Speedboat Kings :
The First Hydroplane
(Chris Smith, John "Baldy" Ryan & J. Stuart Blackton — 1911-12)

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]

To understand [Gar] Wood and today's [1939] 100-mile-an-hour boats we must go back to the beginning of the century and study the forces that made history in those early years.

Wood builds his fast boats at Algonac, Michigan, a sprawling summer resort town tucked away from civilization on the north channel of the St. Clair Flats, 40 miles north of Detroit. The story of Algonac and its speedboat builders goes back many years, even before Wood headed his Miss America I up the St. Clair River in 1920 to thunder a challenge to Britain for the British International Trophy.

Few people realize now that Chris Smith and his sons built Harmsworth boats in Algonac back in 1912. They were then America's fastest boat builders. One day, in 1893, Chris Smith pushed a clumsy looking rowboat out on the St. Clair River with a gasoline engine in it, the first one on the Great Lakes. Algonac and the Indians at the Canadian reservation on Walpole Island across the river laughed at it, but it went nine miles an hour and was the fastest boat at the Flats.

Smith then bought a few of the early Van Blerck engines, built hulls for them and sold them to fishermen. His fame spread. But it wasn't until John "Baldy" Ryan, Cincinnati and St. Louis sportsman, came to Algonac that Smith began to build raceboats. That was in1911.

Ryan was glinted with the flame of daring adventure. He did things. He came to Algonac with a million dollars. Then, after two swift, exciting years of speedboat building with Chris Smith, he was penniless. The man would wager thousands on the turn of a card or the chances of a horse to hit the wire first. He'd walk up the slumbering streets of Algonac rolling diamonds in his short, fat hands, looking for excitement-some place to spend his money. He found it.

Chris Smith and his sons built Ryan a fast boat. That was enough for Ryan. He took it out on the St. Clair River. The thrill of it caught hold.

That's the way these men are when they get into these fast boats. It gets into their blood. Sir Malcolm Campbell says that traveling too miles an hour in a small boat is much more thrilling than traveling 300 miles an hour in an automobile. And Campbell knows. He's done both.

When Wood drove his first race on the Mississippi River in 1910 he was race-mad from then on. It gets into the red blood cells and you can't do much about it. It's like throwing blood-red meat to the lions.

Ryan said to Chris Smith, "This is fun, Chris." He was amazed. "Build me another one like this."

And so these men teamed up-John "Baldy" Ryan, the mad diamond-studded gambler, and Chris Smith, the unassuming little giant of speedboat building.

Ryan's first move was a trip to New York to see J. Stuart Blackton, commodore of the Atlantic Yacht Club and owner of Vitagraph Pictures, one of the world's largest producers of motion pictures at that time. Blackton had a beautiful estate and a moving picture studio on Oyster Bay, next to the estate of Theodore Roosevelt. Blackton was interested in raceboats. And he had money.

"I'll build you a boat, Blackton," Ryan told him, "that will travel over forty miles an hour."

Blackton looked at Ryan, surprised. He knew that the Dixie III, owned by F. K. Burnham, was the fastest boat in the world then. It had won the British International Trophy the year before-1910 -at an average speed of 34.66 miles an hour.

Blackton knew, too, that this was a day of mad speed predictions. Boat builders were promising speeds as high as sixty miles an hour. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, had just returned from Europe with the story that he had traveled in a new kind of boat-a hydroplane with an air-propeller-built by Enrico Forlanini, of Milan, Italy, at forty-five miles an hour.

Another man, Comte De Lambert, was building "hydroplanes" on the Seine River, France, that he said traveled almost fifty miles an hour.

These, of course, are not official records, timed by a governing body of race experts as the world records are today. Some Americans said that these boats must have been timed with an alarm clock. Americans then were secure, even haughty, about speedboats and world records. They had entered the races for the British International (Harmsworth) Trophy in 1907, and had won each of the four races. They had reason to feel superior. The Trophy was the symbol of world speedboat supremacy, as it is today.

And so, when Ryan came to Blackton promising speeds of over forty miles an hour, Blackton was skeptical. He knew boats; had been racing them for several years. Besides, there were the records-34.66 miles an hour in the world's fastest race.

But Blackton, too, was a gambler. And he wanted the British International Trophy for his own club, the Atlantic Yacht Club. So he said to Ryan, "If you can build me a boat that will travel over forty miles an hour, I'll buy it."

Ryan went back to Algonac. He, himself, didn't believe they could build a forty-mile boat. He told Chris Smith about the deal. And Chris-to Ryan's astonishment-wasn't surprised. "You mean you can do it?" he asked Chris.

"Of course we can," Chris said. "Why not? We should be able to build a boat that will travel a mile a minute."

Smith started to build a hydroplane.

But he soon discovered that things stood in his way. W. H. Fauber, an American living in Nantelle, France, owned the hydroplane patent. He began to investigate Fauber's claim and discovered that Fauber's patent extended only to a boat with multiple steps.

"That's fine," Chris said. "I'll build a single-step hydroplane."

They started to work, Smith and his sons. They built the first single-step hydroplane in America.

The idea behind it was simple. It's a break, a step, on the bottom of the hull, about halfway between the bow and the stern. The step permits the boat to ride on just two short planes, one plane at the step, another at the stern. It reduces the wetted surface, the water friction, thus reducing the resistance. The step really takes the boat out of the water, allows it to skim the surface, thus stepping up the speed 15 per cent or more over the ordinary type displacement boat.

Before the step was introduced, speedboats ran through the water. They are called displacement boats. But the stepped-boats, the hydroplanes, run on top of the water.

The hydroplane is the greatest advance in the history of hull construction. Were it not for the step, No-mile-an-hour boats would not be possible today. Fauber was probably not the first man to conceive the hydroplane idea. But he was the first man to patent the accepted type of hydroplane construction.

While Smith was busy with the hull of his first hydroplane, Jack Beebe went to work on the engines. Baldy Ryan sat on the dock drinking beer. Smith and Ryan bought a new 150-horsepower Sterling engine which Charles Criqui, of the Sterling Engine Co., had developed at Buffalo. They needed power for the tiny twenty-foot hull. And light weight. That has been the aim of speedboat builders since the coming of the gasoline engine-light weight and high power.

Chris Smith could get the power easily enough by buying it. But his biggest problem was to keep down the overall weight. He was more successful at it than other American boatbuilders. He lightened the heavy cast-iron engine by boring holes through the connecting rods; by cutting whole sections out of the crankcase and replacing the heavy cast iron with lighter brass. When Smith and Jack Beebe finished with the new Sterling engine they had the lightest marine engine for its power in America. They put it into their new boat, Baby Reliance I, and took it out on the river. Vacuum formed in the pocket of the step. To break the vacuum, Chris Smith put an air hole in the perpendicular portion of the step. The air rushed in, the vacuum broke. The boat rose faster. That was the answer in 1912.

These days [1939], however, Wood's Miss Americas get up on their step fast because modern engines are much lighter and much more powerful. But in the days when Smith started to build hydroplanes the engines were heavy and had less power. It took those engines longer, therefore, to get the boat "on top" and therefore more vacuum formed in the process. If you lessen that vacuum the speed increases.

When Sir Malcolm Campbell took his Bluebird across the measured mile the first time on Lake Maggiore, Italy, in 1937, the boat was so high out of water that his water scoop failed and the engines overheated. But it went i3o miles an hour because there was less vacuum at the step; the boat was riding "on top," perhaps more so than any other boat ever built.

Ryan and Jay Smith took Blackton's new boat to New York where Blackton gave her a trial. He took the boat about four miles, turned it around and headed it back to his boatwell.

Jay Smith asked him if he wasn't going to give it a further trial before bringing it in.

"No, no," he said. "This boat has got something. I'm afraid something will happen to her." When he idled it up to the boatwell he said, "Get out of here, fellows. This boat is mine." They went into Blackton's home and he gave Ryan a check for $8,500.

A week later, in an exhibition race on Gravesend Bay, Blackton driving, the boat hit a steamer swell and split in two. Blackton and Wallie Van Nostrand, his mechanic, swam around in the fog until a Coney Island ferryboat picked them up. The engine of Baby Reliance I, and part of her hull, were found in sixty feet of water.

Blackton felt worse about losing his $2,000 watch than he did an $8,500 boat.

Chris Smith started to build Blackton two more similar boats almost immediately-Baby Reliance II and Baby Reliance III. When they were finished Ryan and Jay Smith took them to the Fourth of July races at Davenport, Iowa. The tiny Baby Reliance II won the Mississippi Valley 20-foot championship, the 26-foot championship, the 32-foot and the 40-foot.

They almost ruined powerboat racing in America. It was unheard of for a 20-foot boat to win over the 40-foot class. After the races, in the dash over the measured mile, the Baby Reliance III was clocked at 53.7 miles an hour. That was an American record-and probably a world record.

Blackton had the two fastest boats in America. He tossed his hat in the ring for the British International Trophy and shipped his two boats to Huntington Bay, L. I., where the 1912 races were held.

Count Casimir Mankowski, Lake George, N. Y., completed the American team with his Ankle Deep.

The English were at Huntington Bay with two boats-the Maple Leaf IV, owned by E. Mackay Edgar and piloted by T. O. M. Sopwith, English aviator; and the Mona, owned by the Marquis of Anglesey.

England's Maple Leaf IV looked like a giant beside the tiny underpowered Baby Reliances. It was a Fauber-Saunders hydroplane with five steps; thirty-nine feet, eleven inches long, powered with two i2-cylinder Austin engines developing 600horsepower. It was a longer boat than Wood's Miss America X, built in 1932.

The north turns of the thirty-mile triangular course at Huntington Bay jutted out into open water. It was rumored that the Baby Reliances were too light; that they could never live in that high sea beyond the headlands. That rumor proved to be partly correct.

Bernard Smith, son of Chris Smith, and Wallace Pugh, of Tonawanda, N. Y., took the Baby Reliance II around the course in the first heat at 42.679 miles an hour, a remarkable pace in those days, setting a new record for the course. They finished first, far in the lead. Bernard said that at times, on the straightaway, they were traveling over fifty miles an hour. In smooth water there wasn't a boat in the field that could match the winner.

But in rough water it was a different story. The tiny 20-foot skiff had extreme difficulty on the northerly turns and Bernard Smith caught the wheel several times as the boat was veering for a spill.

It was clear to everyone that the Maple Leaf IV was far more seaworthy than the shorter and lighter American boats. She rode well in rough water and her time in covering the course was only one minute slower than the winner. It finished only third because it was twenty-one minutes late going over the starting line.

But the high spray on the north turns of the first heat had drenched the magneto in Baby Reliance II. In the second heat the magneto failed when the boat was leading the field by over one mile. The engine stopped and the boat was out of the race. England took the second and third heats with her Maple Leaf IV.

After the race Baldy Ryan went over to Sir E. Mackay Edgar's yacht with a $20,000 check in his hand. Edgar was the owner of the Maple Leaf IV. In Edgar's cabin Ryan set the check down on the table in front of the English baronet. "I'll bet this check against yours that my Baby Reliance (meaning Blackton's) can beat the Maple Leaf."

Edgar looked at the little bluff man beside him and smiled. Then he said calmly, "I'll take that bet."

They arranged the match race for the following spring on the Thames River, England. It was never held. In another six months Ryan was broke.

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.2)

Hydroplane History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at wildturnip@gmail.com
Leslie Field, 2000