By Eric Cohen, ’82, Washington Rowing Historian, Coxswain, Rowing Board of Stewards
It was a cool February morning on Lake Washington in the winter of 1936, and the head rowing coach at Washington, Al Ulbrickson, could tell something was missing in his top crew. He had his varsity team – a team that years later would become known as “The Boys in the Boat”- stop their shell. As he did, he also motioned for a man rowing a single scull nearby to come over.
When the single approached, the men recognized the oarsman as George Pocock, the boat-builder whose shop was in the shellhouse. Ulbrickson asked George to give the men some pointers, and backed his sleek wooden launch – The Conny – out of the way. Only the young men could hear Pocock; and as he completed his brief talk and rowed away, the team collected themselves and began another piece. This time it clicked.
From that day forward, Pocock was a regular guest in The Conny. Ulbrickson and Pocock would sit together in the bow compartment, quietly exchanging notes. Six months after that impromptu February meeting on the lake, these two men would be together again; only this time watching from the shores of the Langer See in Germany as the Washington team – now competing as the U.S.A – finished a few feet in front of Italy and Germany to win Olympic Gold.
That victory would propel Ulbrickson into the spotlight, but the coach preferred being on the water. For him, The Conny was where he was comfortable.
SINKING THE OFFICE
The Conny – named for Hiram Conibear, the iconic founder of Washington Rowing (his men referred to him as “Conny”) – is a 28 foot round-bottom, slim –design (six- foot beam) launch that served the head coach at Washington for almost 40 years. For Ulbrickson, who was the head rowing coach at Washington from 1927 through 1959, it was his on-the-water “office” for twenty-seven years.
Likely built at Shertzer Brothers on Lake Union, the documentation on the original Scripps engine showed delivery of the engine in the fall of 1931. The completed vessel was launched in 1932.
Designed with a coach’s compartment in the bow, the bench seat provided unobstructed views of the crews at practice, and had room for a guest or assistant coach. “She was originally built with two key features in mind,” said Kirk Knapp, who now owns the fully restored Conny, “To hold nine men in case a shell swamped in the middle of the lake; and to cut the water with a minimum wake.”
Restored, in this case, may be an understatement. The boat was in multiple pieces when Knapp found her in a University of Washington storage yard in 1975. Struck broadside in 1971 at dusk when two oarsmen took her (and their dates) out for an evening, Conny was salvaged from the water only to end up abandoned in a field.
Knapp – known as “Lucky” at the Crewhouse – had joined the crew team in 1973 but “I was too small to row, and too big to cox. I was given the lightweight cox job, but I almost killed myself trying to make weight. Bob Ernst offered me the frosh manager’s job my sophomore year and I took it. That was my first introduction to the Husky II, the sister boat to the Conny, and I really enjoyed it”, he said. “When I saw Conny in the storage yard my junior year, I came back and tried to get Dick (Erickson, head rowing coach at Washington from 1968-1987) interested. But he had a fully functioning launch. He kept telling me to go pick it up if I wanted it, and finally, in 1978, I was able to do that.”
But busy with work and life, the Conny sat for another two decades before Knapp handed it off to Dave Berg to put her back together in 1996. “I would go up to his place in Bellingham a couple of times a month to see how it was going. It took a full two years for the restoration. But she was beautiful when Dave finished. We launched her on August 12, 1998, I remember that day well.”
Knapp’s favorite story from the restoration was when they were looking for an engine. The original had been replaced at some point in the 50’s or 60’s with a Chrysler Crown, but that engine was long gone. By chance, he heard that Curt Erickson had picked up an old Scripps F-6, and word was the engine was from an old rowing launch. Could it be from the Conny? With Dave and Curt separated by 150 miles, they each went out and measured the mounting holes: one on the boat, and the other on the engine. But they did not match up… until they realized they were measuring from different directions. “That was the moment we knew we had it right. That engine – sitting 150 miles away and salvaged by fortune – was the original. We got it up to Bellingham and it fit into the engine bed perfectly. That was a great day,” said Knapp.
ON, YOU HUSKIES!
“I can trace my interest and enjoyment of these old boats back to those early years in college when I was first introduced to the Husky II. Driving her on Lake Washington on a clear morning with the sun coming up over the Cascades… that was about as good as it gets for a college kid. But to be encouraged to work on her, and trusted by Bob to keep her in good condition, that was really great. It was a good feeling to have her start up each morning.”
The Husky II was built as a replacement for the Husky, a 36 foot, George Wayland designed (and Shertzer built) launch first delivered to the Washington program in 1923. Powered by a Scripps F-4, she was the first launch specifically designed for the Washington program: original narrow hull and “coaching pit” in the bow, steering from the middle and larger seating deck in the back.
The Alumnus was an almost identical craft added to the Washington fleet in the 20’s, but was infamously involved in one of the more bizarre incidents in the history of American collegiate rowing. During the 1927 Washington/California Dual Race (an annual, traditional regatta now in its 106th year), the Alumnus, loaded with dignitaries and coaches Rusty Callow and Al Ulbrickson, was hit hard broadside by a pleasure craft angling for a better view of the race during the featured 4-mile varsity event.
The violent collision knocked the team manager (with movie camera) into the water and the coaches headlong into the bow compartment, and put a deep gash into the hull of the Alumnus. Barely making it to shore before she swamped, the team fared no better: “The varsity never could get their race together,” states the Washington Rowing History website in a review of the 1927 season, “and who knows what the sight of seeing their coach mauled did to their collective psyche, but they fell three lengths behind the Bears and lost The Dual for the first time since 1921.”
SPACE FOR STOWAWAYS
The fact the Alumnus was in Oakland for that race in 1927 illustrates the importance the coaches put in their launches. By the mid-twenties, the teams would not just travel with their shells and oars across country; they would bring the coach’s launch as well. Hoisted out of the water, the craft would be carefully fitted into a boxcar to ride the rails to the race destination. That included the National Championships held in Poughkeepsie NY, and there are many stories of team members – who did not make the roster of one of the racing boats – finding a spot inside the stored launch to stowaway for the coast to coast trip. In the early 30’s, one of those was a young Bobby Moch (the coxswain of the “Boys in the Boat” 1936 gold medal eight), who as a sophomore made the trip back east by hiding in the Conny. “I hid in there until the train was underway, then some of the guys came back and got me out. But that’s how I made it to Poughkeepsie that year,” said Moch in a 2002 interview.
For two decades the Husky, and the Conny, were the workhorses of the Washington program, but following WWII the Husky II would replace the Husky. The new launch was designed and built with the same specs as the Conny: round bottom, 28 feet with a 6 foot beam. Built by H.A. Long in Olympia, the Husky II came equipped with a Chrysler Royal straight 8 engine. “When we took that engine out to have it overhauled in the late 70’s, our technicians told us it was likely surplused from WWII,” said Bob Ernst, the former, longtime rowing coach at Washington. “They could not believe it lasted as long as it did.” The Royal would be replaced by a Chevy II in the early 80’s.
LAUNCHING A TRADITION
When Ernst arrived at Washington as the men’s freshman coach in 1974, he was offered a big, fiberglass ski boat as the freshman coach’s launch. “That thing drank gas and put up a huge wake,” said Ernst. “I called it the Tsunami-maker.” Tucked inside the launch house sat the Husky II. “I asked Erickson, ‘who drives that one?’” The answer was no one, so Ernst had it tuned up and quickly the Husky II was back in service once again as the freshman launch.
“That is a beautiful boat,” said Ernst. “Soon after we had it running again, I teamed up with Lucky. I would sit up front on the engine cover and he would drive. Nothing had been done to that launch in twenty-five years, and Lucky was a natural… he kept it spruced up, painted, polished, the whole thing. And out on the water, we had all of our hand signals worked out so we could communicate easily.”
For Ernst, there were multiple advantages to the launch. “It hardly made any wake at all. It was quiet, and the Chevy II we put in there ran like a clock. And it had plenty of room… we’d go around Mercer Island and we’d go to Kirkland and I knew that if I had to pull guys out of the lake I had room. Besides all of that it was part of Washington Rowing. It was part of the tradition. That was important to me.”
A RETURN TO ACTION
After Knapp graduated, Ernst continued to use the Husky II daily through the end of the 80’s. Replaced by fiberglass, lightweight “wakeless” catamarans specifically designed as rowing launches, the Husky II remained part of the fleet but saw significantly less action. “By the mid-90’s,” Ernst said, “she needed a lot of help. The ribs were cracked and the planks were in bad shape. We needed to make a decision.”
“I called up the president of the Northwest Classic Boat Club, Chris Eden, and asked, ‘What do you think?’ He lined me up with Greg Harrison, who connected me with a wooden boat-restoration vocational program at Seattle Central Community College. All we had to pay for was the hardware and the lumber,” Ernst said. The students had Husky II for about four years, replacing all of the wood and fully restoring the launch to original condition. “They did a great job,” said Ernst. “She was a jewel when we re-launched her in 2002.”
A showpiece for the program, the Husky II was a key link to the traditions of the past in a rapidly changing collegiate rowing landscape. “There were certain things there that I fought really hard to protect our legacy. The Husky II was one of those. We did not want to lose that connection to our past.”
But that was not the end of the restoration. In fact it was only another chapter for the Husky II. By 2010, the launch was leaking again, and Ernst was confounded. “We put her in slings to keep her up, but the planks were rotting. Come to find out the beautiful straight grain fir we used to plank the hull was salvaged from the Mt. St. Helens eruption, and we were not the only ones having this problem. And it was a problem.”
THE GLORIOUS RE-RESTORATION
Now one of only a handful of traditional rowing launches still owned by a university, Blake Nordstrom, co-chairman of the Washington Rowing Stewards at the time, recognized the historical value of the launch to the program. He called up Brooke Larsson, of Larsson Marine on Portage Bay in Seattle, and asked him to meet him at the shellhouse. “I got the call from Blake not long before Opening Day,” said Larsson. “We went down and took a look. You could put your hand through the floorboards. That’s how bad it was.”
Undeterred, Larsson devised a plan. “We were afraid to move it. Ultimately, we got a big piece of reinforced plastic and basically put a big baggie around it and towed it down to the shop – very slowly – to Portage Bay,” he said. “That was an adventure.”
But the adventure was only beginning. Larsson and his crew were to spend the next year stripping the vessel down to the keel and re-building her, plank by plank. “Blake was really clear from the beginning that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right,” said Larsson. “So I started doing some research on launches in England in the 30’s. We had the benefit of doing it how we wanted to; that included a nice clean dashboard. Blake found the gauges for us, and the horn, and had them re-plated. Every detail was covered.”
The keel itself turned into the biggest problem. “It wasn’t straight. We had to build a jig on the floor of the dock and re-shape it,” said Larsson. But once they had it trued, the new hull went in (Alaska yellow cedar), followed by new mahogany sideboards, and then the old Chevy II, 4-cylinder engine. “It ran good and had good compression, so we kept it,” said Larsson.
“It was one of the few times where you actually got to do everything right,” said Larsson of the year-long project. “And that doesn’t happen very often. Blake’s constant message to us was, ‘let’s do it right and let’s all be proud of it at the end.’ It made the project that much more satisfying.”
Re-launched in 2014, the Husky II is now back as the crown jewel of the Washington Rowing fleet. Michael Callahan, current head men’s coach at Washington, underscored that when he stated, “The Husky II is a symbol of our team… our passion for the program, the legacy of the men and women who came before us, and the generosity and support of our community. It is our flagship.”
RACING WITH HISTORY
On April 22nd, 2017, the Varsity eights from Washington and California lined up at the starting line on the Montlake Cut for the 106th running of the annual “Dual Race”. As the starter’s flag dropped and the shells began to pull away from the line, two long – and virtually identical – launches pulled in behind the racing crews: The Conny, and the Husky II. As the crews entered the Montlake Cut and the race powered past the original shellhouse, it was easy to imagine a very similar setting more than seventy years ago. From Al Ulbrickson to Bob Ernst to Michael Callahan… the Conny and the Husky II remain closely connected to the tradition, and spirit, of Washington Rowing.
The story of how the local launches used to coach
the Boys in the Boat were restored to their vintage glory.