EVERETT — In the spring and early summer, John Tytus and his crew were praying for the return of college football.
Tytus, the owner of Pocock Racing Shells, is a gridiron fan, for sure.
But Pocock’s customers — colleges and universities — depend heavily on football revenues to help pay for club and non-revenue-generating sports such as competitive rowing.
With the COVID-19 pandemic closing campuses and canceling football, demand for Pocock’s racing boats has dried up.
“Our biggest customers are colleges. Business is down 50%,” said Tytus.
The Everett manufacturer has been building racing shells for college teams in North America and Europe for more than 100 years.
“Some boats have shipped but we haven’t gotten paid for them. Others have been paid for but aren’t being picked up,” said Tytus, whose family has owned the business for the past 35 years.
This spring, Tytus saw fear in his workers’ eyes.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys with families,” he said of the shop’s employees. “We all needed college football to happen. That was the message all spring and summer.”
Last month, colleges began declaring their plans.
Many said they’ll skip football and other varsity sports, including crew, this fall.
The Pac-12 Conference, which includes the University of Washington, canceled football through the end of the year. The Big Ten Conference also postponed its season, though it’s mulling a late-November start.
“Stanford cut men’s rowing, Dartmouth cut lightweight men’s rowing and George Washington University cut men’s rowing. They’ve all been customers, so it’s a really big deal,” Tytus said.
Water taxis on the Thames
The company has been building racing shells — long, skinny boats —for competitive rowing since its founding 109 years ago.
The Pocock name is synonymous with racing boats.
George Pocock emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1911 and began churning out boats. Pocock’s brother, Dick, was later awarded a contract to build shells for Yale University.
The Pocock family had built boats for generations, from the time the sport got its start in the 18th century with water taxis — skiffs — on the Thames River in London.
The faster the watermen rowed, the more money they made, Tytus said.
In 1912, Hiram Conibear, coach of the men’s rowing team at the University of Washington, urged Pocock to set up shop in Seattle.
From then on, Pocock’s boats and expertise helped build the UW rowing program. Pocock’s sister, Lucy Pocock, also got on board and coached the UW women’s rowing team from 1913 to 1920. (Women’s rowing was eliminated in 1920 and didn’t return until the 1970s.)
The rivalry between two rowing teams — from the University of Washington and the University of California at Berkeley — is fierce and dates to 1903. Before hydroplane races on Seattle’s Lake Washington first drew spectators in 1951, the town gathered along the lake to watch a motorless contest.
In 1932, “more than one hundred thousand people turned out to view the annual contest between California and Washington,” Daniel James Brown wrote in his 2013 book, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”
A few years later, Pocock built the “Husky Clipper.” The eight-man shell carried the scrappy men’s UW rowing team to a Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Italy’s rowing team finished second, and Germany’s came in third — as Adolf Hitler looked on.
In 1985, Pocock’s son, Stan, sold the business to Tytus’ father, Bill.
“Some people think these boats are built by kayak or canoe makers,” Tytus said.
However, only a handful of companies build the eight- and four-person racing shells that define the sport. The ninth seat, in the stern, is reserved for the coxswain, who steers the boat and set the tempo.
“Our bread and butter are the eights and fours,” said Tytus, though the company also builds singles and doubles for one and two rowers.
The larger boats “have the biggest list price, the biggest margins,” he said. The 57-foot eight-man shells, just 24-inches across at the mid-point, weigh about 206 pounds. They are swift but temperamental. “To make a boat faster, you have to make it tippier,” explained Tytus.
Prices start at $42,000 and include rigging, seat backs, a zippered cover and eight pairs of rowing shoes.
Early boats were made of wood, including mahogany, Western red cedar and Sitka spruce. An eight-man scull might tip the scales at 250 pounds or more.
In the 1980s, carbon fiber composites, the same material that serves as the base for some aircraft components, including the wings of the Boeing 777X, found favor with boat builders and rowers.
The racing boat-airplane industry connection isn’t exactly new.
George Pocock gave up his trade during World War I when airplane maker Bill Boeing tapped him to build a stronger, lighter wooden pontoon for the company’s Model-50 seaplanes, under a U.S. Navy contract.
With orders for military aircraft pouring in, Boeing’s founder promoted Pocock to shop foreman at the company’s factory, the Red Barn in Seattle.
When the war ended and airplane orders fizzled, Pocock returned to boat building.
The second pandemic
The racing boat company weathered the 1918 influenza pandemic. Tytus hopes it will survive the coronavirus pandemic.
While rowing isn’t exactly a contact sport, “it’s impossible to socially distance in an eight-person shell,” said Tytus. “There’s not a need to build the big team boats.”
However, one bright spot has surfaced.
Some campuses are allowing athletes to practice if they can do so safely, Tytus said.
“Since people can’t get together in crew, they still want to practice, so they’re buying single boats,” he said. “There’s been a real run on those.”
Will demand for the 27-foot shells — priced at $10,000 and up — be enough to carry the century-old business through a second pandemic?
Tytus and the company’s 22 employees hope so.
“What’s the alternative? Shutting the doors?” he asked.
In the meantime, until college football shows signs of returning, the company plans to use the lull to design a new line of single shells.
“We’re building new molds for new boats,” Tytus said as he walked through the 26,000-square-foot factory in south Everett. Under a high ceiling and bright lights, a group of workers using squeegees applied plastic resin to carbon fiber fabric, pressed into a mold that forms the hull. Once the glossy white hulls cure, they’ll be buffed, sanded and outfitted.
“Normally this stuff is on the back burner,” said Tytus. “We were too busy building the team boats and we never would have considered it before this. “
Still, he’s had to cut employee hours and turn Friday into a four-hour day.
A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan helped the company make payroll when the factory had to close from March 23 through early June.
“We weren’t considered essential,” said Tytus, referring to Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that shuttered non-essential businesses this spring.
The loan, though helpful, was a temporary fix, he said.
“We’ve run the business conservatively. I’ve got a good relationship with the landlord — my dad,” said Tytus. “We’re in a good position to withstand this now, but can we withstand it for multiple years? No.”
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods