Speedboat Kings :
[1931 Harmsworth Trophy Race, Pt.1]
The Harmsworth course at Detroit was laid out on the American side of the Detroit River between Belle Isle and the city of Detroit on the mainland shore. It runs clockwise from the dock of the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle toward the Belle Isle bridge, around the two westerly buoys, then east up the back stretch and out into Lake St. Clair, around the dangerous easterly hairpin turn, and back west again toward the judges' stand at the yacht club.
The course is five nautical miles around (exactly 30,400 feet). It was laid out and measured by C. A. Park, superintendent of U. S. Lighthouses. To complete a race the boats must travel six times around the five-mile course to cover a distance of thirty nautical miles. The races are run in three heats. The country taking two races wins the Trophy. Only in 1931 was it ever necessary for Wood to run three races-the Miss America VIII running the third all alone on the third day of the race.
The 1931 race for the Trophy probably attracted the largest crowd in the history of any sporting event. The author put men equipped with automatic counters at strategic points all along the entire course. More than 600,000 spectators were actually counted. They were packed tight at every vantage point along the mainland side, along the Belle Isle shore, in countless government boats, cruisers, yachts and steamboats anchored within the outer rim of the boat lanes.
Telephone poles, towers, roof tops swarmed with human beings clinging like flies to every conceivable projection, their eyes pinned on the river, their ears humming in the drone of thundering superaircraft engines.
On Monday, at 4 p. m., the judges, the officials, the timers, the course-everything was ready. Three whistle blasts from the United States coast guard cutters was the signal to close the course. Besides that, a display from their signal yards and the blue and white checkerboard flag of the International Code indicated the course was closed.
Palatial yachts and cruisers had been sliding ghost-like into the race basin all night. They were anchored now, waiting-their decks swarming with society folk, cameramen, sportsmen. Dominating this immense pageant of watercraft was the flagship Olive K, owned by Commodore Charles F. Kettering, vice-president of the General Motors Corporation.
The roster of the Detroit Gold Cup Committee, which was in charge of the event, read like a chapter in "Who's Who in America." Names like Henry Ford, Senator James Couzens, Walter P. Chrysler, Charles T. Fisher, Alvan Macauley, Howard Coffin, Charles E. Sorensen, Sheldon Clark-and many others.
Charles F. Chapman, of New York, chairman of the race committee of the American Powerboat Association, one of the judges, held the two English votes-the vote of the Harmsworth Estate, donors of the Trophy, and also the vote of the Royal Motor Yacht Club, of London, England, trustees of the Trophy.
W. D. "Eddie" Edenburn, the little giant of powerboat racing who made the quick, knifelike decisions, held the American vote, representing the Yachtsmen's Association of America.
Another judge, E. V. Rippingile, research engineer of the General Motors Corporation, was sent into the air to witness the race from the Detroit News plane and to follow the raceboats around the thirty nautical miles. There was a sound reason for that. From the judges' stand at the Detroit Yacht Club the easterly turn cannot be seen. In 1930 the English boat, piloted by Bert Hawker, went out of control on that east turn and cut the buoy. The judges did not know what had happened up there until pictures of the race were published, showing the Estelle V decidedly off the course. Rippingile, therefore, went into the air to see that the contestants observed the rules.
Odis A. Porter was the official timer.
At 4:45 p. m., fifteen minutes before the starting gun, the river had quieted down. It was like a sheet of glass. The Miss England II moved out slowly from its moorings at the Edsel Ford boathouse on the mainland side. It was being towed across the river to the judges' stand amid a deafening clamor of horns, sirens, whistles and bombs, and the incessant whirl of a dozen aeroplanes overhead.
Kaye Don and his two mechanics, all fitted out in spotlessly white overalls strapped in by steel-ribbed life preservers, stood on the deck of their white speedboat-stalwart, healthy, fearless young Britons, ready to ride to their death, challenging the master for speedboat honors. They were just kids.
There was a catch in the throat to see them standing there on the bow of their beautiful boat as it moved across the river. It was momentous testimony of England's wish to be supreme on the water. England had thrown that responsibility on the shoulders of these youngsters. The ruddy glow of the river colored their faces in the light of an already departing sun.
The hearts of these young Britons must have ticked a little faster. America had poured out 6oo,ooo people in a tribute to their courage. It was a sight they had never seen in England, a sight they may never see in the world again. The stage was set for a great spectacle. It was like a Roman amphitheater fifty times enlarged with the big sunset ball of the sun throwing its sharply-bladed fires across the water.
We stood with Mrs. Gar Wood on the deck of Charles F. Kettering's beautiful yacht, the Olive K. Wood's Miss Americas weren't in sight. In one minute the five-minute time signal would be cannoned from the judges' stand, the signal for Wood and Don to get ready. Wood's Grayhaven home is up there beyond the easterly turn of the course. We strained our eyes to see the wake of his Miss Americas way out there. But we couldn't. Wood hadn't come out yet.
We had our eyes riveted on Mrs. Wood. She was a little pale. And nervous. Her right hand was twitching on the deck rail, her left fingering a locket on her breast. She had her eyes fixed in the distance, on that thin slip of water that runs beside her home at Grayhaven. It was from that point that she expected to see the Miss Americas dash out, tracing four lines of white wake behind them. You wouldn't see the boats. It's too far away. You see the wake first -thin little white lines in the water.
The gun from the judges' stand cannoned the five-minute time signal. That's the signal for Wood and Don to get ready, to get their engines warm, to position for the flying start to the line.
We could hear the two 2,000 horsepower engines in Miss England II roar to a start. We couldn't see the boat. It was anchored near the judges' stand. But we could hear the thunder of those engines. You could hear that far up the river, like distant cannons booming.
Five minutes were left. The five huge time discs were poised there high above the yacht club dock. One of these discs drops each minute.
Another disc dropped. Four minutes were left. Miss England II thundered past the yacht on which we were standing and speeded toward the higher waters of the river for position and the flying start to the line.
Still Wood couldn't be seen.
Mrs. Wood grew increasingly nervous. "Where are they?" I heard her ask. She didn't want an answer. No one knew anyway. Only Gar Wood. Wood was timing his start to a split second.
I knew Wood would be on time. He always is.
Mrs. Wood put the field glasses to her eyes. Even yet she couldn't see the wake of the American boats.
The second disc dropped. Three minutes left. A million eyes were turned now in the direction of Wood's home. I began to wonder myself. Wood had three minutes to get to the line from his home.
Packed humanity was silent-only the distant drone of Miss England II could be heard above the whir of aeroplanes flying overhead. She was circling above the intake power station throwing a beautiful stream of mist on each side of her.
The third disc dropped. Then the fourth. Only one disc was left. Wood had only one minute. He must get his boat to the line before the last disc dropped or Don would beat him across.
And Don was set on beating Wood across. He had told him a few days before. "If I'm going to win this race, Mr. Wood, I've got to be first across that line."
Wood knew why this was true. Even Don didn't believe his boat could take Miss America's wash. And it couldn't. Wood knew that too. He had even said to Steele and several others a few days before the race that he did not think Miss England II could finish. And Wood is an excellent judge of speedboats. He can stand on the dock watching these boats in trials and often tell exactly what's wrong with the boat. He'd often done that with his Miss Americas and Miss Detroits.
It was a question of who would lead the other across the line. Don was determined he would lead Wood; Wood was just as determined he would lead Don.
Don was so intent on leading Wood across that he had previously asked the officials for a lane so that he wouldn't be interfered with by the two American boats.
"How much of a lane do you want?" Edenburn asked him.
"About four hundred yards. It will take me at least that far to get my boat up on the step and planing at the line."
Edenburn conferred with Chapman, Harry Greening and Otto Barthel. This request of Don's was without precedent. But they agreed to grant Don's wish.
Nothing in all sport can match the picture of the flying start in a boat race. It's a beautiful sight to watch. But it needs steel nerve, fine judgment for the men in the boats to get their bow across just at the spark of gun-fire. That's where the drama is-in that dash to the line. The crowd knows, Wood knows, Don knows. These men must judge every second accurately from a distance far above the line. If you go over more than five seconds too soon you're out of the race, disqualified. If you go over too late you've got to take the wash of the other boat. And that's dangerous. At 100 miles an hour.
And now race time was almost at the stroke of zero. One disc remained.
The faint drone of the engines in the two Miss Americas came to us. We looked, saw the two twin lines of wake. Wood was coming, heading straight for the line, his Miss America IX leading. They came down the stretch like mad bulls.
But Don, too, was ready.
We could see him straighten his boat out of the white arc he had made in the water. He was heading toward the start. The roar was getting terrific. Three thundering torpedoes were opening up their throttles, straightening out, charging to the judges' stand.
Wood's boat, the NINTH, seemed to porpoise a little. I had never seen that in any of his boats before. His boats were always as steady, as true, as straight as a die. They always planed out so beautifully.
But Wood kept coming. So did Don-Don leading. That too was a strange sight to this immense throng. Wood had always gone across first. But Miss England II was up on her step, and was charging, throttles open, down the stretch, at over 100 miles an hour.
I knew Wood had his throttles open, too. He always does, across the line. But somehow he couldn't get the speed he needed. Don kept pulling away from him. When they crossed the line the timer's ticker tape showed that Don had crossed just three-quarters of a second ahead of Wood, on the inside, on the buoy track. That's how close these boats were together.
Don had done two things in those swift seconds; he had beaten Wood across and he had seized the coveted track, the inside. If Wood was ever to pass Don, he'd have to cross Don's wash.
Wood never passed him. Don sped his boat around the course to a new Harmsworth heat record of 89:913 miles per hour. To this day (1939) that record has never been beaten. It meant that on the straightaway Don had to travel well over 100 miles an hour to achieve that speed.
Wood was much better at the buoys than Don. Miss England, rounding the first buoy on the west, scudded dangerously. Wood followed. It was beautiful to see the NINTH spin around those buoys. To do that Wood uses two propellers. Just before Wood turns the wheel, Johnson, who handles the throttles, checks the starboard (inside) propeller, while the port (outside) propeller turns at high speed.
How these two men can synchronize so well is a mystery. They act as one. They have to.
Miss England has only one propeller. But it has two rudders, bow and aft. Don depends chiefly on his rudders to make the buoys. But he has difficulty straightening his boat after the turns. Everyone could see that. Once, his giant hydroplane, coming out of the easterly bend just before completing the fourth lap, was bearing down on the dock of the yacht club. The spectators near the front of the dock, those who could see what was happening, pushed back, frightened. Miss England was out of control. But suddenly the strong arm of England's war ace straightened her and averted tragedy.
Even though Wood moved up on Don at the buoys he didn't seem to have enough speed in his boat. It was porpoising badly in Don's wash. And the leaping was getting worse.
Those who knew the dangers of a porpoising boat were afraid for the life of Wood and Johnson. They knew the trouble Johnson was having with those propellers. Sometimes the NINTH was completely out of water because even in the face of Wood's troubles they were travelling down the straightaways at over 100 miles an hour. At that speed the slightest mishandling of the throttle controls means almost certain tragedy. Every time the boat came back to the water Johnson had to be careful not to shut down the throttle too quickly. If he did the propellers would put on a drag, draw the bow down, throw the stern into the air. The center of resistance then moves up into the bow and a complete turtle will result-and possible death.
Johnson had to be dead sure that the engines were running just slightly faster than the speed of the boat each time the boat came back to the water.
Not only that. He had to check the water, the oil, watch the tachometer readings, throttle the inside propeller just at the correct moment near the buoys, while keeping the outside propeller just at the correct speed.
And besides he had to watch the buoys. "I always keep my eyes on those buoys," Johnson said.
He used uncanny judgment in everything he did. The NINTH averaged 87.027 miles per hour. That was a Harmsworth recordfor Wood.
The EIGHTH finished last, far behind the other two boats.
It was the first time in Harmsworth history that Wood had been beaten.
The impossible had happened.
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.13)
History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at email@example.com
© Leslie Field, 2000