Speedboat Kings :
Sinking of Miss England II [1931]
[1931 Harmsworth Trophy Pt.2 & 1932 Water Speed Record Attempt]

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]

I was at Wood's boatwell that September night [1931] after the first heat. Something had gone wrong that day with Wood's boat, Miss America IX. His other boat, Miss America VIII, was no match for Miss England II.

The hull of the NINTH somehow could not take all the power of those engines. It bobbed badly in the swell thrown by the English challenger which was always in the lead. It was the first time in the long dramatic history of these events that Wood had ever lost a race. I was curious to know the cause of Wood's trouble. How was it that Wood had been beaten at last? What had happened to Miss America IX? Why was Don able to beat Wood? Who would win the next race? What was Wood doing now to get his boat in shape? Could he get it ready in time? If Don should win one more race the trophy would go back to England for the first time since 1920.

I wanted these questions answered.

I went to Grayhaven, Wood's Detroit home, on the Detroit River. It was just past midnight in Wood's boatwell. The yard was floodlighted so the men could work. I was watching the beehive of life that swarmed around the Harmsworth defender, Miss America IX. Fifty staccato sounds pierced my ears at once. Rivets were biting fast into that beautiful mahogany hull that held in its stomach 2,820 horsepower.

Men were climbing all over that boat, mechanics and engineers -- riveting, sawing, hammering, bracing. They were "springing" the hull (forcing the bow down and bracing it to plane). Fifteen men we counted. The little band that works behind the scenes; the little band that had built this very boat, in fact all of Wood's boats, in Algonac; the little band that checks every inch of those engines, that keeps the hull strong, balanced to a hair's breadth.

Because the Miss America IX was a fine, temperamental instrument of speed-perhaps the most temperamental boat Wood ever had. It was like a Stradivarius. In fact it was drawn so fine, so closely balanced, that in trials on the smooth water of the Canal E'carte River in Canada one day before the race it jumped clear out of water when Johnson put his hand over the side of the boat.

That slight wind resistance annoyed her.

The men were fingering the carburetors, oil lines, gas lines, water lines, everything. Someone was putting a stiffening brace on the hull where the water hits hardest at 100 miles an hour. That hull must hold together. America must keep the Trophy. Wood must win. The boat must be ready again-by Tuesday afternoon.

These things were boring into the brains of these men as they worked there doggedly, jaws set, determined. They wouldn't fail Wood this time. Yesterday the hull had snapped. It couldn't use all the power of those engines. The forward plane rode too high. It porpoised.

What had caused it? Why had the hull snapped?

Wood had put superchargers on his engines, adding eight hundred horsepower. The same hull that had been built to carry 2,000 horsepower was now carrying over 2,800 horsepower. THE SAME HULL. Under the strain of that added horsepower and the severe jolting given her down to the starting line, the hull snapped. It couldn't take the added power.

That wouldn't happen again.

They thrilled us as we sat there, watching. Wood's loyal band. They'd die for him. Sleep didn't mean a thing to them as long as the Miss Americas were not ready. When the hull of this boat was building at Algonac these boys were there, working day and night, same as now. In Algonac they call these boats "our Miss Americas." And it is well they should. The whole town for years has helped to build these boats. Men of the town have worked day and night on them, often with only snatches of sleep here and there, many times without food. Mothers and wives say nothing. It was alright as long as it was for Gar Wood, for Algonac, for America. And these men would come home sometimes and say, "Just another week and we'll have her in the water."

And they would go back to the boat plant on the banks of the blue river and stick their hearts in that boat.

And here they were again-the same little loyal band, getting the Miss America IX ready for the second race. The first race had been run on Monday afternoon. They had until Tuesday afternoon to get that boat ready. All through the night they worked, driven on by black coffee prepared by Mrs. Wood, Gar's wife.

About three o'clock in the morning Wood himself came out into the yard-short, thin, his shock of white hair blowing, his shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, his collar flung open at the neck. He walked briskly over to his boat, climbed in and began fingering the vital parts of those engines and superchargers.

The sun came up, finally, bright and hot. But that didn't stop these men. The work went on all through the day. On Tuesday at 4:45 p. m-, just fifteen minutes before the starting gun of the race, the last mechanic climbed, tired, out of the hull. Miss America IX was ready.

At least they thought so. But just then Orlin Johnson noticed a leak in the gasoline tank.

Fifteen minutes left and the gas tank leaking.

Wood hurried to a telephone to call the race committee, Edenburn and Chapman. "Ask Don if I can have another forty-five minutes," he said. "We can't get ready by five o'clock. My gas tank is leaking."

The committee went to Don. There he was in his Miss England II near the judges' stand, ready, waiting for the gun that would send him across the line. They explained Wood's trouble.

"No," was Don's answer. "Wood has two boats. Let him send one of them on. I am ready. If he's not here at five o'clock, I'll go on without him."

Chapman and Edenburn asked Don the reason for his refusal.

"If we delay forty-five minutes," Don said, "I'll have to go back to my boatwell and reheat my engine oil."

It seemed that Don's oil had to be just at the correct temperature for high power.

They phoned Wood.

Wood, exhausted from lack of sleep and the high tension of the past few days, stood at the phone transfixed. He couldn't believe his ears when Chapman told him. "You're kidding, Chappy. You're kidding. I don't believe you," Wood said.

But Chapman assured Wood that it was true.

Wood waited, thought a moment. That crack in his gas tank was like a deep gash into the heart of his boat. Then he said, "All right. I'll be there. I won't quit now. Tell Don I won't quit. Tell him I'll lead him into that first turn."

Wood hung up the receiver. In 1921 Wood had waived the rules, allowed Colonel Tait, pilot of the English Maple Leaf VII, an additional twenty-four hours when his boat burned out a bearing. Not a mere forty-five minutes, but twenty-four hours. Not only that. Wood put his own men to work fashioning a bearing for the English. That was against Harmsworth rules. But Wood waived the rules to help the English.

He'd done the same thing again in 1926 for the French.

I n 1912 E. Mackey Edgar, owner of Maple Leaf IV, asked J. Stuart Blackton and Count Mankowski, owners of the American boats, for a thirty-minute postponement to put a new rudder on his boat. It was granted immediately. These men have been doing that all down the line in the long history of these races.

Don charged that there were two American boats against his lone challenger. And he was right. But that was not unusual in these races. In 1920 the English had three boats against Wood's two.

But now, there was only one thing for Wood to do-solder the tank as it was, full of high-explosive fuel. They didn't have time to drain and refill. It takes about two and one-half days to take the tanks out of the boat and install them again. It was dangerous business. There was his beautiful home of Georgian stone, his yacht, his seaplane, his boatwell, HIS MEN. An explosion . . . well, he didn't want to think about that.

John Brewer, one of Wood's men, crawled under the hatches of the NINTH to loosen the saddles that held the fuel tank in place. In a few minutes he was dragged out, unconscious from the fumes. Frank Kalvelage, a Packard man, crawled under. They didn't care, these men. They wouldn't quit, either. They had risked too much now.

Wood himself took the soldering iron and sat on the deck, sealing the gash in his fuel tank. You could hear the solder iron sizzle when it touched the leaking benzol.

Johnson walked back and wired the Teddy Bears more securely to the engines.

Vance Smith kept handing hot solder irons to Wood. All was silent. You could hear only the dangerous sizzling of the solder iron Wood held in his hand.

At the five-minute gun George Wood and Vance Smith left Wood's boatwell with the Miss America VIII. As they were leaving, Wood, still soldering the fuel tank, called out to them. "I don't know whether we'll be with you fellows or not. But we'll try."

The tank was soldered. Barely three minutes were left to warm tip those engines and get to the starting line. Wood and Johnson threw on their helmets and life-preservers, packed their ears with batting to deaden the roar of the engines, smeared their faces with heavy grease to protect their skin from the exhaust flames, put on their goggles and jumped into the cockpit.

They didn't have time to check their watches accurately with the judges.

Johnson started the engines and down the river they flew, headed straight for the line.

Wood could see Don's white boat making the upper turn of the course before dashing to the line. He nudged Johnson. That meant more throttle. They had to use signals in that cockpit. No voice could ever be heard against the thunder of those engines. Johnson responded, gradually. In a split moment, it seemed, they were right beside Don, aiming for the line. Wood was dead sure he was going to beat Don to the line and keep the inside of the course near the buoys. He signalled Johnson for open throttle. The boat shot ahead.

That made Wood glad-to feel his boat respond like that. Yesterday it hadn't done that. But today he could feel her power. It was there. Faster and faster they roared down the stretch. Wood knew now that the boys had done a good job on that hull.

Don was a little behind now. He couldn't gain on Wood. The Miss America IX was planing perfectly. Its bow layed to the water. It could now take all the 2,800 horsepower of those engines and superchargers. Don could not gain. Both boats, throttles open, roared across the line, Wood in the lead-on the inside, near the buoys.

Both boats had beaten the starting gun-Wood by 9.36 seconds; Don by 7.26 seconds.

When a boat goes across the line five seconds or less ahead of the gun, it is penalized three times the number of seconds it beats the gun. If it goes across OVER five seconds ahead of the gun, it is automatically disqualified.

These are Harmsworth rules, English rules, world rules.

Both boats were disqualified.

But neither Don nor Wood knew this. Johnson knew. He flashed his head around after they crossed the line and saw Edenburn throwing down the flag. But Wood didn't know it. No gun could ever be heard above those roaring engines. So Johnson kept the throttles out. He had his orders from Wood before they left. "No matter what happens," he had told Johnson, "keep ahead of Don."

And so both boats kept going, throttles open, into the first turn.

Wood spun his boat around the two westerly buoys like a top, still in the lead and gaining on Don every second. Around the second westerly buoy Wood spread wide.

Don's boat, after rounding the same buoy, desperately trying to catch Wood who was by this time roaring up the backstretch, scudded suddenly out of control. Its bow shot up, listing a trifle, and turned a complete turtle with its engines screaming, dove-and sank. Don and his men were thrown clear, uninjured.

Wood kept going, not knowing what had happened. As he was completing the first lap and charging down again toward the judges' stand, he was flagged off the course, disqualified.

Wood's second entry, Miss America VIII, driven by George Wood, was following far, far behind the other two boats. When George noticed that both boats ahead of him were out of the race he slowed down the EIGHTH, almost stopped, not knowing what to do.

Wood, seeing this from across the river, jumped on the bow of the NINTH and waved frantically to George and Vance Smith to keep going, to complete the race. George started up again and finished the race alone, with tremendous difficulty. The entire course was now swarming with moving craft rushing to the spot where Don had catapulted. The government cutters and the race officials were powerless to keep the course clear for Miss America VIII. But George Wood guided his boat through this maze of watercraft and completed the race.

Wood then inquired of Don and his men. After being told they were not seriously hurt he turned the nose of his boat again toward Grayhaven, glad that the Trophy was safe for another year.

That night when the newspapers hit the streets, Wood's words were blasted all over the headlines: Tell Don I'll lead him into that first turn.

It was charged that Wood deliberately tricked Don into a false start; that he had led the Englishman across the line ahead of the gun to disqualify him; that Wood, having two boats in the race, could sacrifice one of them at Don's expense and save the other to complete the race and keep the Trophy.

It was also charged that Wood's two boats were old, clumsy, outdated beside the white streamlined beauty of the English challenger; that Wood, knowing this, knowing his boats were slower, outclassed, decided an hour before the race time that he would trick Don and keep the Trophy.

Wood was amazed at the charges. He said, "Do you think we're crazy to risk soldering a loaded gas tank only to disqualify ourselves? How did I know I'd beaten the gun? Do you think I could hear that popgun over the roar of my engines? Besides, if George (meaning George Wood, pilot of the EIGHTH) knew anything about a plot why didn't he know what to do when he saw us out of the race? Why didn't he keep going? If we had plotted for the EIGHTH to lay back and win this race why did George stop over there past the yacht club until he saw me motioning to him like a madman to go on, go on, for God's sake-go on?"

"Besides," he said, "no American need apologize to the world for these boats of mine. They're as good as any boats built, and just as fast. I'll prove it. I will. I'll prove it."

The disc for the beginning of the last minute had already dropped as Wood was tearing down from Grayhaven. So when he was lined up for the dash to the starting line he had no way of knowing how much of that last minute remained. Don was slightly ahead of Wood and Wood, naturally, forged ahead knowing that Don had been practicing starts for several days from a runabout which he had anchored in the upper course. (Unfortunately, at the time of the race, the runabout had shifted her position, throwing Don off his reckoning.)

Don knew the rules as well as Wood. Both men were veteran drivers. Both knew how long it would take them to get to the line. Don had timed his start to the split second. Both were tense, desperate to get to the line first. Both wanted the inside of the course, near the buoys. And Wood won.

What made Don's boat turn over? Several days before the race Wood himself had said Don's boat would tip. He remarked to M. J. Steele, Packard engineer, "That boat won't finish."

Miss England II was built with a V'd step. By V'd step we mean that it tapers. It is shaped like a V, with the apex toward the stern. The boat consequently has less wetted surface. But inasmuch as the step does not run diagonally across the boat, like Wood's steps are built, it isn't balanced. It's very liable to teeter at the least ripple on the water. It has a tendency to "cradle."

The chief concern of the English hull designers was to reduce the wetted surface and thus point up the speed. But they did this at the sacrifice of safety. The step on Wood's boats runs diagonally across the boat. It gives more balance at the step ends, where balance is needed most.

Why did Miss England II turn over?

Possibly because Don applied the power before the boat was completely out of the westerly turn. The boat was still turning when he stepped on the pedal. The administration of power caused torque which sent the boat catapulting. Moreover, the sides of the boat's stern were curved in at the top. On turning, the boat lists and as it has no break or flare to catch her there is nothing to prevent her from rolling clear over.

Wood probably did the same thing as Don. His throttles are often out before his boat is completely out of a turn. But because Wood's boats are balanced he can afford to do so.

If Don had waited another fraction of a second before he gave her the fuel probably his boat would never have tipped. At least not at that moment, at that particular buoy. But it is extremely doubtful if the English boat could have lived the entire thirty miles in a close race. In the first heat Wood's boat was far behind. Don wasn't pressed at the buoys. He could take his time and whatever distance he lost at the buoys he could make up on the straightaway. Miss England II was better built for straightaway runs than for a Harmsworth race.

Immediately after the race Lord C. C. Wakefield, owner of the English boat, cabled Don from Southampton, England:

"Since no one in injured nothing else matters."

The English boat was raised from the bottom of the Detroit River and shipped back to England.

Wood took his Miss America IX to Florida for an attack on Don's world record, 110.223 miles an hour. On February 5, 1932, Wood and Johnson had their boat ready.

Wood's Florida home is on Indian River which is nothing more than a fair size creek. The measured mile course starts just north of Wood's home and finishes at the point opposite the home of Harvey Firestone. About a quarter of a mile north of Wood's home is a bridge under which Wood must send his boat. That particular section of the bridge through which Wood must drive is about sixteen feet wide.

At over 100 miles an hour a sixteen-foot span will shrink down, alarmingly. Even to the spectator it looks like an attempt at suicide. What must it look like from the cockpit of a bulleting boat? Johnson says that it looks more like the eye of a needle.

Not once but nine times did Wood send his boat over the measured mile. Nine times through the eye of a needle at over 100 miles an hour.

The official timers were there-C. W. Chase, Jr., of Miami Beach, represented the Yachtsmen's Association of America; Commodore Walter B. Wilde, Peoria, Illinois, represented the Mississippi Valley Powerboat Association; J. B. Lemon, of Miami Beach, represented the Florida Amateur Athletic Union; and W. C. Rands, Detroit automobile manufacturer.

Wood broke Don's world speed record twice. Eight times he bulleted his boat across the measured mile. The eighth time he beat Don's record by almost one-half mile.

The rules of the International Motor Yachting Union, world authority, demand that any new record must be at least ONE-HALF nautical mile MORE than the former record.

Wood had therefore missed an official record by one-sixth of the tick of a watch. A watch ticks five times a second. Wood was traveling 162 feet a second. He was short of a new world record by .032 seconds -or 5.2 feet.

The Yachtsmen's Association of America is the official sanctioning body in this country for international records. Wood was trying for a world record and therefore the trials came under the sanction of the Y. A. A. And Wood was its commodore. He had beaten Don's record. But the Yachtsmen's Association of America repudiated the record of its own commodore, told Wood he'd have to beat the old record by at least one-half mile.

Wood's average for two runs had been 110.785 miles an hour. Don's average at Lake Garda, Italy, was 110.223. Wood had traveled faster than any man had ever traveled on water. And yet he didn't have the official record.

Wood shot his boat across the measured mile again, both ways. He averaged 111.712 miles per hour. That was a new official world record. It was accepted.

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.14)

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Leslie Field, 2000