had no interest in the "beef and technology" direction that rowing was taking in 1970, when he relinquished much of the day-to-day operations. He was all finesse; a very humble, accomplished man, and he loved poetry.
"I am by birth, nature and inclination a traditionalist," George said of himself. He loved the sport of rowing and understood its essence. Pocock provided the "ready all"; he left it to the oarsmen to provide the "row."
I've bought and sold a dozen single sculls over the years, but I'll never part with my Pocock. The reason is best summed up in one of George's favorite lines of poetry, and the world's: Keats's "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."