Updated: Aug 21, 2019
“On December 22, 1922, I left the Boeing and started anew in my old love, boatbuilding.”
After spending five years building aircraft at Boeing, George began to sense that steel-welded aircraft would soon completely replace the wooden materials he was expertly adept with. He recalled: “The further into steel construction they went, the less [Dick and I] enjoyed our job there." Further spurring a career change, the Seattle Post Intelligencer published an article stating that Pocock would return to the UW to build shells, unbeknownst to George. He wrote, “Being of a sensitive nature, I wondered how the management at Boeing would take it, and the only way I could face them was to hand in my resignation." He actually had little intention to resign, as the Boeing job provided him stable job security, but the article gave him the final push. George recalled of his return to Washington, “I just could not stay with Boeing … because a man cannot split his loyalties." His brother, Dick, left the same year, accompanying former-Husky coach Ed Leader to New Haven to take up a position as Leader’s shell-builder and consultant at Yale. George returned to a new workshop in the attic of the UW boathouse, working under former UW oarsman and recent head coach, Rusty Callow.
The same year, Pocock had fallen in love with Frances Huckle, and the two married in August of 1922. Frances was George’s “tower of strength” while he worked through a tough transition: going from a rewarding job at Boeing to working alone in an attic workshop, with no heat, little funding, and no machinery to accelerate and assist the boatbuilding process. He later said that during this time, “She was, I realized more than ever, the light of my life."
Pocock and Coach Callow became both colleagues and friends, bound by mutual respect:
"Callow had a rare ability to retain the respect of his crews and maintain the rigorous discipline needed for a successful team effort without killing their spirit; rather, he raised it. He was a coach who never swore at his men, but would crack jokes from the launch, making them all laugh and then work even harder for him. I know it’s an overworked term, but Rusty Callow was in truth, a real leader of men if there ever was one."
By the next year, Pocock had completed his first shell in the new boatshop. Expectations were high, as the men of the Husky aimed to win at the 1923 Poughkeepsie Regatta, ten years after their first appearance. On the day of the races, the freshman eight narrowly edged out Cornell, but officials contested the result, and the victory was handed to Cornell. Next, the varsity race was closely fought, with nearly all six of the boats trading the lead back and forth for the entire length of the race. To Pocock and Callow’s glee, Washington finished first, ahead of Navy, with “a big enough margin to leave nothing in doubt." George wrote,
“This was an unprecedented upset, a crew from the Far West soundly beating the best in the East. The Easterners were asking, ‘Where on earth is Seattle? We’ve never heard of it.’ To further confuse them, we had brought along a supply of very small totem poles to distribute as souvenirs. This convinced them beyond doubt that we surely had come from Indian country.”
Word quickly spread that Pocock shells were winners and that the Washington men were further established as formidable opponents. While in New York, George met the top rowing coaches of the time, and when he returned to Seattle, he had orders for eight new eight-oared shells. However, as Pocock’s boatbuilding fame grew, he remained staunch in his opinion that, “There are no fast boats, only fast crews,” though he admitted that a first-class boat couldn’t hurt a crew's chances.
Around this time, other universities courted Pocock with alluring offers of fully equipped boatshops and generous salaries, but still, Pocock “could not see [a] clear way to accept.” Pleased that his friend and colleague did not appear to be leaving Washington any time soon, Callow cajoled the alumni association into donating $1,500 worth of machinery to speed along the boatbuilding process, and the boatshop was expanded from the attic to include the ground floor of the building. Pocock also was able to hire three employees to assist in crafting the time-intensive shells.
A major development in shell construction occurred 1927, when Pocock pioneered the use of western red cedar for shells rather than Spanish cedar. Many were skeptical, as Spanish cedar was the premier shell material used around the world, but Pocock was confident in the material’s longevity and performance after learning about the Pacific Coast Indians' use of western cedar in their war canoes. The new cedar proved to work well: it was “ideal … impervious to rot and light in weight." In his memoir, Pocock stated, "It is the wood eternal. Some of the first shells we built with it are still in regular use forty-five years later."
Pocock remained at UW crafting shells and, on occasion, he accompanied famed head coach Al Ulbrickson on the launch to observe practice. It was common knowledge among the Washington men that “when you see George Pocock out in the launch with Al, there’s probably going to be a change in the lineup." Famous for his stoic demeanor, Al joined Washington in 1927, and in 1936, became the only Washington coach to take an eight to the Olympics and return with a gold medal.
Pocock was deeply committed to furthering the sport of rowing as a whole, but his “loyalty to rowing continued to cut down on his potential profits." He sought to keep prices of boats as low as possible. When UCLA began its foray into collegiate rowing, their new coach Major Goodsell approached Pocock to order two shells, all that they could afford. But Pocock didn't think that two shells were enough for the program to get off to a "proper start." Seattle Times sports columnist George Varnell wrote:
"When Pocock took the two shell order he wrote three instead of two. The third shell was his personal gift to rowing at UCLA. The gift of the shell probably meant the profit on the two ordered, but to Pocock that means nothing. That he is doing his part to help the sport is his reward and satisfaction. That’s George Pocock."
Pocock's dedication to sharing his love of rowing with the world through exceptionally-built shells began in his youth, and flourished at the University of Washington while working alongside the top rowing coaches of the twentieth century. George Pocock established his name as not only the premier shell-builder in the world, but a name synonymous with technical skill and inspirational wisdom.
Sources: Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, Gordon Newell, 1987; Memories, George Yeoman Pocock, 1972.