Port Townsend’s Legacy of Wooden Rowing Shells

In 1998 the phone rang at the Cupola House, then home of the Wooden Boat Foundation, and was handed to Board member Steve Chapin. The Everett Rowing Association wanted to talk to someone about donating an old Pocock wooden 8-oared rowing shell. As with so many stories surrounding wooden boats, this was a moment of magic synchronicity. 

The rowing vessel Salish Star had been recently built by Ed Louchard and Alex Spear as an addition to the WBF rowing program. Chapin, a lean and athletic local shipwright, had recently taken up rowing with his fellow woodworker Ole Kanestrom. As they watched the Salish Star they had a dream, like so many here in the City of Dreams, of a fleet of rowing shells plying the waters of Port Townsend Bay.

As fans of Daniel James Brown’s book “Boys in the Boat” will know, a Pocock wooden rowing shell is a boat of not only sport, but also history, art and craft. George Pocock and his brother Dick founded Pocock Racing Shells in 1911 in Seattle. Later George’s son Stan, late friend of the Port Townsend wooden boat rowing community, took over the business. Throughout much of the 20th century, Pocock-built wooden boats dominated in collegiate crew competition.   

The WBF accepted Everett’s offer, and thus the first Pocock shell was acquired: the rowing vessel Quinault. According to Stan Pocock, the Quinault was built around 1949 as a “bat boat” with a double hull to add strength and durability for the Navy’s interbattalion rowing program. The Quinault was apparently built for the University of Washington and later was rowed by Western Washington University where Kanestrom rowed it in the 1970′s. From there it wound up in the Everett program.

The Quinault was the flagship, and only boat, of the fledgling Port Townsend Rowing Club. According to Chapin, the boat attracted attention and got friends together who started rowing. In 2005, the PT Rowing Club became the Rat Island Rowing and Sculling Club (RIRSC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people of all ages discover the joy of rowing and, in particular, of rowing historic wooden boats. 

The popularity of rowing has been increasing but newer, lighter materials now dominate competitive rowing. There are those who claim that a well-built wooden shell, rowed well by the crew, can still be competitive. Members of the RIRSC, of which the author is a member, swear that rowing in wooden boats is a different, often near-mystical experience. Janet Palmer, current president of the RIRSC, describes the boats sounding alive, “an organic sound in the water,” the “color and glow” and “the creak of the wood” as it smoothly glides through water. 

Usually the RIRSC proudly displays their fleet of wooden boats at the Wooden Boat Festival. Sadly cancelled this year, you can still get a glimpse of the boats in the early morning near the NWMC or along the Port Townsend waterfront.

The publication of “Boys in the Boat” has increased awareness and interest in these beautiful boats. First there was a PBS-produced documentary, “Boys of ’36,” and now Hollywood is calling. For readers who have not had the pleasure of reading the book, the plot culminates in the 1936 Olympics when a group of working class northwestern college men travel to Germany to row. Spoiler alert: they won. 

PBS needed an old wooden Pocock for the shoot. By that time, Chapin had built a reputation as a master Pocock shell boatbuilder. Chapin, a local hero among rowers who generously gives of his time and advice for all things wooden boat, had taken on the task to repair the badly damaged Hoh, one of only two wooden Pocock shells still in existence to have won gold in the Olympics. Stan Pocock and Bill Tytus, current owner of Pocock Racing Shells, were so impressed that Tytus decided to donate the entire wooden singles factory of parts, stocks, jigs, and molds to him, launching the Pocock Cedar Singles Project.

So when PBS came to call, Chapin along with Dianne Roberts and her team of rowers, Tuf as Nails, helped to support the production by lending the wooden rowing 8 called the Husky Challenger.  The Challenger was built in 1956, eventually making it to Port Townsend where the Tuf as Nails crew spent two years restoring her, and then rowing it in the 2004 San Diego Crew Classic. A sister ship to the Husky Clipper, it was used as a “stunt double” in the filming of the PBS documentary.

Hollywood has now reached out…z

Hollywood has now reached out to Chapin, as well as a select group from Pocock Racing Shells, the Pocock Rowing Center and others who are in the know about the location and condition of old Pocock shells across the country. In their desire to ensure historic accuracy, the executive producer and production designer of the upcoming movie version of “Boys in the Boat” were considering using actual Pocock shells for the film. Using these historic boats, considering their delicate condition and the fact that they would have to be (gasp!) cut into sections for overseas transport, was not an ideal solution. And, as the movie is set in the 1930s, the boats should look new.  

The Boys in the Boat author Daniel James Brown and Judy Rantz Wilman, rowing in the Pocock shell Quinault with the Rat Island Rowing and Sculling Club, Port Townsend, WA. Photo by Joel Rogers.

Although the boats for the film will likely be constructed using composite materials, the production crew is still interested in ensuring that they look like the real thing. Chapin, serving as a technical advisor for the film, has provided wood samples of different components, as well as advice as to how the boats should not only look but how they should behave under the stress of a crew of eight strong young men.

Of course, the actors will need to be taught to row. Collegiate rowing in 1936 was different than today. The slide of the seat was shorter, and rowers had more “swing” –the coordinated movement of rower’s bodies back and forth during each stroke. Also these young men had not come up from years of pre-collegiate rowing in schools and clubs, but rather from logging and fishing families of Washington.

The rowers of RIRSC welcome the film’s actors as well as George Clooney, the director, to experience rowing in the club’s historic shells in preparation for filming. Author Brown and Judy Rantz Wilman, daughter of Olympic gold medal winner Joe Rantz who is profiled in the book, rowed in the Quinault at the 2014 Wooden Boat Festival. In the meantime, we can play the guessing game of what actors will play Rantz and the other Boys in the movie. For now, it’s anyone’s guess. 


TOP PHOTO: Rat Island Rowing and Sculling Club, wooden racing shells on the beach, classic cedar racing boats, 2014 Wooden Boat Festival, Port Townsend, WA. Photo by Joel Rogers.

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