Speedboat Kings :
Sheldon Clark, Gar Wood and the 1921 Harmsworth Race
During the early summer of 1921 Sheldon Clark, Commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club, and Phil Wood, Gar [Wood]'s brother, were standing in the lobby of the Detroit Athletic Club talking about the Harmsworth Trophy and Sir Mackay Edgar, of England, who had challenged Gar Wood for the famous plaque.
"Is Gar building another boat for the race?" Clark asked Phil Wood.
"Yes, he is," Phil answered. "And I'd like to go out there on that river and beat him, too."
Sheldon Clark looked surprised, "Beat your own brother?" he asked.
"Of course," Phil answered. "We're always trying to beat him, ever since he's been building boats."
Clark stood there amazed. "That's right," he muttered aimlessly. "That's right." He looked like he was trying to remember something. "He's never been beaten, has he? Never been beaten." In a moment he turned to Phil, said, "I think I'd like to see Gar get beat too, Phil. I think I would. I'm going to get a boat built and have you drive it. How's that?"
Phil looked at Clark. The Commodore was serious, of course. Then Phil remembered that Clark had been associated with the late James Pugh, of Chicago, in the building of the famous Disturber IV, one of the first boats in the mile-a-minute class. "You mean it, Commodore?" he asked him, surprised.
And the Commodore meant it. The two men shook hands and parted. Clark went to Chicago and interested sportsmen there in the venture. Then the Chicago syndicate ordered Chris Smith, of Algonac to build Miss Chicago. Clark challenged Wood for the Harmsworth Trophy.
Chris Smith built a tiny twenty-two foot hydroplane powered with a Liberty engine.
Meanwhile Gar Wood was building his Miss America II, a thirty-two footer powered with four Liberty engines that developed 2,000 horsepower. Wood instructed his men to reduce the wetted surface on the new boat. "We're getting too much water friction," he said. "Reduce the beam below the water line."
Chris Smith, who was building Wood's boats then, didn't like the idea. "This beam should be the same below the water line as it is above," he told Wood.
But the boat was built according to Wood's instructions. When they took it out on the river it didn't plane. It was off balance. They took it in and broadened the forward step, increasing the wetted surface. That change gave the Miss America II greater lift, raised the hull farther out of the water, made it plane.
Two weeks before the day of the race the English boat, Maple Leaf VII, arrived at Walkerville, Ont., and was unloaded from the freight car. Col. A. W. Tait, her pilot, his sandy hair blowing before a brisk wind, stood on the dock and watched. A small group of men stood around him-Gar Wood, W. D. Edenburn, A. A. Shantz, Harry Leduc, sports writer for The Detroit News; W. W. Edgar, of The Detroit Free Press; Otto Barthel, Dr. John G. Harvey, and Stapleton and Galton, Tait's mechanics.
It was powered with four Sunbeam engines that developed 1,800 horsepower. The hull was built of laminated wood under a patent held by S. E. Saunders, of Cowes, Isle of Wight, England. Its several sections were diamond-shaped, of two-ply mahogany with oiled areoplane silk sewed between the wood.
When Wood saw the boat a smile escaped him. The English had put on a bow rudder. He turned to Edenburn standing beside him. "They ridiculed our bow rudder last year, Eddie. But there's the Fifth (meaning his Miss Detroit V) all over again."
The tongs and tackles were slipped around the hull and the boat started upward from the freight car, swung sideward, then down. When it got about two feet above the dock the tongs slipped. The boat dropped. The frame was badly shaken.
Later in the day the English mechanics checked it. It was out of line, a mere fraction of an inch. The mechanics started to work, straightening the hull.
A few days later Wood was watching the English boat in trials on the Detroit River. It skidded dangerously at the turns; it porpoised on the straightaway runs. Wood is an expert judge of fast boats. He often climbs out of the cockpit of his boats, lets one of his other men take the wheel while he watches the performance from the dock. He can study the planing angle that way; can find out how much the bow digs in.
When Tait came into the boatwell after one of his trial runs Wood went up to him. "Your boat is out of line, Colonel. Your men have got to straighten that hull. She won't take the power."
The English crew was under-manned and they did what they could on the hull. But the engines were their greatest concern. "If we get these engines working the way they should," Tait said, "you'll see something."
Wood didn't believe this. He always believed that hull construction, balance, alignment, lifting surfaces, these things were as important as the engines. "You can pile a lot of horsepower in a boat," he's often said, "but if the hull isn't balanced, what good is your power?"
A hair's breadth out of alignment will make a vast difference in a boat, the way it acts, the way it takes the turns, the rough water, and the way it responds to the throttles. That's Wood's theory-and Chris Smith's, too. It didn't take them long to prove how correct the theory was.
Meanwhile Tait was testing his boat, feeling the course, timing his start and practicing the turns. The day before the race he took the boat out for a final spurt. It burnt out a bearing.
Ordinarily a burnt bearing before a race is not important. But to Tait and the English it was tragic. The Harmsworth rules demand that only English materials and English labor could be employed on the English boat. But the English now had no equipment to fashion a new bearing. The race would have to be canceled.
The officials of the race committee went to Wood, told him Colonel Tait's trouble, asked him if he would waive the rules.
Wood would have been entirely within his rights to refuse. He had the Trophy. He could keep it, at least for another year, if he refused. But this he didn't do. He waived the rules, put his own mechanics to work on the English boat. The men at the plant fashioned a new bearing. The race was delayed two days while the Americans were busy getting the English boat ready.
While working on the English boat Wood's men were able to study at close range the design of the famous laminated wood Saunders had patented. They were not impressed. The two-ply mahogany was beginning to break up from the trial runs. Under the microscope they saw the tiny fissures all through the wood. The plywood wasn't "giving"; it was breaking up. Johnson turned to George Wood, and said, "I don't believe this boat will last, George. She'll develop a hole very soon."
That's exactly what happened.
Three American boats were ready to hit the line against the lone English challenger-Wood's reconditioned Miss America I; his new boat, Miss America II; and Clark's Miss Chicago, powered with a single engine.
But rough weather delayed the first heat. Wood, however, didn't want to disappoint 400,000 spectators lined along the river, so he took his Miss America II out on the course for a trial run. It was a good thing he did. It acted badly. It porpoised so much that it almost threw Wood and his mechanics out of the cockpit.
They took the boat in. The four Liberty engines had shaken the frame out of line on the way down from Algonac. Wood's men went to work stiffening the hull.
They noticed, too, that the severe porpoising had caused the mahogany at the heel edge of the step to rip. They had to brace that edge to protect the wood from the hard-punching water. So they fastened a narrow strip of brass across the entire step just at the heel edge. The rivets holding the strip were even counter-sunk to avoid any projection.
They took the boat out on the course again. It still acted badly. It wouldn't plane and had no speed. They knew it wasn't the engines because all four were hitting perfectly. It was the hull, off key, like a temperamental Stradivarius.
Time was flying so they had to work fast. All day and all night they worked on the boat, trying to find out what caused it lob; why she couldn't plane and take the power of those four Liberty engines. They took it out on the river repeatedly-with no results.
About noon on the day of the race all Wood's men were in the yard of Wood's Grayhaven home. They had the boat up there, out of the water. Nap Lisee, one of Wood's hull designers, turned to the boss, said, "Guess we better take that brace off," (meaning the brass strip at the step). Lisee had looked at it closely and noticed a very slight projection, about one-sixteenth of an inch.
"Why?" Wood asked. "That's not our trouble."
"It may be, Mr. Wood. Let's try it." Lisee didn't think it was, either, but they had to try everything.
Wood was tired, nervous, frantic. The starting gun would go off at five o'clock. They had to be ready. "All right," he said finally.
"Let's try it. But I don't see how a thin strip of brass can make her jump around like a young colt."
They took the strip off, set the boat into the water again and Wood and his mechanics stepped into the cockpit. They took it out on the river. It planed beautifully, as straight as an arrow. And it could take the power now. It was ready. That tiny strip, protruding a mere one-sixteenth of an inch from the bottom of the hull, had thrown the Miss America II out of line.
That's why these men work on these fast boats like they do, day and night. That's why a fast boat is seldom ready. The slightest jar or strain can throw them off balance.
The race itself was one of the most disappointing in all Harmsworth history. On the second lap the English boat tore a bad hole in her hull, forward of the step, as Johnson had prophesied. She began to sink. A rescue boat raced out and towed her into the boatwell. During the tow the boat caught fire.
But Wood and Jay Smith in the Miss America II drove a wild, mad, daring race against the Miss America I, driven by George Wood and Bernard Smith. Taking the first east turn on the second lap the Miss America I was in the lead, ahead of Gar Wood. Wood and Jay Smith were roaring up the back stretch. They began to push their boat in an effort to catch Miss America I. George Wood, driving the First, kept hugging the buoys, on the inside track. Bernard Smith kept the throttles out. They weren't going to let Gar Wood beat them if they could help it.
But just beyond the far east turn, between the two easterly buoys, Gar Wood cut his boat dangerously across the bow of the Miss America I. His propellers threw a sheet of boiling spray into the cockpit. George Wood and Bernard Smith were blinded, for a moment. The spray hit them like bullets at that speed. Bernard Smith threw down the throttles to keep his boat from hitting the Miss America II, which had now gone into the lead. Just as the boat checked, George Wood had to swing the wheel fast to keep from hitting the second easterly buoy.
It seems strange that Gar Wood would take the daring chance he did. His boat was traveling close to seventy-five miles an hour when he cut across the bow of the Miss America I. It was a specially dangerous thing to do just at that point in the course, between those two short buoys. Besides, the Miss America I was also hitting close to seventy miles an hour. The tiniest slip in Wood's maneuver would have meant disaster.
But these men fight each other in these races. "George was ahead of me," Wood said later. "I had to take him as soon as I could. That's racing. If I cut dangerously across his bow-well, that's racing too. I wanted the lead and I got it. That's what counts."
There is a bitter rivalry in Wood's camp. These men are proud of their boats. George Wood was convinced that the Miss America I was the fastest boat on the river and he was out to prove it, regardless of the fact that Gar believed that the Miss America II was the fastest. He, too, was just as anxious to prove it.
After Gar Wood took the lead he stayed there, averaging 59.75 miles an hour. That was two miles an hour slower than the Miss America I had done in England the year before. But Wood had no occasion to push his boat for the entire distance. On the fourth lap the Miss America I sprang a leak and was out of the race. Gar Wood then slowed down and idled around the course far, far ahead of Miss Chicago, driven by Phil Wood, who was gamely trying to keep his boat going and make a race of it. But the boat was running on only half her engine power and was hopelessly beaten. Sheldon Clark later drove the hydroplane in fifty-two races and finished in every one. Clark claims that he held the single-engine championship of the world for about sixteen years with this Miss Chicago.
After the Harmsworth race Wood sent the Miss America II across the measured mile at 80.567 miles per hour-a new world record.
It was the beginning of Wood's dream to go 100 miles an hour on water.
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.6)
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