Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat

The heroes in the boat: (from left) Stroke Donald ‘Don’ Hume (1915-2001), 7 Joseph ‘Joe’ Rantz (1914-2007), 6 George ‘Shorty’ Hunt (1916-1999), 5 Jim ‘Stub’ McMillin (1914-2005), 4 John ‘Johnny’ White (1916-1997), 3 Gordon ‘Gordy’ Adam (1915-1992), 2 Charles ‘Chuck’ Day (1914-1962), Bow Roger Morris (1915-2009) and, kneeling, Cox Robert ‘Bobby’ Moch (1914-2005).

Although rowing – or as it is called in America, crew – is a minor sport compared to other team games, each and every year sees a new book published about this aquatic activity. Nevertheless, it is rare to be able to add a new title to the niche genre of rowing history. Amongst the authors and the books which are still in print in this group, and worth mentioning here, you will find: David Halberstam’s The Amateurs (hardcover 1986; paperback 1996), Daniel Boyne’s two books The Red Rose Crew (2000; 2005) and Kelly: A Father, A Son, An American Quest (2008, 2012), and Christopher Dodd’s Pieces of Eight (published in Great Britain, 2012).

To this small, but splendid collection of authors and their books can now be included Daniel James Brown and his The Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Viking, 2013, 404 pp.). As the subtitle tells, Brown’s book is about the U.S. eight with coxswain who went to fight for honour and glory at the 1936 Olympic rowing regatta on lake Langer See at Grünau, outside Berlin, where these young American oarsmen became Olympic champions by a slim margin.

All Americans love a tale about underdogs, especially if the underdogs are Americans, and at the center of this compelling story is Joe Rantz, one of the boys in the crew, whom Brown met at his neighbour Judy Willman’s house; Judy was Joe’s daughter, and when Joe was diagnosed with cancer, he lived with her his remaining days. Listening to the old oarsman’s account, Brown realized that the story of these Olympians is not as commonly known as, for example, Jesse Owens’s, whose four golds at the Berlin Games gave the Nazis’ ideology of the Aryan race superiority a severe dent.

The sons of farmers, fishermen and lumberjacks forming the Husky crews are getting a little different ‘workout’ sawing through a big log of Douglas spruce. Photograph from 1929. Courtesy of Thomas E Weil.

While rowing back in the 1930s was regarded as a sport for the privileged few, Joe and his oarsmen comrades at the University of Washington were the sons of farmers, fishermen, and lumberjacks. Although Brown’s narrative is about all the boys in the boat – their way from freshmen on Lake Washington to Olympians on Langer See, a three- to four-year voyage not always on an easy, straight course  – it is the human story of young Joe’s struggling life of Dickensian dimensions during the Depression that grabs hold of the reader.

Assisting the Husky crews was a remarkable group of rowing men: University of Washington’s head coach Al Ulbrickson, known as “the Dour Dane,” freshman coach Tom Bolles, who later became a successful coach for Harvard crews (both on the right); and boat builder George Pocock, the Englishman whose father had built boats for the “wet-bobs” at Eton College. George Pocock also helped to coach the Husky boys, using the same techniques he used to build the best racing shells in America: a philosophical approach and a sharp eye. It is as Brown writes, “Great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types.”

However, when Ulbrickson had found the perfect combination of nine men, they still had to beat the arch-rival crew from California-Berkeley, coached by Ky Ebright, whose previous crews had represented the U.S. in both the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games. Then Joe and his mates had to overpower the “snobs” from the East Coast at the 1936 IRA Regatta at Poughkeepsie – this was a time when an incredible number of 90,000 spectators gathered on the shores of the Hudson to watch the races. In the Pocock-built Husky Clipper, the Huskies prevailed (told by the author in a beautiful race report). *Later winning the Olympic Trials in Princeton, it seemed the Washington crew had their trip to Berlin in the bag, but not before good people in Seattle and in the boys’ hometowns managed to raise $5,000 in a few days for their tickets.

In their first heat at Grünau, the Americans managed to keep the British eight at bay, forcing them to a repechage heat, an extra race which they won, taking them to the final, where strong crews from Germany and Italy were all game for the Olympic medals. It was the British boat, stroked by the eminent “Ran” Laurie and coxed by Noel Duckworth – two of my rowing heroes – that the Huskies feared most. In the final race, in front of Der Führer and other Nazi dignitaries, the Husky Clipper sneaked up from the far back of the field to snatch the gold medal, leaving the silver medal to the Italians and the bronze medal to the Germans, and the Brits with nothing, coming in fourth.

Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown is a clever author and it is a grand story he is telling. He is not a rower himself, which is probably good, because he has made sure that a non-rower can easily follow the Husky boys when they catch a crab or feel the pain like they do after a hard race on Lake Washington. On the other hand there are also some oddities in his narrative. About Ran Laurie, Brown writes:

In the British boat, Ran Laurie dug furiously at the water. He was still relatively fresh. He wanted to do more. But like many British strokes in those days, he was wielding an oar with a smaller, narrower blade than the rest of his crew – the idea being that the stroke’s job was to set the pace, not to power the boat. With the small blade, he avoided the risk of burning himself out and losing his form.

No, I do not think that Laurie, one of the great Cambridge strokes before the Second World War, had a more narrow blade than the rest of his crew – honestly, it would not be cricket! Oarsmen might have individually adjusted riggers, of course, but to suggest that an English top-notch stroke during this time should not ‘power the boat’ is plain wrong. Another thing where Brown goes astray – and he comes back to it over and over again – is the crews’ starting process: that Bobby Moch, the Huskies’ cox, would raise his hand to show that his crew was ready to race, while I think that the start then was as it is to this day, the cox has his/her hand up to indicate to the umpire at the start that the crew is not ready to start. Take a good look at Oxford’s and Cambridge’s coxes at the start of the Boat Race on the Thames next time. The weather conditions and the stream are making it hard for the person in the stake boat to hold the boat. The cox is having his, or her, hand up while the bow pair is straightening up the boat to the coxswain’s liking. Rowing historian Tim Koch, a frequent HTBS contributor, writes in an e-mail about hands up or down at the start: ‘If you have not got both hands on the rudder strings, you are not ready. This is especially true in the old days of big rudders when rudder strings were very loose and had to be held “tight”.’ There are some other peculiarities of Brown’s in the book, but my points are made. However in the grand scheme of things Brown has done a good job, and we rowers are always grateful when our sport gets exposure in whatever media it might be.

It was evident, even before the book came out in June, that the book would be a success: the film rights have been bought by the Weinstein Company (see here), and when I met Brown at an event this summer, he told me that a screenwriter is working on the script, although he could not give me any details at that time.

Whenever the movie is coming out, I will line up outside the movie theatre, ready to be enchanted.

*This article was updated on 20 August, reflected the information given in Comment No. 1 by Richard A. Kendall.


  1. Richard A. KendallTuesday, 20 August, 2013

    Misinformation: 36 IRA was not the Olympic Trials. They were held in Princeton with Washington winning a photo finish over a Penn/Penn AC boat with my coach, Dick Jordan, Joe Burk, ArtGallagher

  2. You are correct, Richard. I went back to check my notes and that was one thing that slipped out of the finish article. I have now updated the review to reflect your comment. Thank you very much for pointing out my mistake.

  3. Here is the finish of the 1936 Olympic trials won by Washington:

    I loved reading this book. I rowed at Washington and recall being a freshman when the 1936 crew rowed together in 1976. Al Ulbrickson rowed with them then as one of their number had died by then. Now they're all gone. I was surprised in the book at the snarky letters Ky Ebright wrote to George Pocock implying he was sending California inferior equipment. Yeah, bad enough his crews got 3 gold medals rowing them. A great and heartbreaking story about Joe Rantz and his struggles in the depression years. My family had hard times then but his are particularly wrenching to read about. I was recently in the old shellhouse where Mr Pocock built shells in that era. Exciting place to visit.

    1. Thank you, 'bob', for attaching a link to that great video. As a matter of fact, I am posting it tomorrow, 28 August, as a blog entry ~ many, many thanks.

  4. On the eminent website “Six Minutes in Berlin” Michael J. Socolow tells the story about the Husky crew, see

    On that site a William A. Kattermann brings up the same ‘photo finish story’ that Richard A. Kendall brings up above. William A Kattermann writes “I must take issue with your comment about the 1936 USA Olympic Trials. They were held on Lake Carnegie and the finish was very closely contested between the Huskies and the Penn AC Crew (in which Joe Burk was a member). It was a photo finish with the Huskies winning by a bow sprit. In fact, it was the first time photo finish was used in USA rowing. An enlargement of the photo finish hung in the old Princeton Boat Hose. The picture seems to have vanished. In addition to Joe Burk. Dick Jordan, later Penn Lightweight coach was a member.”

    Michael J. Socolow answers: “Thanks very much your comment. Yes, the legendary Joe Burk was in that boat. Rusty Callow replaced two oarsmen from his sixth-place boat at Poughkeepsie with Joe Burk (who graduated in 1934) and Charles Swift (the captain of Penn’s 1935 crew). The Penn boat gained tremendous speed in the two weeks between Poughkeepsie and Princeton. At the same time, Cal’s boat lost quite a bit when Al Daggett, the five-oar, revealed his broken ribs and was replaced only 5 days before the Olympic trials. I think you might be confusing two different races. In 1932, Cal beat Penn A.C. in Philly to go to Los Angeles by only .2 of a second. In 1936, at Princeton, Washington rowed a 6:04.8 and Penn a 6:08.6 – almost 4 seconds between them. See: ‘Report of the American Olympic Committee’ (New York, 1937), 246.”

    If you go to the video link that ‘bob’ gives us (above), it clearly shows that there was a boat length between Washington and Penn at the 1936 Olympic Trials.