By KATHY DAY
EVERETT — Bill Tytus sounds like a new papa when you ask him about his proudest moment in building rowing shells.
The current owner of Pocock Racing Shells doesn’t hesitate to tell you that it’s the "birthing" — the moment when a new boat is taken from its mold. A close second is when the first boat comes out of a new mold and "we can see what we’ve built," he said during a recent interview.
Tytus and his crew of 12 at the Pacific Avenue workshop regularly and artfully turn out boats ranging from 21-foot wherries for the solo recreational rower that sell for $2,775 to 60-foot, 200-pound racing shells for teams of eight plus coxswain. The elite competition boats sell for $23,000.
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Each layer requires meticulous hand application of carefully measured amounts of resin, said Marcia Tapp, who not only knows the business but also the sport since she rows for the Lake Washington Rowing Club.
Depending on what part of the boat they’re working on, the builders use carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass.
They also make the riggers, the part that holds the oar; the seats and the tracks they slide on; and "footstretchers" that hold the rowers’ feet in place. Sidelines include multiboat trailers and training aids such as launches and barge kits.
The crew building the boats from modern-day composites leaves the classic wooden single shells to a master craftsman, 74-year-old Bob Brunswick, who has been building shells since 1949. Today, he still turns out wooden oars and the occasional special order $6,250 boat for the oarsman or oarswoman who appreciates the art of boat building and the experience of rowing a handcrafted.
Tytus, who coaches at the Lake Washington Rowing Club, traces his love of rowing and boats to his days as a youngster when he first met Bill Pocock, who founded the company in 1911.
As the story goes, Bill Pocock and his brother George were given their first order for an eight-oared shell by the University of Washington, but were unable to accomplish the task because the university set them up in a lakeside room without heat or lights. In 1916, a man named William E. Boeing hired them to build floatplane pontoons for his new company. George became a foreman in the assembly plant, and Dick built boats for Yale University.
In 1922, their dream of building boats was renewed when the UW came calling again. In 1923, the university team won the national championship in one of George’s boats and the company took off.
George Pocock’s son Stan, who had been a Husky oarsman and later one of the team’s coaches, took over the business when his father died in 1976.
An engineering graduate, he was always trying out new boat building techniques and materials, and built the first all-carbon-fiber monocoque shell, without the traditional ribs and shoulders that brace and strengthen wood shells. Today, the design is the basis for all composite shells coming out of the Pocock factory.
Tytus said he bought the business in 1985 "because it was the right thing to do,"
Stan Pocock, he recalled, "was getting tired and not having fun. He was going to close the doors. … The opportunity and the timing were right."
A former teacher, he had shifted to building houses in the Boston area, but gave that up and moved back to the Puget Sound region, where he had grown up. In 1986, he moved the business to its current location. He strives to uphold the Pocock tradition of building light and, in rowing terms, "stiff" boats that travel through the water with the least amount of drag.
When the company isn’t producing boats, it’s working with Aviation Partners on prototypes for new Boeing winglets.
Aviation Partners comes for Pocock employees’ skills, Tytus said. "In the 1920s, Boeing had engineers but didn’t have the skills with wood. Today we have the handiwork talents and can do it inexpensively."
But building structurally better boats is the company’s primary reason for being, Tytus said, adding, "those insights don’t come all that often."
The actual process has little to do with rowing, he said. "It’s an extraordinarily complicated science."
Tytus noted that exotic materials, once too costly, have become more accessible. And that technology has changed perceptions about the art of boatbuilding.
Today’s boats "are more thinglike," he added. "Plastic is every bit as artful, just more subtle."
The shop lays up one boat at a time, and on a recent day had six in various stages of completion. Average delivery time is about eight weeks, Tapp said. It’s possible to complete an eight-person boat from start to finish in a week, which workers did for the U.S. women’s crew team.
"We dropped everything because they wanted to test our boat and we wanted them in it," she said.
The rise in women’s rowing, where scholarships are a draw, and in junior rowing have helped the business, she said.
Tytus adds with a smile: "But we don’t always make money. We’re like innumerable small businesses. Only a fool would do this for the money."
Instead, he says, they do it because they have "a passion to do good work."
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