After high school, young Joe worked as a manual laborer, earning enough to get him part of the way through the first year at the University of Washington in Seattle, a "world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters." His ability to remain in college for the whole year depended on getting a part-time job on the campus, which, in turn, rested on his earning a place on the school's rowing team. It was an uncongenial milieu for one as ragged and unpreppy as Joe, but he endured where dozens of his elegant classmates disappeared once they got a taste of the grueling reality.
A sport of greater prominence than it is today, rowing in the 1930s was even more associated with the well heeled than it is now (which is saying plenty) and, in American rowing, with the East Coast. At the time, Brown observes, "the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis."
The emergence of strong, winning Western crews that began in the 1920s was a shock to eastern sensibilities: California was bad enough, but Washington, with its hick reputation as a a state of lumberjacks and fishermen, was an affront. Be that as it may, in the West, the rivalry between the universities of Washington and California was where the real acrimony lay. California had not only trounced Washington in the recent past; it had represented the United States in the 1932 Olympics.
A fine cast of characters inhabit this tale, among them the coach Al Ulbrickson, "the Dour Dane," taciturn and demanding, a man whose experience with rowing included his having had to row two miles each way to attend high school; the English boatbuilder George Yeoman Pocock (what a name!), whose adoption of Western red cedar for the hulls of the shells transformed their construction and conferred upon them unprecedented liveliness and increased speed. He also served as unofficial adviser to the Washington crew, passing on the rowing technique he had learned as a boy from Thames boatmen – a romantic detail that is only one among the many that make this such an enthralling adventure.