Nantucket summer resident Dr. Marc Garnick owns some of the world’s rarest rowing shells.
For forty-six years, thousands have gathered on the banks of Boston’s Charles River for the largest rowing regatta in the world. Amongst the crowds in the fall of 1983 was Nantucket summer resident Dr. Marc Garnick, who found himself completely transfixed by the agony and ecstasy of this grand rowing spectacle. Witnessing his first Head of the Charles sparked a lifelong passion for rowing in Garnick that continues here on Nantucket in a unique way.
Now in his mid-sixties, Garnick is up at dawn launching one of his many rowing sculls into the glassy calm waters of Polpis Harbor. Except for the herons and kingfishers, he has the place to himself. But Garnick isn’t entering the water with just any old kind of boat. Since witnessing his first regatta, he has collected and restored some of the rarest and most coveted racing shells in existence. In particular, he owns a double scull built by the greatest wooden boat builder of all time, George Pocock.
Back in the twenties and thirties, George Pocock crafted racing shells for all the elite Ivy League rowing teams, many of which won national championships. Pocock became the stuff of legend after coaching a team of young men to win gold against Nazi Germany in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a story told by Daniel James Brown in his recent New York Times bestseller Boys in the Boat. Of course, the nine men who took gold were rowing one of Pocock’s handmade shells.
Garnick acquired one of Pocock’s rare shells several years ago, but very nearly destroyed it by trying to restore it himself. On the verge of bringing the whole mess to the Madaket Mall, he sought out the help of a man named Graeme King. If there were ever an heir to George Pocock in the modern era of wooden boat building, it’s King. “He’s Michelangelo with wood,” says Garnick, who tracked the expert down at his shop in Putney, Vermont and pleaded with him to return with him to Nantucket to save his boat. King deftly restored the Pocock back to its former glory, and Garnick now rows it most mornings.
This fall, Garnick and King have teamed up once again to assemble one of King’s custom shells. “The boats are all curves, no square corners, and no parallel lines,” the master craftsman says. “It’s a bit hard to square it all up.” This is an understatement. The hulls of King’s boats are made from a sixteenth of an inch “skin” consisting of handmade plywood. African mahogany and other veneer woods are cut as thin as one forty-fifth of an inch. “Everything is floppy until you stretch it,” King says. Then it is glued and epoxied together. The tedious build is enough to drive most boat builders mad, but Garnick has become accustomed to the fact that nothing about this sport comes easily, especially on Nantucket.
Measuring twenty-seven feet in length, but only twelve inches wide and weighing less than thirty pounds, racing shells draw less than four inches of water and are extremely unstable. Rowers face backwards, making navigation a challenge, particularly when braving a Nantucket wind. Timing is also an issue. The inner harbor is typically silky smooth at dawn before the day heats up and the wind starts to blow. During these hours Garnick makes his way from West to East Polpis Harbor or sometimes to Hummock Pond, Miacomet Pond, Long Pond and Sesachacha Pond. By 7:30 a.m. there is usu- ally too much wind for one of his nimble, yet delicate boats.
Above all, rowing is physically brutal. As Daniel James Brown described in Boys in the Boat, “Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body.”
Nevertheless, Marc Garnick enjoys the challenge and gushes far more about the joys of rowing than the trials. He is rewarded by the beauty of Nantucket as few people are, seeing it adorned with kingfishers, egrets, new morning light, rising moons, and bulbous jellyfish. There’s also a feeling that’s difficult to describe, like a runner’s high. Rowers call it “the swing,” in which they are so in tune with the rhythm of their stroke and overcome with the beauty of moving through the water that their effort is replaced with ecstasy. As George Pocock himself once said, “It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”