Pocock Racing Shells – a brief history of an American legend, by Howard Aiken

The Pocock Legend is born

In 1923, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s (IRA) regatta at Poughkeepsie, NY was already a well-established showcase for elite “Ivy League” college rowers. However, in that year, a crew from Washington University in Seattle became the first ever west coast crew to win at the regatta, a victory which apparently astonished the watching crowds. Watching the race was the man who built the Washington University boat, an émigré Englishman by the name of George Yeoman Pocock.  His craftsmanship clearly attracted attention, because within a decade, the majority of crews rowing at the IRA regatta were in Pocock boats and by 1943 every one of the thirty boats entered in the event came from his Seattle workshop.

George Pocock’s boat-building skills were built on deep foundations. His paternal grandfather had built boats in London for the professional watermen who rowed goods and passengers along the Thames.  His maternal grandfather was also a boat-builder as was his uncle and his father, Aaron Pocock, who built racing shells for Eton College.

Until 1927 George built racing boats exactly as his father had taught him.  Using a straight steel girder some sixty feet long as a form, he would build a light but strong wooden frame of spruce and ash to create the streamlined shape of the boat.  He would then create the hull by bending carefully shaped strips of Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata, actually a type of mahogany) along the length of the frame, to which they would be attached by glue and brass screws.  Immense care was needed to produce a perfectly smooth shell, which would be covered with several coats of marine varnish, each of which would again be sanded smooth before the application of the next coat.

His trademark innovation came in 1927 when he tried using the western red cedar (Thuja plicata), native to the Pacific northwest rather than Spanish cedar. Native Americans had used the local cedar for generations to build canoes. According to D J Brown (in his book The Boys in the Boat):

“Western red cedar…is a kind of wonder wood.  Its low density makes it easy to shape, whether with a chisel, a plane, or a handsaw. Its open structure makes it light and buoyant, and in rowing, lightness means speed.  Its tight, even grain makes it strong but flexible, easy to bend yet disinclined to twist, warp or cup.  It is free of pitch or sap, but its fibres contain chemicals called thujaplicins that act as natural preservatives, making it highly resistant to rot while at the same time lending it its lovely scent.  It is beautiful to look at, it takes a finish well, and it can be polished to a high degree of luster, essential for providing the smooth, friction free racing bottom a good shell requires.”


George Pocock stands beside some of his cedarwood shells.

From the massive ancient cedar trees on Vancouver Island, Pocock found he could mill solid, flawless planks over twenty inches wide and sixty feet long – the full length of his longest shells.  These planks could in turn be shaved into long, flexible sheets of veneer, just 4mm thick, which he would use in matched pairs to shape the hull.  So instead of using dozens of narrow mahogany strips, he now used just two matched and seamless cedarwood sheets to form his shells.  Harvard University was one of the first buyers of Pocock’s new cedarwood boats and they reported that it was demonstrably faster than the earlier design.

The story of how George Pocock, his brother Dick and (for a while) his father Aaron, came to be building boats in Seattle USA, is a saga which intersects with Olympic history from the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928 onwards and with the history of elite rowing in the USA in every decade since the 1920s.  However, George Pocock was much more than a boat builder.  He was also a rower, a coach and an inspirational sage on almost everything to do with rowing and sculling.

The heritage – Pocock boats 1890 – 1911

Around the year 1890, George’s father Aaron Pocock, a good boat builder but a poor businessman, was running his own boatyard at Kingston-upon-Thames, England.  His boats were admired, but not long after George was born in 1891, Aaron was bankrupt, lost his business and became instead a humble journeyman, travelling the Thames in search of any work he could find. As the fourth of five children, George lived a hard but happy childhood in and around the village of Shepperton. This went on for ten years until his father was offered permanent employment as a boat builder at Eton College.

Eton had set up their own boatyard to build and maintain their fleet of boats.  Aaron became one of four boatmen at Eton’s yard, building racing shells of all sizes, from eights down to singles, and he evidently impressed his employers, because in 1903 he was appointed manager. George was 12 years old at the time and later recalled that one of the perks of being the manager’s son was the opportunity to take boats out on the river. With his family history of boats and rowing it is not surprising that George became a very competent rower and sculler.

George left school at fourteen and was indentured to his father as an apprentice at Eton.  He loved boats and he found that he loved everything about building them.  Although he began his apprenticeship doing menial jobs (sweeping out the boathouse, sharpening the tools) his early impressions of life as a boat builder were “nothing less than heavenly”.  At fifteen he rowed his first junior race at Henley-on-Thames Town Regatta – and won.  At seventeen he built his own single scull for a professional race at Putney and won again. His winnings from that race were no less than fifty pounds – a small fortune in those days.

George’s older brother Dick was also a keen rower, winning the prestigious Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, the oldest recorded rowing competition in the world, at his first attempt in 1910.  All in all things were going very well for the whole Pocock family in that year, but it was not to last. Management changes at the Eton College boatyard cost Aaron Pocock his job, and the family suddenly found themselves again looking for work wherever they could find it.

George and his brother Dick spent many weeks looking for work on the river in London but without success.  Then, having heard from a friend that logging companies in British Columbia were paying ten pounds per week to lumberjacks just for sawing down trees, they emigrated to Vancouver on the Pacific coast of Canada.

Vancouver, Canada.

The journey from London to Vancouver took two weeks and the brothers arrived on March 23rd 1911.  Within a week George had got a job at the Vancouver Rowing Club, but the pay was only $1.30 per day so a month later he left for the logging camps. He found that he didn’t like logging.

After jobs at the Vancouver shipyards (which cost George two fingers from his right hand) and together with his brother again as a building labourer, by early 1912 they were running out of money and facing hard times.

They were saved by a man named Hudson who had rowed at Cambridge arrived at Vancouver Rowing Club.  He heard of the Pocock’s boatbuilding skills and invited them to a meeting at the club.  The outcome was an order for two single sculls for which the club agreed to pay $200.

The bothers actually built three singles, sold two to the club for the agreed $200 and kept one for themselves.  The news spread through the small but enthusiastic community of rowers in British Columbia that professionally built boats were now obtainable locally.  Orders followed – $1000 for a trio of fours from a local club. Two more fours for the James Bay Athletic Club of Victoria and another for the Prince Rupert Rowing Club.  And then a man by the name of Hiram Conibear arrived at their workshop.  He was the rowing coach at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Seattle, USA

Conibear had seen the boats they had built for the Vancouver Rowing Club and had decided to hire the brothers as part of his development plan for rowing at Washington.  He wanted them to move across the border to Seattle where he would set them up with a workshop on campus – and he assured them that their first job would be to build a fleet of twelve racing eights.

In July 1912 the Pocock brothers took the short trip to Seattle and were shown around the university by Conibear.  George later described it as “a sad-looking place” with only three permanent buildings and the rest an assortment of temporary structures.  One of these was the proposed workshop, a shabby faux-Japonais wooden building known as the Tokyo Tea Room.  However, Conibear insisted that if they accepted his offer, they would be able to fit it out as they needed.

Returning to Vancouver, the brothers decided to accept the offer and move to Seattle.  More than that, knowing that their father was still unemployed in the UK, they invited him to come to America and help them build the University of Washington fleet.  Aaron Pocock accordingly made arrangements to cross the Atlantic with his family.  They were actually in transit when Conibear wrote to the brothers with the news that he could in fact afford only one boat rather than the dozen they had agreed. Aaron and Dick were the first Pococks to build a boat in Seattle, while George stayed on in Vancouver.  However, that first Pocock boat was good enough to get another ordered, this time from Stanford University, who had heard good reports of it.  By the time the men returned to Vancouver there was enough of a backlog of orders to prompt a move to bigger premises in the new Vancouver Rowing Club building.  From the autumn of 1912 through to the summer of 1913 the Pococks worked together establishing the reputation of Pocock boats in the Americas.  Aaron then decided that he was homesick for England and returned to the UK.

Later in 1913, Dick and George finally relocated themselves and the business to Seattle.They worked closely with Hiram Conibear until his untimely death in 1916, and after that with his successor as Washington coach, Ed Leader.

Soon after the USA entered the Great War, the Pocock brothers were hired by a Mr. W.E. Boeing of Seattle’s new Pacific Aero Products Company (later the Boeing Airplane Company) to build lightweight pontoons for seaplanes.  George became Head of Experimental  Construction in the Pontoon Department in February 1919. The brothers remained with Boeing until 1922 when the company began to switch from wood to metal for its airframes.  The link with Boeing would re-emerge decades later in the company history.

The two brothers then went separate ways. Dick went east, recruited by Ed Leader who had been appointed head coach at Yale. George, who had recently married, returned to Washington University to resume boat building with Leader’s replacement, Russell Callow.  The first of his new boats won the IRA regatta the following year after which he never looked back as Pocock boats became the standard for elite crews in the USA.

Olympic rowing

The selection of American crews for the Olympic games was routinely based on competition between the top US colleges.  For the Olympic Games of 1928 (Amsterdam) and 1932 (Los Angeles) the chosen squad was from the University of California at Berkeley, coached by an ex-Washington man, Ky Ebright.   He knew all about Pocock boats and used them for both of his gold medal Olympic eights. In 1936, with the Berlin Olympics rapidly approaching, there was a dramatic series of contests between the Washington and California eights, both rowing Pocock boats.  Washington emerged as winners and were duly selected to represent the USA in Berlin.  The story of the 1936 Washington crew has been well told in Daniel Brown’s book, “The Boys in the Boat” and their victory in a nail-bitingly close Olympic final, in which they came from behind to win gold by a very short canvas, is the climax of the book.

US crews continued to dominate at the Olympics until the 1960s, coached by George Pocock’s son Stan in 1956, 1960 and 1964 and during that time only Pocock shells were used by the US Rowing team.

Stan Pocock

Stan Pocock was born in 1923, the year of his father’s breakthrough with the Washington eight at Poughkeepsie.  He graduated in engineering and went on to coach rowers at Washington in from 1947 to 1955. He coached Lake Washington Rowing Club from its formation in 1958, and also coached several gold medal winning crews in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games.

Stan Pocock introduced composite materials.

Stan Pocock introduced composite materials.

While his father was a hardline traditionalist in the craft of boatbuilding, as a graduate engineer, Stan was a leading-edge innovator. He had to wait until his father was away at the 1956 Olympic Games in Australia before he could experiment with fibreglass and other synthetic materials in the Pocock workshops, but the experiment was successful and he went on to produce the first fibreglass boats in 1961.  George died in 1976 and Stan took over the running of the Pocock company.

The connection with the Boeing company which began with George was re-established by Stan.  He explored the innovations in composite materials engineering being made in the aerospace industry and began to apply them to the development of new Pocock boats. The first all carbon-fibre monocoque (ribless) racing shells were developed in 1981.  He also developed the first composite oar (1973) and the moulded seat (1976). Stan Pocock died last year (2014) having passed the management and leadership of the Pocock company to Bill Tytus in 1985.

Bill Tytus and today’s Pocock boats

A look at the designs showcased on the Pocock website (www.pocock.com) illustrates the practical, rower-centred approach which still informs the Pocock brand.  To take just one example, most leading manufacturers now offer shells with ‘wing’ riggers.  Rather than being fixed to the outside of the shell like traditional riggers, wing riggers span the width of the shell and are attached to both sides. Most manufacturers have adapted their shells to wing riggers by lowering their freeboard (the distance between the waterline and the upper edge  of the shell) along the full length of the boat to mount the riggers at the correct height.  In Pocock boats, wing riggers are seated in moulded recesses which allows the boat to retain a higher freeboard and hence less chance of being swamped in rough water.

Bill Tytus is a Pocock man through and through and is immensely proud of the boats the company produces. “I have a deep and admiring respect for our employees. Their care and dedication and skill is second to none in the business.  Unlike what is often assumed about the American work place, these men and women value their work, their craft, and they value the product they produce.  Because of the nature of our customer relationships, we know how much effort our customers are going to put into making these boats go fast. We are proud and pleased to match their effort in building the boats”.

A modern Pocock boat showing the recessed wing-riggers.

A modern Pocock boat showing the recessed wing-riggers.

I took the opportunity to ask him about boatbuilding now.  Modern Pocock eights are slightly shorter and much stiffer than the George Pocock’s cedarwood ‘clippers’ but he sees them as the next generation of the same family. “Contrary to what one might think, there are actually about 20% more hours to build our current composite boat than it took our shop to build a cedar shell.  Today, it is all just hand work.  There is far less machinery in the process.  We essentially start with a pail of resin and a roll of cloth.”  That said, he has honed Stan Pocock’s engineering-led design process to maintain Pococks edge in rowing technology.  For example, Pocock has been making wing riggers since 1987, says Bill. “In 2014 we released our sixth generation, the G6 Wing, which comes on our Comp V8.  In 2015, we will be releasing a new hull, which is outfitted with our seventh generation wing.”  In many ways, that exemplifies the Pocock commitment to ongoing innovation.

Some things don’t change though.  Pocock’s reputation is built largely on their history of partnership with collegiate coaches and rowing programs.  Bill Tytus is absolutely clear, that isn’t going to change. ” The coaches and rowing programs of the US are our business.   University and school programs are our biggest customers by volume, and we foster very close relationships with those coaches and their staffs.”  And George Pocock’s conviction that rowing brings out the best in people is alive and well too. As Bill says, “The experience of rowing in the US isn’t just about winning.  It is about providing an opportunity to learn and grow, for both boys and girls, and men and women.  Whether you are in the first boat or the sixth, there is a place for you to get an education you can only learn on the water. ”

Under Bill Tytus, the Pocock brand has been pushed ever further in the direction of uncompromising engineering. When asked if he would change anything in their finished designs if the market bought boats purely on engineering excellence uninfluenced by fashions or brands “Not at all.  What we do would not differ by one iota, the only difference is it would be much more appreciated. ”

Modern Pocock boats are as representative of the peak in composite materials design as George Pocock’s were of the peak in wood technology.  While George Pocock (and others) might argue that his wooden boats were more beautiful, technology has moved on and Pocock Racing Shells continues to lead the way.