Boys in the Boat

An important part of my “incarceration plan” while here at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp is to read. Upon arrival, I was glad to find one of the books on my reading list in the library. I’m going to write a report on each book that I read here, just like in high school and college, with one notable exception. At camp I actually plan to read the books. I won’t post the book reports here unless I think it’s a special book.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is special. It chronicles the life of members and coaches of America’s 1936 Olympic 8-Man Crew team beginning when the rowers were freshmen at the University of Washington in 1933 and 1934. Most of us have grown up with the 1936 Olympic epic stories of Jesse Owens and more recently Louis Zamparini and heard how Hitler used the Berlin games to showcase the so-called German master race. The book thoroughly contrasts the growing Nazi cultural propaganda machine of the Third Reich with the struggles in America, particularly the state of Washington, as the depression and dust bowl forever changed society.

The main character is a 6’3″ blonde haired kid named Joe Rantz, one of the crew members, whose character, resilience, and inner strength help him survive not only his family’s disintegration after his mother’s death when he was four but also the ensuing abject poverty that engulfed Joe’s life through college. He makes the freshman crew team at the University of Washington and three years later takes home an Olympic gold medal as a member of the UW team that arguably achieved rowing perfection seen never before or since. Joe and the members of his freshman class never lost a race in four years of college. His early struggles had created a hard shell of self-reliance, but it wasn’t until he let go and came to rely on his teammates that he reached his rowing potential and the team became unbeatable. Along that journey, Joe is mentored by George Yeoman Pocok.

Pocok was the preeminent designer and builder of 60 foot long wooden 8-man racing shells from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s. Through the 1940s, the sport of crew outdrew football in collegiate sports with crowds of nearly 100,000 fans. An Englishman by birth, he set up shop in the shell house at the University of Washington campus. By 1943 all 18 shells used in the intercollegiate crew championship were built by Pocok. My favorite quote from the book is his.

“It is hard to make a boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them.”

Pocok is right. So is life. Good reading from camp.