At one point, Pocock Racing Shells stood alone atop the world of rowing.
After all, the company in its heyday built nearly all of the racing shells used by college crews in America.
Crews rowing Pocock boats won gold medal after gold medal at the Olympics.
The company, today based in Everett, dominated the racing-shell industry and no one gave it a second thought.
What happened at the 1960 Olympics in Rome marked the beginning of a decline in popularity of Pocock boats.
The U.S. eight-oared shell, crewed by the Naval Academy, failed to win a medal.
“That had never happened in the annals of the modern Olympics,” said Bill Tytus, 68, current owner and president of Pocock Racing Shells.
Winner of the gold medal was a German crew using slightly different equipment and rowing a boat from a different manufacturer, Tytus said. It shook coaches’ confidence in Pocock boats.
“That began the reign of doubt,” he said. “So from that day on, really, all kinds of things changed.”
In the following lean years, the Pocock brand came to signify past glory.
When he bought the company in 1985, Bill Tytus could have probably sold a lot more boats if he had just renamed the business, said his son, John Tytus, 41, vice president in charge of sales for Pocock Racing Shells.
But his dad refused.
“His thing was: It was founded by George Pocock, it was THAT company and over his dead body would it be changed.”
Now the 104-year-old company is seeing a resurgence. Its name and glory were returned to the public’s conscience by the 2013 award-winning book, “The Boys In The Boat,” by author Daniel James Brown, about the University of Washington crew that rowed to victory in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
More importantly, the company is seeing an increase in sales for its boats built at its shop at 615 80th St. SW.
That’s due in part to Title IX, a federal law that’s still reshaping the NCAA.
The company has changed over the years — it was founded in Seattle and moved to Everett and wood boats gave away to carbon fiber ones.
What hasn’t changed is the enduring vision of founder George Yeoman Pocock, whose words written in calligraphy are framed and hang on the wall of the company.
“It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”
A delicate thing made fast
Modern rowboat racing — the oldest intercollegiate sport in the U.S. — started on the River Thames in London in the early 18th century, with races between professional boatmen seasoned by ferrying clients back and forth across the river.
Big purses for prize money led to a criminal element getting involved. It wasn’t uncommon for a man to arrive for a race only to find his boat sawn in half.
It was an atmosphere familiar to George Pocock, a descendant of itinerant boat builders who apprenticed under his father building racing shells at England’s prestigious Eton College, according to Brown’s book.
When George won a race across the Thames in a boat he built, the prize of 50 English pounds allowed him and his older brother, Dick, to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia, in search of work.
They arrived in 1911, when George was 20. After working as carpenters and in lumber camps, the brothers were hired by the Vancouver Rowing Club to build racing sculls.
From there, Hiram B. Conibear — known as the father of Washington rowing — lured them to the University of Washington campus to build racing shells for his fledgling rowing program. It was around this time that George Pocock reportedly taught Conibear a rowing stroke based on precision rather than brute strength, which soon became known as the Conibear stroke.
The Pocock brothers spent the World War I years building float-plane pontoons for William E. Boeing’s new airplane company, but in 1922, George Pocock returned to building racing shells on the UW campus and his brother went east to build boats for Yale University.
At the time, metals like aluminum were coming into favor and George Pocock didn’t like it, said Bill Tytus. Pocock missed working with wood and he missed boat building.
Pocock went on to become one of the world’s leading designer and builder of boats for the next 50 years, crafting the Husky Clipper used by the Washington crew team that won the Olympics in Germany. His boats continued to bring home medals for American crew teams for years.
In a film called, “The Symphony of Motion,” George Pocock revels in the beauty of a thin strip of Western red cedar. Building a good boat creates “a sense of fulfillment, of good craftsmanship,” his says. His son, Stan Pocock, who took over the company when his dad died in 1976, said in the film that there’s beauty in watching a good boat being rowed: “The very idea of the thing is to make a very delicate thing go fast.”
A chance meeting
It was around 1960 that Bill Tytus met the Pococks. At that time the Pocock company was still on the UW campus in the Conibear Shellhouse and Tytus was a 12-year-old boy on a bike, lured to the boathouse by something other than boats.
“It was right next door to the town dump,” he said.
Today it’s a parking lot, but the dump back then was huge, Tytus said. Methane gas burned off in what looked like brick barbecues, he said, “so they had this row of eternal fires and just some of the coolest stuff you can imagine laying around the dump.”
Eventually, though, he did poke his nose in at the boathouse. And fell under the spell of the man who’d mentored generations of college crewmen and regarded rowing and boat-building almost as a religion. George Pocock had a lilting English accent and just about everything he said would make a good quote, Tytus said.
Just a few years after that meeting, the UW’s administration forced the Pococks to move their business off campus, deciding that a private for-profit enterprise on a public school campus was in violation of university policy.
As a result, George and Stan Pocock moved the company to a Northlake Way location on Lake Union, below the I-5 bridge, where Stan Pocock continued experiments he’d begun with fiberglass and composite materials for racing shells. Impressed by materials used in the aerospace industry, “he developed the first line of all carbon fiber monocoque racing shells in 1981,” according to the Pocock website. Stan Pocock died in December 2014 at the age of 91.
Bill Tytus graduated from the UW and a graduate degree from Harvard, spent a few years teaching in Boston and made some money building custom homes. He also knew the industry, having rowed in college and been friends with the Pococks for many years. Later his firstborn son, whom he named John Pocock Tytus, would also row in college, in Syracuse, N.Y., and fall in love with boats.
“There are times — and for me it happened a lot less frequently than it did for my dad — but there’s times when you’re rowing in a boat that it’s truly transcendent,” John Tytus said. “And it’s like, you cannot duplicate it. And it’s like my dad said, these old fogies chase this stuff, they still do, trying to get a piece of it, because it was so magical.”
Rowing has the power to transform lives, said Bill Tytus, who has also coached the sport. Many are the times he’s heard from parents who were frantic because their child had gotten involved with the wrong group of friends and was getting into trouble, he said.
“The last chance for this kid was, they make him go sign up for a junior rowing program some place and I’m not exaggerating,” Tytus said, “three months later, the kid’s got the haircut, he’s got a new group of friends and they talk about nice things.”
It was under Bill Tytus’ watch that Pocock Racing Shells moved to Everett after the Seattle location grew too expensive and too mired in city restrictions for a manufacturing company like Pocock Racing Shells to operate, Bill Tytus said. Moving north was the best thing he ever did, he and his son said.
“Snohomish County embraces small business unlike anywhere else,” John Tytus said.
Changing nature of rowing
The nature of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association changed as did the way Olympic crews were selected. No longer did they consist of the winning college crew, as in Brown’s book, when the UW crew beat UC-Berkeley on Lake Washington and went on to race the East Coast college elite for the right to row for Olympic gold.
A Vesper Rowing Club of Philadelphia crew — a composite of both college and club members — won the gold medal for the USA in 1964 in Tokyo, rowing a Pocock racing shell in eight-oared boat competition, according to historylink.org.
But in 1968, the USA team used fiberglass boats mass-produced overseas and came in last in the eight-oared boat competition, marking “the beginning of the end for American dominance in world-class rowing”.
If the dominance of Pocock boats was also fading, the 1960 Olympic defeat was just one of many catalysts, said former UW rowing coach Bob Ernst. (Ernst, a longtime coach for men and women rowing at the UW, was fired in November after a reported dispute with students and administration. The firing came after he was interviewed for this story.)
It was “a sign of the times,” Ernst said, pointing out that the car industry was changing too; while in the 1950s, everyone was buying Chevys, Buicks and Fords, during the 1960s, imports like Datsuns arrived on the scene.
“It became more of a global market,” he said.
Competition also increased in sports. Some countries had been too busy rebuilding after World War II to engage in the Olympics, he said, but in 1956 the Soviet Union participated for the first time and, in 1964, East Germany competed under its own banner.
Also a factor in the change in fortunes for Pocock Racing Shells was the company’s expulsion from the UW campus, where it had no overhead. Partly for this reason, the price of $1,250 for a Pocock eight-oared boat stayed the same from the company’s inception into the 1950s, according to a December 2014 post by Peter Mallory on row2k.com.
The price of an eight-oared Pocock boat today ranges from $32,750 to $45,900.
George Pocock could have raised his prices despite his lack of overhead, but having been partially paid in Boeing stock during his time there, he discovered after a few years that he was set for life, states Mallory’s post, and he wanted to pass on his good fortune to the sport of rowing.
One unintended result of keeping his prices low was that no one else could compete in the boat-building market.
Today there is competition from American and European boat builders. Much has changed for Pocock Racing Shells, but a Boeing influence remains. The newest carbon fiber boats are crafted from the same material used in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, Tytus said.
The next material will also likely be one used in the airplane industry. While not “revolutionary” like carbon fiber, boron fiber is a safe bet, Tytus said, and will probably be used in boat-building when the price comes down to a sporting-goods level.
“Our boats don’t suffer from any strength issues,” he said. “We’re always looking for stiffness and boron is that in spades.”
A boat-building genius
These days Pocock Racing Shells is thriving, “doing better than it’s ever done,” John Tytus said.
With 20 skilled boat builders, it turns out four boats a month — from small, single sculls to 58-foot-long, eight-oared “swing” boats like that used by “The Boys in the Boat” — and has a four- to five-month backlog.
The company specializes in building boats for colleges, Bill Tytus said, and the number of college crews — which can number 50 to 60 students — has grown in recent years, largely due to Title IX. (Signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, Title IX states that no one can be excluded, on the basis of sex, from participation in any educational programs or activities getting federal financial aid.) No one buys more Pocock boats than the UW, said Ernst, estimating that 40 of 50 racing shells at the university are Pococks.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he said of Bill Tytus, “he’s a boat-building genius.”
As for “The Boys in the Boat” a film crew recently filmed a documentary about the 1936 Olympic crew, with current UW crew members as extras and starring vintage boats owned by the Everett Rowing Association. The documentary is expected to air next July on PBS, Ernst said.
He said he worked closely with Brown, editing the book five times.
Along with Bill and John Tytus, he’s read it several times and praised it for its vivid story line and accurate portrayal of rowing.
Ernst said he’s also given countless tours of the current Conibear Shellhouse, home of the Husky Clipper, the Pocock boat given immortality by those nine working-class Washington boys.
“We’ve had thousands of people come from all over the world …they started coming as soon as the book hit the market.”
Bill Tytus said he can imagine a scenario in which the book inspires a new generation of crew.
“They read the book and the book is thrilling,” he said. “And they’re driving over the bridge one day and they see the boats out there and they realize that they can actually do that.