The Boys in the Boat

The only rowing I have ever done in my life is in a heavy rowboat in the sea, with the goal, occasionally achieved, of getting a fish on my line. Of competitive rowing, I have known absolutely nothing until recently, this despite observing countless singles and crews plying the waters of the Charles River, along which I walk almost every day. Passing between Cambridge and Boston, the river teems with rowers a good part of the year, the most splendid sight of all being the eights sweeping by with their little, brass-voiced coxswains barking from the stern. Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a fine introduction to the sport (the oldest chronicled one, he says). It is a story of the triumph of nobodies from nowhere, punctuated by truly thrilling accounts of contests of strategy, stamina, and might.  

I don’t think I give too much away in saying that the American rowing eight won the gold at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and that it did so in the face of dishonorable machinations on the part of the organizers. I will even reveal that the Husky Clipper, the shell the Americans rowed to victory, was christened by its builder with sauerkraut juice. But if the Olympics make up the book’s culminating event, its center is occupied by Joe Rantz, an impecunious boy from a troubled family background, twenty-two years old when he went to Berlin. Born in Spokane, Joe was the second son of Harry, a person so inspired by the marvels and promise of technological progress that he married his first wife over the telephone. Harry, however, was not a lucky man: his various business endeavors failed; his wife, Joe’s mother, died; and his second wife eventually insisted on Joe’s expulsion from the family. For Joe it was a sad beginning to a what became, thanks to his endurance and courage, a happy life.

After high school, young Joe worked as a manual laborer, earning enough to get him part of the way through the first year at the University of Washington in Seattle, a “world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters.” His ability to remain in college for the whole year depended on getting a part-time job on the campus, which, in turn, rested on his earning a place on the school’s rowing team. It was an uncongenial milieu for one as ragged and unpreppy as Joe, but he endured where dozens of his elegant classmates disappeared once they got a taste of the grueling reality.

A sport of greater prominence than it is today, rowing in the 1930s was even more associated with the well heeled than it is now (which is saying plenty) and, in American rowing, with the East Coast. At the time, Brown observes, “the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis.” 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.

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.