The Boys in the Boat
How a scrappy team of Washington rowers pulled past the world at the Berlin Olympics.
(Page 2 of 2)
The emergence of strong, winning Western crews that began in the 1920s was a shock to eastern sensibilities: California was bad enough, but Washington, with its hick reputation as a a state of lumberjacks and fishermen, was an affront. Be that as it may, in the West, the rivalry between the universities of Washington and California was where the real acrimony lay. California had not only trounced Washington in the recent past; it had represented the United States in the 1932 Olympics.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A fine cast of characters inhabit this tale, among them the coach Al Ulbrickson, "the Dour Dane," taciturn and demanding, a man whose experience with rowing included his having had to row two miles each way to attend high school; the English boatbuilder George Yeoman Pocock (what a name!), whose adoption of Western red cedar for the hulls of the shells transformed their construction and conferred upon them unprecedented liveliness and increased speed. He also served as unofficial adviser to the Washington crew, passing on the rowing technique he had learned as a boy from Thames boatmen – a romantic detail that is only one among the many that make this such an enthralling adventure.
Then there are the other crewmen, among them the coxswain, Bobby Moch, a small, brainy leader and strategic genius who learned a troubling family secret shortly before going off to Berlin, and the stroke, Don Hume, a master of rhythm possessed of preternatural willpower.
Brown concentrates his attention on Joe's life; the leadership, assembly, and dynamics of the Washington crew; the properties of racing shells; and, of course, the terrific races. I cannot resist giving one sample, in this case from Brown’s description of a race, preliminary to the Olympic trials, in which California and Washington competed: "The boys now had open water between them and the California Clipper, and in the last half mile they accelerated in a way that no shell had ever accelerated on Lake Washington. As they flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity. Their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of seabirds flying in formation…. Hundreds of boat whistles shrieked. The locomotive on the observation train wailed. Students on the Chippewa screamed. And a long, sustained roar went up from the tens of thousands standing along Sheridan Beach as…." No, I think I’ll leave it right there.
Along the way, Brown intersperses passages on the national and international situation, most of which have a pro forma feel compared to the drama of the main subject. But so what? He is a superb sportswriter, conveying the almost unbearable tension of the races, the particular strengths of character and physique demanded by competitive rowing: physical ability, mastery of technique, and trust in and harmony with one's fellow crew members, the last being the ineffable ingredients that propel the boat into a fourth dimension of grace and speed, elevating crew and vessel into the realm of greatness.
As it happens, this book could not be more timely, for, as I write this, the 2013 University of Washington varsity eights have just vanquished Harvard to win the Challenge Cup Trophy (for the third year in a row) in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships.