A book about a group of young men from the remote Pacific Northwest rowing a boat together in the 1930s doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a best-seller. But when that group of young men compete to be the best crew team in the world, and row in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, on the eve of World War II, and you bring in the riveting storytelling of Daniel James Brown, you have a full-fledged, true story phenomenon called “Boys in the Boat.”
In researching the sport of rowing, Brown, who admits he knew nothing about it before his book, spent months just trying to understand the allure of crew. He watched regattas, including the Head of the Charles, and he even attemped to row a little himself. That didn’t go so well, he admits.
With the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles here, Brown’s book, which was already out in hardcover and paperback, has been released in a young reader's edition. And adding to the excitement of this year’s regatta is that one participant in the women’s senior event, Jennifer Huffman, is the granddaughter of Joe Rantz, who was a member of that University of Washington crew that represented the US at the 1936 Olympics.
Brown spoke with the Globe about the book, the sport, and what he learned during his own journey.
What is it about rowing that has allowed the sport to endure for all these years? It feels like such an old sport.
It has been the upswing lately. There is a kind of purity to it that’s part of the appeal. Back in the 20s and 30s, it was popular as a spectator sport. You’d get thousands of people, huge crowds, races covered coast to coast. It’s not at those levels anymore. But people who do it, do it for the sheer love of it. There’s not a lot of glory with it. Essentially nothing of any monetary return. People do it for the passion of the sport. It’s the ultimate amateur sport.
Does the fact that it’s an Olympic sport help keep it alive?
It gives people something every four years to shoot for. It’s not a huge draw. In 1936, the year I wrote about, it was the second largest spectator sport, the largest being the huge Olympic stadium. It’s certainly not on that level anymore.
As you were researching the sport, what surprised you?
I started off with basically zero in the way of knowledge. I was worried about that. I made contact with a lot of rowers, spent time talking to anybody who rowed, from teenagers to Olympians. A couple things surprised me. It’s a lot harder than it looks. One of the toughest sports. You use literally every muscle in your body, from your toes to the biggest muscles in your legs and back. It takes a tremendous toll. It’s hard to not be impressed by how physically fit those who do it at the highest level are.
What else surprised you?
I can’t think of anything, even in sports, that requires the same degree of teamwork that rowing does. That’s the essence of it. You have to be part of something bigger than yourself. Every movement you make affects everybody else in the boat. You trust the coxswain to make the right decisions. It’s so much about teamwork and trust. People get incredibly bonded together.
Did you get to experience that yourself, by rowing?
[He laughs] I got in a boat, but I don’t know if you could call it rowing. That’s what I mean by it’s harder than it looks to get that oar turned and into the water at the right angle. I’ve been in a boat and took a few strokes.
But did you at least get a feel for the appeal of it?
The appeal is the camaraderie. When you are out on the water, it’s beautiful out there. It’s a pretty and pleasant place to be.
As the Head of the Charles approaches, did you get a chance to experience it?
It’s the one really big regatta we still have. It brings back some of the atmosphere and some of the rowing [excitement] from the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s. I was there one year, the crowd excitement and enthusiasm for it is reminiscent of the golden days of rowing.
Can you talk about the shells that are used?
In the days I was writing about, they used these beautiful red cedar shells. They were constantly tinkering with the fine points of design. On another level, you can shave off time with those changes. It matters. They were always tinkering with little subtleties. More rigid, more flexible, a little curve to it. Also the oars, they have continually tinkered with the shape of the blades.
How do you compare the rowing teams versus the single scullers, those who row individually?
A head-to-head contest of several eights is very exciting. It’s like a horse race, power and speed and they are head to head. People that row them fit in with teams. People who row singles tend to be eccentric, strong willed, they march to their own drummer. It’s a different experience. It’s still about which boat comes in with the best time, but it’s different than watching a team that’s synchronized so beautifully.
Do you have a preference?
I like watching the eights and the fours, and the synchronization of getting all the oars in the water at the same time.
Did you ever think you’d be a rowing fan?
No! It wasn’t on my radar. It was a complete surprise to me. But I have become a true fan.
Finally, just talk about the reaction to your book from the rowing community and others.
From the rowing standpoint, one thing that’s been really interesting is I get e-mails and meet sons and daughters of rowing, and they say, ‘Wow, for the first time, I understand what my kid or parent is so excited about.’ It also opened a lot of eyes to the mystery of what makes people do this sport. Also, I know it has stimulated interest in rowing. Anecdotally I hear all the time that these “learning to row classes” are filled up more than ever.