Speedboat Kings :
Gar Wood Wins The Harmsworth [1920]

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 British International (Harmsworth) Trophy is the Victoria Cross of powerboating. The late Alfred Harmsworth, better known as Lord Northcliffe, Britain's greatest newspaper publisher, created the Trophy in 1903. He had it designed at a cost of $5,000 and presented it to the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland as trustees. It is now in the custody of the Royal Motor Yacht Club.

The first winner of the Trophy was the Napier Racing Launch, powered with a fifty horsepower Napier engine, equipped with a three-blade propeller and driven by Miss Dorothy Levitt. It was built of steel and owned by S. F. Edge. It won the Trophy at Cork Harbor, Ireland, in 1903 at a speed of 19.3 miles an hour.

It wasn't long after Wood had started racing boats that he had his heart set on the greatest prize in powerboating. Immediately after the 1918 race at Detroit for the Gold Cup Trophy he began to leaf through the rules of the Harmsworth races. The record showed that England had held the Trophy since 1912. Since that time only one race had been held-in 1913. The World War had intervened.

But after the War-in 1920-two Americans entered a challenge. They were Commodore A. L. Judson, president of the American Powerboat Association, and Gar Wood.

Wood laid his plans with extreme care. The Harmsworth rules were different than the rules for the Gold Cup. In the Gold Cup events Wood had been allowed to use any engines or any equipment he pleased. Not so with the Harmsworth. The rules for the international race demanded that every part of the engines of the American boats, the equipment and the hull be made of American materials by American labor. Wood had been using Honduras mahogany in his boats. That was English material, Honduras being a British possession. He also had been using Bosch carburetors and magnetos, both made in Germany.

He soon learned that there was no mahogany in America. And he had to have mahogany because he was planning to use two Liberty engines of 500 horsepower. He had to have mahogany for that power. "It has longer life than other woods," he said. "It comes back after a good banging around."

There were those who told Wood that it was not necessary to adhere strictly to the rules; that Honduras mahogany and Bosch carburetors would be passed by the judges. But Wood objected. "We'll go by the rules," he said. "We'll do it right."

He discovered that he could use Philippine mahogany; that it would stand up under all that power. That was American mahogany, Philippine. Admiral Dewey had seen to that in the closing years of the Nineteenth century.

Another thing. Germany was then making the best carburetors in the world. Wood was advised to use German carburetors. He said, "No. Never. We'll do the whole job right here in America." He wrote to every carburetor and magneto manufacturer in America asking them to send him the best they had. He spent the winter of 1919-20 in his Detroit plant, testing them, changing them, fitting them to his needs.

His next move was to get some powerful engines. He went to Col. J. G. Vincent, vice president in charge of engineering of the Packard Motor Car Company, Detroit, and one of the designers of the famous Liberty engine which America had used during the World War.

Vincent's first experiment with an aeroplane engine was put into an automobile Ralph de Palma had built. New land speed records were made with that engine.

But Vincent wasn't satisfied. He built another engine. Destroyed it. He built a third. That gave him what he wanted-500 horsepower. Vincent went to Washington, D. C., to confer with the War Department about supplying these new engines in quantities for aircraft service in France. There was a five-day conference of British, French, Russian and American engineers in the Willard Hotel. There was argument too, protracted argument. The War Department heads wanted splash-feed lubrication; Vincent wanted pressure-feed. Vincent won. The Liberty engine went on the production line.

When Gar Wood and Chris Smith walked into Vincent's office in 1919 the Packard Motor Car Company had spent $500,000 on experimental work to develop the Liberty engine. Vincent told Wood that the engine would develop 500 horsepower with the engine turning 2,500 revolutions a minute. Wood then did a little mental arithmetic; figuring that his new boat, Miss America I, powered with two Liberty engines, could be built to travel at least sixty miles an hour.

Wood then went to Howard Grant who had been government inspector of these Liberty engines during the War. Grant had bought from the United States Government-for junk-spare Liberty parts and parts which had been scrapped because of inaccurate specifications. After the War he began to assemble Liberty engines from his "scrap heap." Wood bought a whole carload of these Libertys from Grant.

But for the moment Wood needed only four engines-two for his Miss America I and two for his Miss Detroit V. He was taking two boats to England.

" Why two boats?" one of his men asked him one day.

Wood said, "We may get a calm." He meant that the Solent, between the Isle of Wight and the English mainland-where the English hold the Harmsworth races-is eternally rough. "But some day," Wood said, "some day they'll get a calm. And it may be the day of the race."

So Wood built two boats, one for rough weather, the Miss Detroit V, and one for a calm, the Miss America I. His rough-weather boat was thirty-eight feet long, just two feet under the Harmsworth limit and the same length as his present -Miss America X. His calm-weather boat, Miss America I, was only 26 feet long-the same length as Blackton's Baby Reliance III, built in 1912. But where Blackton's boat was powered with a single Sterling engine of 150 horsepower,

Wood's boat was powered with two Libertys of 500 horsepower each. In other words, Wood was carrying 850 more horsepower than Blackton in a hull of the same size.

But Wood used mahogany; Blackton had used American cedar. Wood therefore had a heavier boat, even though it was the same length.

The chances were however that Wood was wasting his money and his time building a small boat. Blackton and Chris Smith had learned an expensive lesson in 1912 when the tiny 20-foot Baby Reliance II could not negotiate the rough water of Huntington Bay, L. I. And the English Solent is much rougher than the Huntington Bay course.

Chris Smith told Wood about this.

But Wood insisted on a small boat. It was a good thing he did. On the day of the race-August 10, 1920-the Solent was like a sheet of glass. Harry G. Hawker, one of England's famous war aces and pilot of the defending Maple Leaf VI, told Wood the morning of the race, "Listen, old fellow," he said, "I've lived on this strip of water all my life and never, NEVER have I seen it as calm as it is today."

Wood chuckled and said, "Well, you see, sir, I brought my Teddy Bears with me." Harry Hawker thought it another strange attempt at Yankee humor.

When Wood's plans were set; when he had his Liberty engines, his Philippine mahogany, his American carburetors and magnetoes he flung a challenge to England for the British International Trophy. Nine Englishmen flew to the defense of the Trophy. France built two boats. Spain started to lay out plans for a boat. Newspapermen came to Wood one morning during the summer and told him that the Europeans wanted to know something of his plans.

"Tell them," Wood said, "tell them I'm putting four Liberty engines in my new boat."

When that startling news reached Europe some of the English put four engines into their boats. Six of them blew up or burned before the starting gun of the race. But three English boats qualified.

The two French boats were found to be too slow in trial runs and were withdrawn. The Spanish boat did not get beyond its blueprints.

When Wood said he planned to use four engines in one boat he meant it. He had planned to put four engines in his Miss Detroit V, his largest boat. But later he abandoned that plan and equipped it with only two engines. So Wood at the time was not giving out any false information.

Each country is allowed three boats in the Harmsworth races. A. L. Judson completed the American team with his Whipp-O-Will, Jr., the boat Wood had defeated in the 1918 Gold Cup race at Detroit.

The .American boats were cradled in an old aeroplane shed at Cowes, Isle of Wight, which S. E. Saunders and Company, Ltd., had used during the War. An agent of Lloyds called on Gar Wood, asking him if he wanted to insure his boats. Wood carried his own insurance but he asked the agent the cost. The agent told him that he could insure each of his boats for 3,000 pounds at a premium of sixty pounds.

Wood, realizing the humors of these fast boats, did a little figuring. For a $300 premium he could get $15,000 worth of insurance. He said, "I'll take it." His two boats were promptly insured.

To offer some protection to himself the agent asked Wood to cover his ignition system from the salt water spray. Wood felt that this advice was sound so he covered his spark plugs with thin strips of tin.

The agent then went to A. L. Judson and on the basis of the Wood deal insured the Whipp-O-Will, Jr., for $15,000. On the trial run before the race the engines in Judson's boat backfired, ignited gasoline from a leaky joint and set fire to the boat. The fire spread so rapidly that George Reis, the pilot and Henry Pohl and James Kneeshaw, mechanics, had to jump into the ocean for their lives. Wood himself picked up Reis and Pohl. Kneeshaw was picked up by a motorboat, and Judson picked up Lloyds' $15,000. Judson's Whipp-OWill was completely destroyed.

Since then Lloyds have refused to insure high-speed boats.

The race course was laid out about a mile from Cowes on the Solent, which flows between the Isle of Wight and Southampton on the English mainland. It was not the best course for racing boats. It was impossible to see the race from the shore and therefore all the spectators had to seek vantage point on boats anchored around the rim of the course.

Flag-draped yachts of the English admiralty rode at anchor. Among them were two yachts formerly owned by the German Kaiser but which had been seized by the English during the World War. In one of these German yachts the German royal family planned to cruise the world after defeating the Allies.

The English had three boats ready for the start-Sunbeam-Despujols, built in the Sunbeam plant at Wolverhampton, England, and piloted by Sir Algernon Lee Guinness; the Maple Leaf V, owned by Sir Mackay Edgar and powered with four Sunbeam engines, two amidships and two astern; and the Maple Leaf VI, powered with two RollsRoyce engines placed amidships and piloted by Harry G. Hawker, one of England's famous war aces. The Maple Leaf V was said to have traveled over sixty miles an hour in a trial spin. The Maple Leaf V and VI were built at Cowes, Isle of Wight, by S. E. Saunders and Company, Ltd.

A few minutes before the starting gun the three English boats were out on the course, getting ready. George Wood was out there, too, with the Miss Detroit V; Bernard Smith and Clarence Mericle, his mechanics, beside him.

Wood himself, Jay Smith and Phil Wood were in the boathouse strapping on their lifebelts. They had taken the tarpaulin off Miss America I and filled the gas tanks-with American gasoline. Wood was eyeing his watch, timing his start. The cannon on the judges' barge boomed the five-minute signal. Wood and his mechanics stepped into the cockpit. Smith touched the starting button, warmed the engines, jerked the throttle down. The Miss America I rose on her step, leveled off and charged ahead.

Wood, handling the wheel, streaked up the mainland side of the course, going west. His boat planed perfectly; the bright Philippine mahogany gleaming like fire beneath the English sun; the white spray spreading like wings poised for the dive. He cut a wide arc beyond the extreme westerly buoys and headed back, pointing the bow of his boat straight for the towers of Queen Victoria's palace rising above the tree tops. He had previously chosen to run down along that line marked by the palace towers.

He could see the last disc hanging above the judges' stand but his watch told him that time was crowding. He signalled Jay Smith for more throttle. The two Libertys in his boat answered with 1,000 horsepower.

Wood was fearful that he would not be able to hear the starting gun over the roar of his two Liberties. But when he put his Miss America across the line the blast of the six-inch cannon on a battleship above his head almost pitched him out of the boat.

The English boats went across the line first; the two American boats were last-Miss Detroit V developing carburetor trouble almost immediately.

It was the first time Wood had ever raced any of his boats in salt water and it was the salt water that gave him most of his trouble. The tin strips he had placed over his ignition system shut out too much air and enriched the carburetor mixture. As a result the engines in the Miss Detroit V overheated and blew out the porcelain on a dozen spark plugs. The boat limped along far behind the field.

Wood himself in Miss America I, was having a good deal of trouble. It was only his fast turning at the buoys that kept him up there near the lead. He could turn much faster than any of the English boats because of his bow rudder. Before the race, when the English engineers examined the American boats, they ridiculed the bow rudder on Wood's boats. "You can't turn a boat with a rudder way up there," they said.

But now, with Wood's spark plugs fouling, his bow rudder was keeping him in the race. The English would sweep far wide of the buoys and before they could get their boats back on the stretch again, Wood was taking the turns with all his power, trimming the buoys. (The following year the English put a bow rudder on their boat). On the fourth lap Wood took the lead with his Miss America I.

The English did not believe Wood could stay there, in the lead. His engines were smoking and in his wake was an immense black ring around the entire rim of the course. But Wood did stay there, averaging sixty-two miles an hour and winning the heat far, far ahead of any English boat. The dense smoke screen sent out by Miss America almost obliterated the course for the English contenders.

The English were not able to use all the power of their engines. All three of them porpoised badly.

After Wood had gone over the finish line he headed his boat back toward the judges' stand. For the first time he noticed that the faces of his mechanics and the American flag at the stern of his boat were as black as coal. When they neared the judges' stand Sir Mackay Edgar, owner of the Maple Leafs, yelled out, "What kind of fuel are you burning in that boat?"

Wood answered, "We're using soft coal today. But watch out for tomorrow-we're going to use gasoline."

That night Wood and his men ripped off the tin strips from the ignition system. "That's our trouble," Wood said when they pulled into the boatwell. And it was.

In the next race both American boats completely outclassed the English. It was a race chiefly between Wood's two boats, the Miss America I winning.

It had cost Wood $250,000 to get the Harmsworth Trophy. He brought it to America and a few years later made a new base for it from the mahogany of his Miss America I. He said afterwards, "If Europe ever gets this trophy back they'll have to take with them a piece of my Miss America I."

They never got it back.

After the English race Wood hurried back to America to defend the Gold Cup Trophy. He drove his new Miss America I around the Detroit River course to a new world record. He averaged seventy miles an hour for three heats. That Gold Cup record has never been beaten -after nineteen years.

1Wood's Miss America X, present holder of the famous plaque, is powered with four Packard aviation engines which develop 7,600 horsepower and which burn 480 gallons of fuel an hour. The hull is built of mahogany. It has traveled 124.9 miles an hour.)

The story of the British International Trophy is the story of speed on water. From 19.3 miles an hour in 1903 to 141.74 miles an hour (Campbell's mile record) in 1939.

2The procession of the Water Club is described by two Englishmen, who visited Cobh (Cork), in 1784, as follows:

"I shall now acquaint you with a ceremony they have at Cork (Cobh). It is somewhat like that of the Doge of Venice wedding the sea. A set of worthy gentlemen who have formed themselves into a body, which they call "The Water Club," proceed a few leagues out to sea in a number of little vessels, which, for painting and gliding, exceed the King's yachts at Greenwich. Their admiral, who is elected annualy, hoists his flag on board his little vessel, leads the van, and receives the honours of the flag; the rest of them fall in their proper stations and keep their line in the same manner as the King's ships. This fleet is attended with a prodigious number of boats, which, with their colours flying, drums beating, and trumpets sounding, forms one of the most agreeable and splendid sights you can conceive." (Tour Through Ireland, 1784.)

The Water Club was a great institution in Cork Harbour through the whole of the 18th century. It had its rules, some of them of a curious character, as witness the following:

. no long-tailed wigs, large sleeves, or ruffles be worn by any member of the Club.

Its convivial meetings must have been of a temperate character, however, as we find a rule or two limiting the quantity of meat and wine to be put on its festive board:

"Ordered that no admiral do bring more than two dishes of meat for the entertainment of the club, or presume to bring more than two dozen of wine to his treat; for it has always been deemed a breach of the ancient rules and constitution of the club, except when my Lords the Justices are invited."

3The British International Trophy has had a stirring history. During the war it was kept in the Enchantress, the floating Clubhouse of the Royal Motor Yacht

Club, a paddle-wheel type of mahogany boat built in Malta to convey the lords and officials of the British admiralty to the various ships of the British fleet.

In 1915 a zeppelin raid set fire to the ship. An officer of the Royal Motor Yacht Club raced through the smoke to save the trophy. The original teak foundation recording the names of all its holders since 1903 had been destroyed.

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.5)

 


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Leslie Field, 2000