Speedboat Kings :
Segrave Is Killed [1930]

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]

IT WAS on March 29, 1927. Sir Henry O'Neal de Hane Segrave and Gar Wood were standing in front of the latter's winter home on Indian River, Florida. After the War Segrave had told the world that he would build a race car and drive it over the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, at over two hundred miles an hour. The world thought the War had driven him mad.

On that very morning in March, 1927, he had rocketed his Mystery Sunbeam across one measured mile of Daytona sands at 203.79 miles an hour. That was the fastest any human being had ever traveled on land.

Tall, slim, handsome, clothed in white tropic knickers tightened with a leather belt about his waist -- this young Briton, schooled in danger, was like a bundle of charged steel wire, controlled. At seventeen he was in charge of British machine gunners in France during the War. He left Eton when the War broke out, went to Sandhurst. There he was gazetted a lieutenant in the infantry and rushed to the front.

On May 17, 1915 he was shot in a hand to hand encounter in what was thought to be an abandoned German trench. Segrave was rescued by men of his own battalion and taken back of the lines. For days he was near death. He was sent back to England, convalesced and before long he had joined the British Air Service. He flew to the front April 14, 1916. In less than two months he was gazetted captain and flight commander. He brought down four enemy ships before his own ship was riddled with enemy bullets. His broken body was found at dusk, slumped in a battered cockpit in a tree.

He lived to become technical advisor of the British Air Council.

After the War he joined the Sunbeam company. In March, 1927, he took his Mystery Sunbeam to Daytona, Florida, where he set a land speed record that amazed the world.

They were talking speedboats, Sir Henry Segrave and Gar Wood. Segrave had just stepped out of the fastest boat ride he had ever had in his life. Wood's Miss America V was there in the boatwell.

The name of Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth) was mentioned. Segrave remembered what Lord Northcliffe had said to Tom Clarke, his news editor, when he sent him to America:

"Don't forget, Tom, that immediately you leave Southampton you are going to the greatest country in the worldthe land of big ideas, big men, big business, big talk, big buildings, big everything. You have got to speak with wideeyed admiration; you've seen nothing like it; unbelievable; thrilling; 100 per cent everything. As long as you are among Americans they and their country are the biggest things that ever happened. Of course, you can forget it all immediately you set foot in Southampton again."

But Segrave didn't forget it. He felt all this in the slim, whitehaired speedboat king beside him, in Gar Wood. Wood sums up his century as few men do-speed-invention (Wood is an inventor)money-engines-production-yachts-seaplanes. Segrave could see that.

They were talking about boats, the British International Trophy, and Lord C. C. Wakefield, Segrave's benefactor. Wakefield, England's Rockefeller, was governing director of C. C. Wakefield and Company, Ltd., perhaps the largest oil company in all England. He was interested in speed records. It was Wakefield who financed Captain James A. Mollison in his westward flight across the Atlantic. He also aided Amy Johnson's record flights to Australia.

Segrave turned to Wood. "There's no reason why Lord Wakefield will not be interested in boats as far as I can see," he said. "We've won the records we wanted on land and in the air. What England wants now is the water speed record and the British International Trophy. I think Lord Wakefield will be interested."

Before these two men parted Wood bought a Sunbeam car from Sir Henry. The Englishman took an outboard motor back to England with him.

Segrave almost immediately began to experiment, to study. He went to the plant of Hubert Scott-Paine at Southampton, England. Together with Fred Cooper they built Miss England I, powered with the 900-horsepower Napier Lion engine Segrave had used in his Mystery Sunbeam. The boat was twenty-seven and one-half feet long with a seven and one-half foot beam, built of five-skin mahogany.

They made mistakes. Perhaps the greatest mistake they made was building a flexible hull. The hull of a high speed boat must be firm, rugged. At high speeds water becomes similar to a solid; just as air at high speeds in a plane becomes a liquid. No flexible hull could stand the jarring of a boat travelling over a sheet of corrugated glass at eighty miles an hour. That's what a sheet of water becomes at high speed-grooved glass.

Segrave found that out in Florida in the Spring of 1929. He shipped his famous racing car, the Golden Arrow, and his Miss England to America on the same boat. With the Golden Arrow he set a new land speed of 231.36 miles an hour at Daytona Beach on March 11, 1929.

After the record Wood went to Segrave and asked the Englishman to show him his boat and give him a demonstration of its performance. Upon looking at the boat when it was out of water Wood saw immediately that the propeller was too large and the bow rudder poorly designed. A test run of the boat proved both these factors to be true.

The Committee at Miami Beach was anxious to have Segrave bring his boat to the annual Regatta and pit it against Wood's Miss America VII. In view of Wood's criticism of his boat, Segrave didn't know what to do, so Wood volunteered to send his crew of mechanics to Daytona Beach to put on a proper rudder and to furnish Segrave with suitable propellers.

After considerable calculation of Segrave's horsepower and hull design Wood ordered three propellers from the Hyde Company and gave them to Segrave. With a new rudder on his boat and with Wood's propellers the Miss England I was a very formidable, competitive boat. That's what Wood wanted. He wanted a good race.

After a successful trial run at Daytona Beach Segrave shipped his boat to Miami Beach. He knew that if he could at least make a showing in this contest he'd have little difficulty getting financial backing from Lord Wakefield for a future Harmsworth boat. He discussed this possibility with Wood and the American sportsman agreed that they should stage a close race. Wood was extremely anxious for Segrave to play an important role in Harmsworth competition.

Segrave had a strong vivid stripe of the dare-devil in him. Before the race he asked Wood for the pole position.

Wood said, "That's dangerous, sir. My boat is faster. When I cut in on you you'll have to take my wash."

Segrave answered, "I'll take the chance."

He was given the pole position. When Wood cut across Segrave's bow the solid spray of his Miss America VII struck Segrave full in the face. For a few desperate seconds Segrave didn't know what had happened.

Miss America VII had been in the South for some time and the salt water had eaten away the steering cable unbeknown to the Wood crew. The two boats made a beautiful start. The dark mahogany hull of the Miss America and the pure white hull of the Miss England. Although Miss America VII led the Miss England to the first turn, on making the turn the steering gear cable let go and Miss America was unable to proceed. The news was flashed over the world that at last a British boat had beaten Gar Wood in a championship race. The rules governing this particular event were set up by the American Powerboat Association on what is known as a point system; and all the British boat had to do in the second heat was to finish to gain one more point than the American boat which did not finish the first heat. Segrave finished the second heat and won the race even though Gar Wood lapped him three times.

According to American boat designers, the English made grave mistakes in building Miss England I. In the first place Fred Cooper, designer of the boat, had insisted on both a bow and an aft rudder. Segrave said it helped him to make sharper turns.

But Wood told him that an aft rudder is dangerous. And it is. Events at Detroit in 1931 proved it when Kaye Don almost went to his death. Wood uses simply a bow rudder. He makes the sharp turns with his propellers, throttling the inside (buoy) propeller, while the outside propeller is speeded.

Wood also believes that it is dangerous to set the cockpit ahead of the engines. He told Segrave, "I want those engines ahead of me when we crack up. If your hull blows to pieces, what chance have you? Those engines are a wall of steel in front of you." Wood discovered how true this was when his Miss America VI blew up on the St. Clair River the year before this, 1928.

But Segrave said, "I've got to see the course ahead of me. I can't see with those engines spitting flames and gases in my face."

The English persisted in this theory. Disaster rode high on the wings of their next boat, Miss England II. Segrave may have escaped death had he been sitting BEHIND the engines at Lake Windermere. I merely say "may have" because nothing is certain in this dangerous business. The fact is that Wood, after almost thirty years of racing, still lives.

At any rate Segrave gained great popularity in England because of his success against Gar Wood. He went back to England with his Miss England I, obtained the backing of Lord Wakefield and a new boat, Miss England II, began to take shape. Segrave had his heart set now on the British International Trophy and the world speed record on water.

But the Spring of 1930 came and Segrave had not challenged for the Trophy. His hull experiments had not been completed. He made some adjustments in his old boat, Miss England I, and cabled Wood during the summer:

Cannot challenge for Harmsworth this year but if you send boat to Venice regatta will promise to bring Miss Eng land to Detroit in 1930.

Wood didn't want to send his boat to Venice, Italy. "What's there in it?" he asked me one day. "I've got the Harmsworth Trophy and the world speed record. I think the Italians should send their racers to this country if they want to race for the world championship."

But I was interested in keeping the Harmsworth races alive so I told Wood that it was a chance to interest Italy in the world's premiere speedboat event. "This race at Venice is for the Count Volpi Cup, Gar," I reminded him. "It's one of the most important trophies in Italy." I also told him that the Duke of Spoleto, cousin of King Victor Immanuel, was in charge of the Regatta and that Italian royalty would attend the event.

Finally, Wood agreed. He conferred with Napoleon Lisee, Orlin Johnson, Vance Smith and his brothers George and Phil Wood. These men wanted him to send his best boat, the Miss America VIII, immediately after the 1929 Harmsworth race at Detroit.

But Wood said, "No. Absolutely not. We'll send THE SEVENTH and THE FIFTH, but not the EIGHTH. Never. I may need her. She's the best boat we ever had."

Immediately after the 1929 Harmsworth race on the Detroit River against Miss Carstairs, Miss America VII was put on an express car ready for the swift dash to Venice, Italy. Remember now, that was the race in which George Wood and Gar Wood finished bow to bow, Gar getting the judges' decision. During this strenuous race the SEVENTH did considerable porpoising in rough water, so much so that the side planking was badly strained. This weakened the boat considerably.

In a hurry to get the boat loaded on the express car for Italy this damage was not noticed. It was covered with canvas and shipped the same night to New York where it was almost immediately put aboard the trans-Atlantic liner for Naples, Italy.

Orlin Johnson, Phil Wood and Vance Smith were already in Venice with the Miss America V when the broken boat arrived. They saw immediately that it could never stand the jarring of a fast race. But they had orders from Wood. Phil Wood said, "It'll sound silly to all America if we don't put up some kind of a race."

So Phil Wood and Orlin Johnson drove the broken boat. Prince Carlo Ruspoli, a son-in-law of Count Volpi, and Vice-Chairman of the Regatta Committee, piloted Miss America V, with Vance Smith at the throttles. It was fortunate for Johnson that they made exactly this arrangement. The man might have been dead today but for that.

The two American boats were laying back about 200 yards ready to hit the line first at the gun. They had checked their time at the judges' stand. They were ready. Phil Wood and Johnson both agreed to keep the SEVENTH up there in the race until she broke up. They wouldn't quit.

They had just started for the line, two hundred yards back, when the gun blasted the signal. They had made a mistake in their time. Sir Henry Segrave had beaten them across. Vance Smith, engineering the FIFTH, pulled out the throttles. But before he could get any speed the SEVENTH thundered past like a bullet in a mad dash after Segrave and the Miss England I.

Vance could see Phil Wood and Johnson closing in on Segrave. Then, suddenly, for no apparent reason, the SEVENTH shot about twelve feet into the air. Phil Wood and Johnson were pitched out of the cockpit. When the two white figures hit the water they were one hundred feet apart. The SEVENTH kept going in a great white arc to the right, finally burying itself on shore. It was destroyed.

But Vance acted fast. He throttled down the engines of the FIFTH and Prince Carlo Ruspoli, driving, pulled up beside Johnson, floating on the surface. Johnson's head was thrown back, his mouth and eyes were open, like a dead man.

Vance made one desperate leap. He took Johnson by the hair and lifted him out of the water with the strength of a crazed man, dragged the body over the hot engines, and started to administer artificial respiration.

At the dock the Italian doctors pronounced Johnson dead.

But Vance kept working on him, desperately. "I know you're not dead, Orlin. I know it," he kept saying. "I don't believe them."

The water kept pouring out of Johnson's mouth. Vance kept at him. They were in a speedboat now, racing to the marine hospital at Santa Ana. Vance Smith didn't even remember how they got there, in the speedboat. For twenty minutes in that mad bounding dash to the hospital Vance kept working on his man. He began to believe Johnson was really dead. But just as their boat pulled up at the dock Johnson let out a gasp. He was breathing. He was alive. ALIVE. "That gasp-," Vance said. "It was the sweetest sound I ever heard in my life."

Orlin Johnson lived! But his skull was fractured.

Phil Wood was taken to the hospital in another boat. He suffered contusions about the hip. Prince Ruspoli was floating around the Adriatic sea in the mechanic-abandoned Miss America V. Sir Henry Segrave won the race.

When Segrave visited Johnson in the Italian hospital he invited him to stop at Cowes, Isle of Wight, before he returned to America, to get a look at the new Harmsworth boat they were building, Miss England II.

Johnson was not well enough to visit England but he asked Segrave now what the boat was made of.

"Seven-ply mahogany," was the answer.

Johnson smiled, said, "That boat will never bet to America."

"Why not?" Segrave looked at Johnson, surprised.

Then Johnson told him Wood's experience with the Bruin in the 1923 Sweepstakes. The Bruin, too, had been built of plywood. It was out on the first lap with her bottom ripped out of her.

Segrave said, "I honestly don't know what is going to happen, old fellow, when I release 4,000 horsepower to that little fifteen-inch propeller."

Wakefield had given Segrave carte blanche. "I don't care what it costs. But return the British International Trophy to England," he had told him.

Backed by the British Air Ministry, the Rolls-Royce Company, Ltd., had developed a new aircraft engine of 2,000 horsepower. Wakefield went to the Ministry and contracted for the rights to use two of those engines.

When the boat was finished it was a seven-ton projectile, powered with two 2,000 horsepower Rolls-Royce engines that spun a tiny twobladed propeller through the water at 12,000 revolutions a minute.

Fred Cooper installed both a bow and an aft rudder.

The engines were still behind the cockpit.

Segrave and Cooper speeded the boat to completion and took it to Lake Windermere for a try at Gar Wood's world record-92.838 miles an hour, done with Miss America VII on the Detroit River in 1928.

Here was a young man with scarcely two years' knowledge of fast boats already aiming at the world speed record. And doing it with a 4,000 horsepower bomb that hadn't tasted water.

That is the character of the Briton.

Miss England II was ready on Friday, June 13, 1930. Segrave, Michael Willcocks, engineer of the boat, and W. Hallwell, of the Rolls Royce Company, Ltd., all dressed in spotless white overalls and special steel lifebelts, stepped into the cockpit.

Segrave turned to Willcocks and said, "It's Friday the 13th. I wonder what's going to happen."

TWO of them were going to their death.

The boat shot out above the measured-mile straightaway where the official timers stood, ready to dash over the measured-mile laid out about in the center of the lake between Lakeside and Ambleside. Segrave was making a few practice spins far out there above the markers. The Miss England II looked like a white ghost, its wings of spray spread wide, its engines droning-a thing of beauty, symmetry, flawless grace. It was perhaps the most beautiful speedboat ever built, its bow and its aft end tapering almost to the thinness of a knife blade.

It cut a great white arc in the water, then it straightened. Segrave was cutting down toward the markers, his steady hand tight on the wheel, his eyes glued to the narrow, glass-flat path before him, his foot pressing the throttle to both engines.

The engines cannoned louder as they approached the first marker. When he crossed, throttles down, the thing was like the mad screaming of 4,000 wounded war horses, agonized and frightened.

Miss England II shot across the first mile at 96.41 miles per hour.

Two runs must be made across the measured mile; one against wind or current, one with.

It came back at 101.11 miles an hour. The average was 98.76 -a new world record.

But this courageous young Briton did not know he had broken the world record. He was not satisfied. He took his craft to the upper end of the course again and brought it back with everything it had. The roar was terrific. The official timers could not clock it this time. It did not complete the mile. It made a sudden turn, the quivering thing shot clear of the water like a white rocket, its engines screaming. Segrave and his two men were pitched like meteors from the cockpit. There was a puff of blue, curling smoke . . . a dive . . . silence.

Ten boats rushed out to the rescue. Segrave himself was picked up by P. F. King, of Windermere, who plunged into the lake after him. He was unconscious.

Hallwell drowned.

Willcocks was severely injured.

Segrave and Willcocks were rushed to a hospital. Segrave suffered a broken arm, a broken rib and a fractured thigh. He regained consciousness for a few minutes. He turned to Lady Segrave at his bedside and asked, "How are the lads?" meaning his men. And then, "Did we do it?"

Lady Segrave told him he had, that he broke the record.

He died in a few moments of lung hemorrhages.

The drowned body of Hallwell was found, a pencil clutched in one hand, a pad of paper in the other. He'd evidently been taking tachometer readings.

Willcocks recovered.

Probably no one will ever know for sure what sent these men to their death. It may have been the tremendous torque on the tiny propeller. Twenty minutes after the disaster a water-soaked branch of a tree, three inches thick, was picked up several hundred yards from the stern of the boat. That may be the answer. No one knows.

The most likely solution to the riddle is that the detachable step ripped off. The forward plane of Miss England II was built on after the main hull was completed and was not an integral part of the boat in its original design. The reason for this, Segrave explained, was that neither he nor his designers knew for sure what angle the forward plane should be in order to get the best performance and that the structure they applied was made so that it could be moved and changed.

Wood said that it is practically impossible for a plane attached in this manner to withstand the terrific pressure of water at such speeds as one hundred miles an hour. When the boat was raised out of sixty feet of water the greater part of the front step was torn away and the entire bottom was broken up.

Lord Wakefield said, "That's enough for me. I've killed two wonderful men. I'm quitting."

Miss Carstairs, undaunted by the disaster, sent her two boats to America, Estelle IV and V, almost immediately afterwards, in her third and last attempt to lift the Trophy from Gar Wood. We have already seen how she failed.

Hubert Scott-Paine, builder of Miss England I, went to the Rolls Royce Company. He wanted the rights to the engines in Miss England II for a Harmsworth boat he planned to build. They referred him to Lord Wakefield.

Meanwhile, Wakefield's friends had persuaded him to carry on. He refused Scott-Paine the use of the engines. He had Miss England II restored. Kaye Don, a silent, affable but daring young Briton, was put behind the wheel.

Lord Wakefield flung another challenge to America.

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.11)


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Leslie Field, 2000