Updated: Aug 19, 2019
Today, George Pocock is a highly-revered name in the rowing community, but before he became an American rowing icon, Pocock lived a modest childhood in Eton, England.
Born in 1891, George was the youngest of four children, with two elder sisters and an older brother, Dick. The entire family grew up in the rowing community—their father Aaron was a boatbuilder, their sister Lucy won the women’s championship of England in 1910, and Dick and George were both decorated oarsmen from a
young age, often giving Eton residents advice on rowing technique. However, the idyllic youth they spent rowing on the Thames ended when their father lost his job as the general manager of the Eton boatshop. In 1910, George and Dick left their home in search of work:
“The Pocock boys had planned to seek their fortunes in Australia or New Zealand, so it might be said they came to America by accident, but they remained by choice, and by so doing, they profoundly enriched the boats, rig, style, and rowing techniques of the sport in America.”
They sailed to British Columbia, where they worked as loggers for a time, but in 1912, the young men changed trajectories and established an independent boat manufacturing workshop, nicknamed “The Float.” Aptly named, the floating building tethered to the bottom of Coal Harbor was often subjected to the changing tides and winds, frequently flooding the floors and once, propelling the Pococks’ part-office, part-home, down the waterway. Not long after moving in, word had spread through the British Columbia-area that two men in Vancouver were making world-class racing shells, and orders soon poured in. Clearly, word had reached as far south as Seattle, because Hiram Conibear, head rowing coach at the University of Washington, rowed to The Float himself to convince the men to come work with him. The brothers were skeptical of Conibear’s head coach position, as he rowed so clumsily they “actually thought he was under the influence of liquor."
They may not have realized it at the time, but Dick and George Pocock had reached yet another turning point in their young lives. Despite Conibear’s lack of rowing prowess, he had championship aspirations for the Washington team, and he possessed the unique ability to assemble a team of colleagues and athletes that complemented, yet challenged, the program. George Pocock later stated that Conibear “had a tremendous spirit for promoting rowing at Washington. He enlisted much financial help from all over town to bring his ideas to fruition." Conibear’s vision, combined with George and Dick’s craftsmanship and technical expertise, vaulted the University of Washington to national, and later, worldwide success.
The brothers accepted the job in Seattle to craft twelve eight-oared shells, inviting their family still in England to assist them. It wasn’t until their father Aaron, along with sisters Lucy and Kath, were already en route when Conibear gave them bad news: the budget could only handle the construction of one shell, not twelve. Once completed, the sole eight was dubbed Rodgers, and Aaron, Dick and George returned to Vancouver to complete the backlog of orders at their boatshop. However, it wouldn’t be long until they returned to Seattle.
Over the short time of knowing one another, the Pococks spent considerable time with Conibear, teaching him the ways of the Thames Waterman Stroke. What became known as the “Conibear Stroke” proved to be effective when the Washington men bested Stanford and California to qualify for their first Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1913. There, the crew came in third, behind Syracuse and Cornell. This result not only marks the first of many successes on the national stage for the team, but the race also attracted reinvigorated donors to the program, helping propel the program to larger Seattle prominence.
The Pococks returned to Seattle permanently by the end of 1913, moving in with their sisters in a house in the University District. Lucy was appointed as coach of the women’s crew team at the University (until its dissolution in 1917), and Dick and George made a modest living from their positions. Their short tenure at UW came into question in 1916, after Conibear died in a tragic fall. The Pococks “mourned the passing of this intense, mercurial man who had, in his own sometimes peculiar way, been a good friend to them. It was difficult to envision collegiate rowing at Washington without him. They wondered what their future would be."
That same year, a surprising visitor arrived at the Pocock’s workshop to investigate the boats’ workmanship, who then proffered his card: “W. E. Boeing,” it read. The men, while loyal to the university and rowing as a whole, were unsure of the program’s continued success following Conibear’s death and the appointment of Dr. Henry Suzzallo as university president—who detested the support of athletics at the expense of academics. So, in January 1917, the men decided to alter their career paths and begin engineering float plane pontoons for Boeing.
It wouldn’t be until 1922 that George Pocock returned to the University of Washington (Dick left Boeing the same year to build boats at Yale). His return to the program officially solidified the Pocock legacy for generations to come, one as an extraordinary boatbuilder and visionary.
Sources: Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, Gordon Newell, 1987; Memories, George Yeoman Pocock, 1972.