Speedboat Kings :
Marion Barbara Carstairs
The 1929 and 1930 Harmsworth Races

Ch.1 The World's Classic - The Harmsworth Trophy
Ch.2 The First Hydroplane - Smith, Ryan & Blackton 1911-12
Ch.3 The Dream Boat-Miss Detroit I - Miss Detroit I & II and the Gold Cups 1915-17
Ch.4 The Teddy Bears in Full Dress - Miss Detroit III and the 1918 Gold Cup
Ch.5 Gar Wood Wins The Harmsworth [1920]
Ch.6 Sheldon Clark, Gar Wood and the 1921 Harmsworth Race
Ch.7 150-Mile Race - Gar Wood and the International Sweepstakes Races 1923-26
Ch.8 The French Challenge - 1926 Harmsworth Trophy
Ch.9 Miss America VI Cracks Up - Barbara Carstairs and the 1928 Harmsworth Trophy Race
Ch.10 Marion Barbara Carstairs - The 1929 and 1930 Harmsworth Races
Ch.11 Segrave Is Killed [1930]
Ch.12 Over 100 Miles an Hour [1931]
Ch.13 Kaye Don - [1931 Harmsworth Trophy Race, Pt.1]
Ch.14 Sinking of Miss England II [1931] - [1931 Harmsworth Trophy Pt.2 & 1932 Water Speed Record Attempt]
Ch.15 Miss America X - 8 Tons of Dynamite [1932]
Ch.16 Johnson Saves The Teddy Bears [1932 Harmsworth Trophy]
Ch.17 Hubert Scott-Paine
Ch.18 Sir Malcolm Campbell [1939]

The Estelle II had weighed only 2,900 pounds. After the 1928 race [Gar] Wood said to Miss Carstairs, "Your boat is too light. You should have more weight for your horsepower. Your experts are working on the theory of low weight per horsepower but that theory doesn't work out so well when you hit rough seas or when you're turning a buoy."

Wood knew. Not from model tests in government tanks. No. But from actual tests with speedboats in trials. "You can't put these things on paper," Wood says, "like you chart a new star. There are too many unknown factors about speed on water. We've taken our boats out on the river many times and have blown quite a few scientific theories to pieces."

"Why, just a few years ago they said there was a limit to speed on water. We discover now that there isn't, anymore than there is to speed in the air or on land."

Wood's laboratory is the St. Clair River in Michigan. That's where he tests his boats.

Miss Carstairs came back to America the following year with a much heavier boat. Estelle IV weighed four tons.

Wood was ready with two boats-his Miss America VII, and a new boat, :Miss America VIII. Nap Lisee says that the EIGHTH was the finest boat he ever built, barring none. He says that even today. "That's my masterpiece-the EIGHTH. It's even better than the TENTH," he says.

The EIGHTH, like the SEVENTH, was powered with two 1,000 horsepower Packard aviation engines. George Wood drove the SEVENTH and Captain Woolson, Packard engineer and co-designer of these engines, handled the throttles. Gar Wood and Orlin Johnson were cocked in the EIGHTH.

Again the race was held on the Detroit River at Detroit.

Just before the race Woolson turned to George Wood and said, "What about Gar, shall we pass him if we can?"

"Of course," was George's answer. "If he can't stay ahead of us, that's his fault, not ours. Beat him if you can."

For six laps Wood's two boats roared around the course wide open, bow to bow, flames spitting from their exhausts most of the way. It was one of the greatest, one of the most exciting races in the history of the Harmsworth. And it was put on by two of Wood's own boats.

I would like to see that sight at night-two racing meteors piloted by madmen and the fingers of Death grinning at them in the amber light of those weird exhaust flames spitting fire from the engine stacks. That is, I'd like to see it if, IF Death could keep his fingers away from those throttles.

At the finish line the EIGHTH and the SEVENTH were bow to bow. The finish was so close, the line so thin between them, that they had to wait for the judges' decision to find out who won the race. Gar `food beat his brother George by one-hundredth of a second. It was that close. The SEVENTH averaged 74753 miles per hour; the EIGHTH, 75.287 miles per hour.

George Wood still believes that he won that race.

The Estelle IV, Miss Carstairs driving, was on the third lap when the two American boats lapped her. A few moments later the manifold on the port engine came loose. Fire spouted from the cylinders. Miss Carstairs, fearing the boat would burn up, shut off the engine and chugged over to the dock of the Edison Boat Club on the mainland side of the course with the other engine, disabled. She was out of the race.

Another American boat, Miss Los Angeles II, owned by James J. Talbot, Jr., son of the president of the Richfield Oil Company, Los Angeles, Calif., went six laps of the course with only one engine running. The starboard engine had died on the first lap. The boat was the largest craft entered in the race. It had cost Talbot $60,000.

But there still was a faint spark living in the undaunted spirit of this English girl. She had seen Wood's boats before the race strung up in their cradle at Algonac, Michigan. She and her mechanic, Joe Harris, and her chief of staff, Captain Campbell Marshall, studied these boats, every detail of them. Wood didn't care. He had invited her to his plant for that very purpose. Wood's chief interest was competition. He let the entire English party roam around his plant, discovering what they could about his boats. He had no secrets. "If they can build boats like mine," he said, "we might have a good race some day. That's all I want."

So the English party studied Wood's boats. If they hadn't, there would have been no Harmsworth race the following year, 1930. Miss Carstairs would have taken the count, a beaten girl. But when she saw how Wood's boats were made, had studied their lines and had taken some notes it gave her hope. She'd build a boat like Wood's Miss America VIII. "I'll copy those lines," she said. "Sure, I'll try again next year."

She came back to America in 1930 with two boats, Estelle IV, and a new boat, Estelle V, which was almost an exact duplicate (in design) of Wood's Miss America VIII. :Miss Carstairs had spent $75,000 for two Napier Lions engines which turned the propeller of her new boat 5,400 revolutions per minute. That was mighty fast. And Wood knew it.

But Wood sent three boats to the line in that race-his old Miss America V which his men had reconditioned since the 1926 race against the French; Miss America VIII, and a new defender, Miss America IX.

As the race went, Phil Wood, piloting the four-year-old Miss America V, could have won it single-handed. But Gar Wood, for the first time in his life, saw an English boat ahead of him in a race.

For some unknown reason the Estelle V, piloted by Bert Hawker, English aviator, started late. The boat was two hundred yards astern when the three American boats and the Estelle IV hit the line at the gun. Wood, piloting his flagship, Miss America IX, had a commanding lead after turning the two westerly buoys. But Bert Hawker started after him, throttles out. Before Wood had completed the first lap, even before he had taken the second easterly buoy of the upper course, the Estelle V had shot past him like a bullet.

But just as it did that, disaster struck swiftly. Estelle's main oil line snapped. The pilot and the mechanic, Joe Dodkin, were sprayed with hot oil-and blinded. Bert Hawker, not able to see the course, cut inside the buoy. Before he had recovered his sight his boat had shot off the course and was headed for Peche Island, on the Canadian shore. Meanwhile, Wood's two boats had gone around the buoy and were headed back toward the judges' stand again for the start of the second lap.

Hawker got hold of his boat and put it back on the course in a dash after Wood. But the demon of ill luck that had been dogging these English challengers for ten years struck again. Just as Hawker had passed the judges' stand at the Detroit Yacht Club on the start of the second lap the gas tank let go. Flames shot up from the boat. It stopped, paralyzed.

Hawker and Dodkin worked furiously at the engines. But the gas tank was empty. The rivets holding the baffle plates to the outer side of the petrol tanks had pulled through. The petrol had spurted out through these rivet holes. Hawker called for a tow and another English boat was out of the race.

Miss Carstairs, piloting her Estelle IV, completed the heat. But her boat was passed by all three of Wood's boats.

That's what happened in the first heat.

But there was another heat to go.

Before the second heat Miss Carstairs told Hawker to take the wheel of the Estelle IV and break the boat up if necessary in an effort to beat Wood. (Estelle V could not be repaired.)

That was a futile gesture. The Estelle IV was towed off the course before it completed the heat. The rivets again tore through the petrol tanks and Hawker sat there in the cockpit over an empty gas tank. The same thing had happened to both English boats.

And all this time Wood's boats raced on and won the racewithout the slightest trouble.

Only once, in 1931, did any of Wood's boats fail him during a Harmsworth race. Millions in England and America, viewing that record, have come to believe that Wood was born with a horseshoe around his neck. They go down to the race to see him get beaten. But he never has thus far. The fine, perfect workmanship of his craft, the long experience of his hull and engine builders, his safe boats that can almost turn on the point of a needle, it seems, without tippingall these things conspired to defeat his opponents. Wood's races are won before the starting gun. Sometimes just two minutes before.

I saw Wood immediately after the 1930 race. He was sitting on the bow of his Miss America IX beside his Grayhaven home. He had pulled his riding helmet from his head and his white hair was gleaming in the late afternoon sun. His legs dangled over the side of his Miss America IX. The fingers of his right hand were toying with the fuzzy heads of his two Teddy Bears. He was talking to newspaper men, telling them he was through with racing.

"Why, Mr. Wood? Why?" they were asking.

But they knew why. There hadn't been enough competition. And the cost. Tremendous. In the past three years-1928, 1929, and 1930he had built four new boats. Not once in those years had anyone given him a good race.

He was through. He said so.

But Wood wasn't through.

We'll see what was happening in England; how the British Air Ministry, Lord C. C. Wakefield of Hythe, Southampton, Sir Henry Segrave, Kaye Don, Hubert Scott-Paine, and finally, Sir Malcolm Campbell-all the engineering genius of Britain-were converging on Wood to try to lift the British International Trophy.

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.10)


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Leslie Field, 2000