The early morning water is usually calm in Seattle. That makes it the preferred time for rowers.
The University of Washington men's crew team gathers around head coach Michael Callahan in the Hiram Conibear Shellhouse before heading out for the day's practice.
Callahan calls rowing a team sport like no other.
“It's such hard work,” he says, “so when all of a sudden it comes together, it's an amazing feeling. And when you're in a team, and you do it together, it goes to a whole other level.”
Eight rowers gather around a Pocock racing shell — the Helgerson 52. The boat is named for a former Husky rower — a grandfather of one of the current team members. This boat is the newest model in the Pocock company's 105-year history.
Lia Roberds, diminutive in size but not stature, coxes the Husky 3V boat, the level just below the varsity and junior varsity boats. “Ok, let's get hands on! Roll up to heads. Ready, go!”
In one fluid motion, the eight men lift the 204-pound hypercarbon boat up over their heads then down to their shoulders. They carry it out of the shell house to the adjacent dock.
It's just after 7:00 on a later winter morning. The sun rises from behind the Cascade Mountains, gilding Lake Washington in light and framing the still-sleepy athletes.
Seattle drapes itself in “12” flags to honor the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seahawks. But the UW men's crew team is the city's real sports dynasty. The Huskies have five consecutive national championships and a legacy that goes back more than a century.
The 1936 crew rowed the “Husky Clipper” — a wooden shell built by legendary boat maker George Pocock — to an improbable Olympic victory in Berlin.
Now the team starts each practice with a series of drills as they make their way west through the Montlake Cut, under University Bridge and south on Lake Union. The two eight-oared shells do a little practice racing on their way back to the shell house.
The coxswains call out the starting sequence of strokes, then give regular updates on how many strokes the rowers take per minute and how fast those strokes propel the boat through the water.
“You go from a groggy mess to everybody screaming and yelling and getting hyped for their day,” says rower Sam Helms.
Brothers George and Dick Pocock started their company, Pocock Racing Shells, in 1911. Bill Tytus took it over in 1985. Pocock hand-crafts boats of all sizes, but the collegiate trade is the company's bread and butter.
Although rowing was front-page news in Seattle for the first half of the 20th century, Tytus says the sports has been marginalized, because it doesn't work well on television. “Rowing's biggest problem is you get no sense of how hard those people are working. They look like people out for a jaunt,” he says.
The Huskies are a young team this year. Senior Ezra Carlson, who rowed in the varsity boat in the 2015 championships, says they're not putting too much stress on the hopes for a sixth consecutive victory.
“That's a goal, of course,” Carlson says. “But I think for us, as a team, it's more important to progress and be the fastest we can be. And if that puts us in a spot to win another national championship, well, that's awesome!”
Essay by Marcie Sillman, photography by Matt Mills McKnight, video by Kara McDermott.
Listen: The man behind the boys in the boat. Read: An essay on why Marcie Sillman rows.
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