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Rat Island Rowing: Restoring racing history one shell at a time

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Before there were 80 channels of sports, rowing was a major event in Washington state. When the Huskies beat Cal, Second Avenue erupted with paper confetti. And when the University of Washington crew wrested the Olympic gold medal from Hitler’s iron fist, Seattle was hoisted atop the shoulders of the entire free world.

Once TV changed the landscape, the sepia photos of rowing crews –along with their dusty cedar shells – became memorabilia adorning the walls and ceilings of sports bars. Soon “rowing” became SEO-speak for “erging” – an indoor exercise that trumps a cold, wet predawn practice any day.

Still, there’s something about wading into Port Townsend Bay in mid-October, climbing into a 62-foot stiletto and yoking yourself to eight people with an unhealthy desire for perfection. Call it torture, call it OCD, but if you’ve ever watched a racing shell knife through the water, blades in perfect symmetry, it triggers something in you.

That something is the endless chase of the perfect stroke, a feat that – when done on an erg – won’t get you across the gymnasium floor any faster, let alone give you the Frankensteinian thrill of breathing life into an inanimate object, just by adding water and a little voltage.

For more than a century, that object was a wafer-thin wooden racing shell, and the Stradivarius of them all was Seattle’s George Yeomans Pocock – another person with an unhealthy desire for perfection.

In the 1970s, western red cedar gave way to fiberglass, then carbon fiber and now Hyper Carbon. The high-maintenance “woodies” were shuffled to the back of the boathouse, and then out the door in search of a good home.

For many of them, that home is Port Townsend’s Rat Island Rowing and Sculling Club, where championship wooden shells are lovingly restored and actively raced by rowers from ages 18 to 80.

The shells are located at the corner of Monroe and Water streets in the Northwest Maritime Center, home of Port Townsend’s Wooden Boat Festival, this year taking place Sept. 5-7. On Saturday, Sept. 6, the boys (and girls) in the boat are in a regatta doing what they do best – breathing new life into old classics.

Come and cheer them on, or read more about them at ratislandrowing.com.

Daniel Brown, author of best-seller “Boys in the Boat” (11 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list) will be at the Rat Island Rowing boathouse on Saturday, Sept. 6 from noon to 4 p.m. for a booksigning and to show his support for Rat Island Rowing and Sculling Club’s tradition of restoring and racing the classic Pocock shells that carried the 1936 Olympic gold medal crew into history. More about the book can be found at

tinyurl.com/o5zezyq.

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