On Monday, June 26 I left the Hanover home of my good friends Wyatt and Rachel and hustled south on the Interstate for my scheduled 10:30 meeting with Graeme King.
I met him at the Putney, VT workshop that he built in the 1980’s. From the outside it is a nondescript building that belies the magic therein. In this shop Mr. King has for decades continued a tradition of boat building he began in his native Australia some 45 years ago.
King boats are marvelous and are prized among rowers. My former double partner, Stu Brown, once raced in a wooden King 4-. He said it was the prettiest a fastest four he had ever raced, including carbon boats lighter in weight.
Graeme King wooden racing shells will become even more prized, because he has built his last boat. For reasons of health and age (he is 72) he says he simply is not vigorous enough to build from start to finish a shell that meets his standards. He continues to do repair work, although currently he says he mostly putters about, due to recent knee surgery.
We had spoken on the phone several times, but I had never met him before. We visited for well over an hour. I said that out by the Pacific we see very few King wooden racing shells and although I have never rowed one, I aim to nab one some day. He said he would keep an eye out for me.
We talked about his history in boat-building, which has already been well documented in Darryl Strickler’s Rowable Classics. He asked why I was driving around in New England with three wooden racing shells on a trailer. I shared some tales about the trip.
I described myself said as a bit of a missionary for wooden racing shells; that I feel much of the good direction in my life I owe to what I learned starting back to my earlier years in wooden shells; that touring with these boats gives me a chance to give back some of what I have gained; that this trip has borne out my theory that people – even those with no connection to rowing – are drawn to these fine crafts; and that, heck, it is a good time in my life to take a (as my daughter calls it) row’d trip.
I said I own and on occasion row carbonfiber racing shells, including one that is manufactered by a company for which he does design and consulting – but that carbon boats “are industrial stuff, while wooden racing shells are alive. They feel me and I feel them.”
He said wooden boats breathe.
At this point, he got up, painfully, and with his cane hobbled into the back room to show me two sets of sculls dating to 1890, which set the rowing stations of a 1890 Thames River skiff he has restored. He handed me one of the sculls. I looked it over closely. It looks new!
We stood there for minutes without a word. The rain rain had tapered. He led me outside to a nearby building and unlocked it. There was the Thames skiff!
I have never seen anything like it. He had worked on it for years. He researched the history of the boat (and the sculls) and went to the trouble of travelling to England to verify every little detail, down to the crests that adorn the boat and the oars, and the type of cotton rudder ropes.
We returned to the main shop. We talked about the tradition of wooden racing shells. I said I am not the person to build these things, I can only collect, curate, love and row then, and share them with others.
I’ll have more to say about Graeme King, and photos of him and the shop to share, later.
I had brought a copy of Strickler’s Rowable Classics. I asked Mr. King if he would sign his name on one of the pages written about him. He wrote: “Don, Keep up the good work looking after the wooden boats. All the best Graeme King”