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Preview: Pocock Classic Racing Shells
December 3, 2012
What do you get when you cross a violin maker with a boatbuilder? We imagine it might look something akin to what happens at the Point Hudson Boat Shop in Port Townsend, Washington. We visited Steve Chapin who has taken over producing the Pocock Cedar Racing Single after the Pocock Co. made it's last wooden shell in 2003. Pocock Racing Shells set the standard for most of the 20th Century in Collegiate and Olympic rowing. With equipment and cedar stock from Pocock and his own boatbuilding skills, Steve Chapin is carrying the Pocock Classic Cedar Single tradition into the 21st century.
– [Narrator] When it comes to sliding-seat boats Pocock cedar rowing shells were the gold standard. Gradually fiberglass and then carbon fiber took over the winner circle at elite regattas. And finally, Pocock was to build its last wooden shell in 2003. Rowing aficionados easily convinced Pocock to donate the firm’s historic jigs and molds, so that today, legendary oarsman and boat builder Steve Chapin continues to build boats in the Pocock manner.
– We brought you today to the Point Hudson Boat Shop with Steve Chapin, one of the, the only builder of the Pocock flat water seater racing shells for a look around. Steve, nice to meet you.
– Thank you.
– Let’s have a look. Can you talk to us a little bit about what we’re looking at here, Steve?
– [Steve] We’re looking at a Pocock classic cedar single that I’ve built. This comes out of the traditional George Pocock boats that were built for a number of generations by the Pocock family.
– Right. What’s something like this weigh?
– Ah, this boat here ready-to-row weighs 32 pounds.
– 32 pound… What’s the length overall?
– It’s 26 feet and 7 inches
– 26… 27 foot boat weighs 32 pounds. Incredible. So, it looks like a mylar or some kind of a fabric skin on the surface?
– This is Dacron, it’s aircraft Dacron. The lightest weight Dacron that aircraft suppliers make. It’s formulated for ultra-light aircraft. This is, I think about an ounce and a half per square yard. It’s heat-shrunk and coated with three coats of varnish.
– So with a sliding seat in these big outriggers, these I’m assuming are all aluminum?
– [Steve] This is stainless steel tubing.
– [Eric] Wow There must be some incredible structure inside the guts of one of these.
– Just to transfer some of this load.
– Yeah, it is. But also it’s as little structure as you can get by with to keep the weight down.
– You’ve got the deck peeled off one here. Let’s have a look. So what are we looking at here? This is a much bigger boat.
– [Steve] This boat is a Pocock Quad, a cedared flat water racing shell that was built in the early 60’s. It’s now owned by the local rowing club Peter Matt Aland Rowing and Sculling club. I have it in here for some repairs and so it provides a good example of what the structure is inside these boats.
– Similar structure between the Quad or the four up in the single?
– Yeah, yeah. But it’s scaled down quite a bit for the single.
– What we see here is a keel that’s 5/8 wide by about 2 and 1/4 inches tall. And it tapers through the length of the boat in height. And then there’s a gunnel on either side, similar thickness, shallower depth. But in between here, the skin of the boat is not supported between the keel and the gunnel.
– There are no conventional ribs that one might think–
– There’s nothing. It’s a steam-bent plank shaped, it’s got a compound shape of curve both laterally and longitudinally which gives it some strength.
– That is amazing, this thing is built like a truss.
– It is, yeah.
– [Eric] So every couple feet we’ve got some diagonal bracing.
– [Steve] This is ash here. What we see in a single for diagonal bracing is 1/4 inch diameter dowel.
– [Eric] Really?
– [Steve] It’s a huge difference between what we see in the four bit. Of course its stresses are way bigger in a four. We’ve got four rollers in this boat, which is 42 feet long.
– So would you see a single piece plank on a 42?
– No, not as a Pocock builders made them. There’s a scarf joint right here in the center of the boat that we see. There’s a nibbed scarf there. Don’t think we can see the plank edge right here. But you can see on the outside of the boat and the inside of the boat that they’re in different places. So that’s the scarf joint.
– Sure. What kind of a scarf ratio do you typically see in this… This planking is an 1/8?
– I think this is a 5/32. On the single, it’s 3/32 thickness. And the plank, the scarf ratio is 8 to 1.
– 8 to 1.
– Yeah. Yeah. Many of the lumber that we have is generally 27 to 32 foot lumber. So for an 8 oar shell, 64 foot boat, there’ll be probably three different sections of planking. So there will be two scarfs.
– Over the length of a 60..
– Over the length of that.
– Wow. So this is some plank stock you’ve got over here that is ready to go through the resaw machine. Let’s have a look at that.
– This is what I start out with. This is a 2 by 14. This is western red cedar. So this is what I net after resawing and sanding the plank. So this is 12 inches wide, and it’ll be 27 feet long. The boat had a little bit extra.
– So you’ll resaw it through this monster band saw. And then it comes back through a stationary thickness sander.
– Yeah. This came from the Pocock factory. And this is what they milled all their planking lumber out of since the 60’s. And before that, they were cedar box companies and shake mills nearby that they could have that work done. But I found that there’s really nobody else that was able to saw the length of material that I had or the thickness or to sand it.
– What are you looking for in wood qualities as far as rings? Do you go by like growth rings per inch or–
– Yeah, the grain size of the wood’s important. It needs to be pretty tight. No knots and we want a vertical grain orientation across the width of the plank. And that’s important because we’re steam-bending this veneer that we make over a male mold of the boat. And we want that plank to be fair when we steam it. And it’s especially critical because we’ve got such thin material and there are a couple places in the shape of the boat that have a fairly radical bend.
– So even-grained patterned clear consistency type growth rings.
– That’s right.
– This is some amazing plank stock.
– That is, yeah.
– When do you reckon this stuff was cut?
– I believe it was in the 70’s, this material.
– Wow. Well, let’s have a look at the steam form.
– Alright. Well what we see is a male mold of the shape of the boat surrounded by a couple of pipes that introduce steam around the plank.
– Little hole on the top every foot or so.
– That’s right. So I will insert the planks on either side of the mold and then full length battens on the outside of those planks and then straps every foot or so around the whole apparatus covered by thermo-blankets and then covered by plastic sheeting so that the planks are steamed right in place on the mold. And that’s because these things are so delicate, especially when within 10 minutes they’re ready to form. They’re just like a spaghetti noodle. I’m usually doing this with one assistant. And we’re scurrying around for probably half an hour pretty busily, uncovering the areas and forming. It’s a gradual process, I can’t shape the plank down to the form completely in one spot and not at all in another. We’ve gotta do kinda incremental adjustments in getting the planks shaped around the mold especially down on the ends where the curves are fairly sharp.
– Absolutely fascinating.
– So these were just some scrap planks that we did a steaming demonstration in. And so they were reject to begin with, I’ll point out some cracks that developed in here. That’s a typical flaw that I may have to deal with. Over here was a place where we have borderline quality of wood. It’s got a tight knot so it steam-bends unfairly. So that’s a little flaw that I have to look for in the stock room when I’m milling it.
– Do you have a pattern? I mean, are these planks rough cut to shape or are they cut exactly to shape before you steam them or not at all? Do you look and just overlap them and then you spile and fit them once you saw–
– Well they just saw over here in the resaw produce a 12 inch wide by 27 foot long raw stock. And then I have a pattern for the plank. There’s a port side plank and a starboard side plank. And that’s just an inch or so wider than the net shape that I need to fit to the framing of the boat.
– So they’ll just overlap at the center line in the steaming process? And that curve gets cut?
– Yeah, well not just. It’s an interesting process that happens there. These are the what we call the stocks for the framing of the boat. They’re on a strong back. We build the frame upside down, the keel sits right on these notches, and the gunnels are held down here. There’s clips that hold these guys in place.
– [Eric] So this is your building jig. Once you’ve got your panels steamed, you’ll put all your keels and shear clamps into this setup and then start fitting your–
– We call it a keel and a gunnel that a timber, if you will. It’s 7/16 by 3/4 tall. So I build the frame and get that complete. The deck framing is built on another jig that I do over on a bench. That’s a structure that’s just in a flat plane. And that’s fit down over the stocks as well. But what the interesting process I was gonna mention about the plankings that when I’ve got the framework done it’s time to start putting the planking on that. I start with the starboard side planking first. I fit that and glue that to the frame and then the port side, I fit that I don’t glue it yet. I let that overlap along the center line just a little bit the full length of the boat. And then I have a saw guide, 27 foot saw guide. And I take a circular saw, carefully setting it up to cut right down the center line. And so I’ll cut both–
– [Eric] At this point, you’ve got a lot of time invested in your plank stock. That cut has gotta be semi nerve-wrecking. Are you okay with it at this point in your career or do you still think about it every time you pull the trigger? Right?
– Oh yeah, I do, I do. Definitely. It’s a big investment that’s at risk right there. So, I’m well aware of that. And this is all carefully engineered so that when I’m done with this, I can just lift it off the stocks.
– So the deck frame goes down onto this setup. And then all that comes off before you put the canvas on the deck.
– [Steve] Before we put the Dacron on the deck.
– [Eric] Dacron on the deck. This is absolutely fascinating. We kinda, you’ve taken us from a finished boat backwards through the process to this building jig and you know, seeing these on the water, you’d never know what goes into one of these. I had no idea that these were single piece steam-bent red cedar plank nor that they were nearly as light as they are. Absolutely beautiful stuff. Steve, I wanna thank you for giving us a look inside the world of wooden rowing shells and a little bit of the Pocock shell history and thanks for showing us around here.
– Thanks for your interest.