Speedboat Kings :
Miss America VI Cracks Up
Barbara Carstairs and the 1928 Harmsworth Trophy Race
During the early summer of 1928 I received a cable from George Harrison Phelps, of Detroit, who was visiting London, England. The cable read:
Miss Marion Barbara Carstairs sending three boats in Harmsworth challenge, Arthur Bray driving one, Miss Carstairs another, Captain Malcolm Campbell the third. Segrave interested but will not race unless has reasonable chance of lifting trophy. Hull experiments still incomplete hold entry for him open.
Segrave never has and never will appear upon the Harmsworth scene. He went to his death when he stepped into the cockpit of his Miss England II and broke the world's speed record at Lake Windermere, England, on June 13,1930. :More about that later.
America is still waiting for Sir Malcolm Campbell to challenge for the trophy.
Arthur Bray, who was in charge of a fifty-foot torpedo boat patrolling the English channel during the World War, has never appeared as a contestant in a Harmsworth regatta.
That leaves only Miss Carstairs. This clever English heiress was a classical dancer, a tennis player, a musician. During the War she drove ambulances and motorcycles in France. After the War she started to build speedboats with some of the Standard Oil millions which she had inherited.
She won speedboat races on the French Riviera and in 1926 she won the Duke of York Trophy on the Thames River, England, against boats of five nations.
Those early triumphs gave her confidence. She felt she could lift the coveted British International Trophy from Gar Wood.
She went to S. E. Saunders, England's veteran hull designer, of Cowes, Isle of Wight. Saunders had designed the Maple Leaf IV, the last boat to win the Trophy for England in 1913. "I want a boat," she told him, "that will travel eighty miles an hour. Can you build it?"
Saunders said he could. (Gar Wood had put his Miss America II over the measured mile for a world record in 1921 at 80.567 miles per lour. That record still stood in 1928). He built Estelle I and Estelle II, each powered with an 875 horsepower Napier Lions motor.
The boats were shipped three hundred miles for trial-to Lake Windermere, set quietly in the hollow of the Cumberland Hills, fifty miles south of the Scottish border. Miss Carstairs chose Bowness, the tourist center of the lake, for her base of operation. It was here on Lake Windermere that Henry Segrave went to his death two years later.
It was a month before Estelle I was ready. On July 17 it was slipped !own the runway into the water. Miss Carstairs and Joe Harris, her mechanic, stepped into the cockpit, started the engines. When she put her hands on the wheel and could feel it vibrate before that tremendous engine power she was happy. She could see her dream coming true, finally-her dream to win from America the British International Trophy.
But there were things wrong with the boat. She discovered it almost immediately the boat rose on her step and began to take the engine power. Miss Carstairs, unwise and untried in the way of boats, did not know the nature of the trouble. She decided it would be better to let the experts decide. She took the boat. in. Arthur Bray and F. Hyde Beadle, her hull designer, took it out on the lake. Before they had gone a mile Beadle discovered that the water circulation was not working. The engine was overheating. It was spouting great jets of steam.
Brey and Beadle took it in again, began to tear down the engine. They told Miss Carstairs that it would be some days before the boat would be ready for trial. She, impatient of delay, jumped into her car and motored to London. In a few days she was back at Windermere, anxious. She got into her Dutch pantaloons and began herself to help with the mechanical difficulties. She had to know.
In a few days the boat was ready again. Bray and Beadle took it out. When she rose on her step, water immediately began to pour over the bow, onto the engine and into the cockpit. The bow did not plane; it was almost a foot in the water. To be fast these boats must get on their step and plane on top of the water.
The hull of Estelle I was only twenty-six feet long. Miss Carstairs' engine was too heavy for the light, fragile hull. The overall weight of engine and hull was only twenty-nine hundred pounds. Wood's Miss America VI, built that same year-1928-in Algonac, Michigan, weighed at least five thousand pounds.
The English designers added to the beam of Estelle I. They made other changes. All were unsuccessful.
Miss Carstairs waited. She still had her Estelle II. It was smaller than the Estelle I -three feet shorter. Maybe that would make a difference.
The first time they took the Estelle II out on the lake for trial, one of the bottom planks smashed. It took eight days to repair. Again they took it out. The boat had no speed. It seemed to plane the water but they couldn't get anywhere near the speed that was necessary for the Harmsworth race. They made repeated changes-in the engines, in the hull, in everything. With no results.
Miss Carstairs, discouraged, cabled the Yachtsmen's Association of America and cancelled her challenge. "My boats are not seaworthy," she said. "I can't race them."
Saunders, who had built these boats, would naturally consider that charge a blot on his reputation. "It's the V'd step on that boat," Miss Carstairs told him. "We can't get the speed with that step."
It was said that Saunders offered to post $5,000 to prove his boats were seaworthy. Miss Carstairs then reconsidered her decision and entered another challenge for the Trophy. Saunders again went to work on the hull.
Meanwhile let's look at Gar Wood. He was in Florida when Miss Carstairs challenged. He had no boat to defend the Trophy. There had been no Harmsworth race for two years and his racing craft were obsolete.
But Wood had ideas. One of these ideas was a 1,000 horsepower engine. He was going to put two of them into one boat-a thing never heard of before in boat racing history. Two thousand horsepower in a tiny twenty-six foot hydroplane.
Captain L. M. Woolson, Packard engineer, had been working on the development of these 1,000 horsepower aircraft engines ever since 1923, in co-operation with the Bureau of Aeronautics of the United States Navy Department. They were put through months and months of gruelling tests on the dynamometer. In these tests Woolson discovered that a strong, rigid main bearing was more important than length. The old bronze-back bearings had been long. They lacked rigidity; they took up space. Woolson fashioned a shorter bearing, steelbacked and sturdy.
With this short bearing the cylinders could be placed closer together, as close as one-eighth of an inch. It was then possible to make the engine block shorter-and therefore lighter. More power could be compressed into a smaller space.
That's what Wood had been wanting for ten years, ever since he had powered his Miss Detroit III with an aircraft engine. It's the engine the world had been waiting for.
Col. Woolson put this new engine on the block. It developed 770 horsepower. That was two hundred more horsepower than the aircraft engines used during the War. And much lighter. Packard engineers made minor adjustments, changed fuels. They stepped this new engine up to 1,000 horsepower without any structural changes whatever.
When Wood heard that Miss Carstairs, Malcolm Campbell, and Sir Henry Segrave were planning a challenge for the Trophy he went to Alvan Macauley, then president of the Packard Motor Company, during the summer of 1928 and ordered two of the engines. They were shipped to his Algonac plant.
Wood's men started to build Miss America VI, a 26-foot hydroplane. It was finished just fifteen days before the Harmsworth race with Miss Carstairs on the Detroit River in September, 1928.
Gar Wood and Orlin Johnson, his mechanic, took it out on the river for its first trial. It gave them the fastest ride they had ever had in their lives. When Johnson pulled the throttle the whole quivering thing leaped into life. They- were going so fast that their eyeballs felt flattened out of shape by the force of the wind. Johnson said that telegraph posts on shore looked something like the teeth in a fine comb. Wood feared to give Johnson the signal for open throttle. He wasn't sure what would happen because he felt the bow was "digging in."
They came back into the boatwell and Wood asked his brother George to take the wheel. He wanted to stand on the clock and watch that bow. He can tell better what's wrong with the boat that say, how it planes. George Wood and Johnson took the boat out and Wood watched from the clock. When they brought her back in Wood said, "She looks O. K. We'll test her again tomorrow morning (Sunday) when the water is smooth."
They strung the boat up in her cradle and for the first time in their lives they were wondering what was going to happen when the throttle was out all the way.
After a night's rest they felt a little more daring. They were out there in the boatwell again, getting ready. They didn't care. The St. Clair River was as smooth as glass. While Wood was fastening his two Teddy Bears more securely to the engines he turned to Johnson, said, "A beautiful day to give her the gun, Orlin. What do you say?"
"Well," Johnson replied nervously as he scanned the river, "I can hang on to the throttle. It's O. K. with me if you can hang on to the wheel."
They got ready-goggles, face grease, ear batting, lifebelts and all. They jumped into the cockpit, pressed the ignition button, and cut a swift course down the river.
They went easy at first, feeling the tremendous power. Then, Wood swung the boat around and they headed upstream. He waited until the course ahead was straight, no bends in the river. Then-he nudged Johnson. That meant open throttle. Johnson didn't hesitate. He pulled the throttle.
Bedlam broke loose in that tiny craft-the shod hoofbeats of 2,000 steeds. Wood felt like his flesh, quivering like that, was being ripped from his bones. The whole thundering herd was riding hard and fast through his head. He glanced at Johnson, just for a fleeting second. Johnson's face was a strange blur whipped out of shape by the wind. Then, all at once, there was a deafening roar-sharp, quick, piercing. A tremendous hour followed. Or perhaps a moment it was, a blur in time, a kind of twilight sleep.
At first Wood thought he'd passed into another world suddenly. But he opened his eyes and then realized he was under water. He looked up toward the surface and sticks, tanks, and a thousand broken parts of the boat were spinning perilously near his head in the water above him. He felt comfortable in the well-padded seat of the boat holding desperately to the steering gear. His instinct told him to continue in his present position rather than get mixed tip in the chaos above him.
But in a few seconds he found himself changing his mind swiftly. He was getting into deeper, colder water and the pressure was getting terrific. He was certain now, for the first time, that he was actually alive because he was becoming aware of the possibility of being pinioned under what was left of his boat if he continued to sit there comfortably doing nothing. He knew now that something horrible had taken place and in the desire of self-preservation he decided' to let go and start paddling for the surface. Besides, he wanted to breathe and there was no available air where he was.
How far up the air was he didn't know but there was no point in hanging on so his hands left the wheel. A very faint feeling of joy. He could move them. He could move his hands. He was going up, always tap now. In a moment, he thought, he'd reach the surface. But it seemed never to come. SOME AIR! He could feel that go through him like a knife, that plea.
Finally, the surface. Wood said afterward that it was the longest trip he had ever had in his life, that trip to the surface.
And the surface-covered with blood, floating gas tanks, his new boat in a million slivers.
Then he thought of Johnson. He couldn't see him. The sight of that blood on the water made him feel faint. He snatched at one of the floating gas tanks and hung on. He looked around for Johnson again.
Johnson's head bobbed up through a pool of blood, his throat was cut almost from ear to ear, his main jugular vein exposed. Wood thought then that Johnson was dead. "My God," he muttered, "Johnson is dead!"
But Johnson wasn't dead. Jay Smith, who had been watching the trial from his boat, picked Johnson up and took him to the dock. Wood was brought to shore in another boat. Johnson was unconscious for more than an hour. The first thing that came from his lips was, "Guess we'll have to build another boat."
That has always been the spirit of Wood's men.
When Wood heard ,Johnson say that he said to him, "We will, Orlin. We'll build another boat." Then, he asked Johnson how fast they were going when they broke up.
The last number Johnson remembered seeing on the tachometer was 2,400. Twenty-four hundred revolutions a minute. With the thirtysix inch propeller pitch that meant 105 miles an hour. But there is slippage to be reckoned, about seven miles an hour. Discounting that, Wood figured his new boat had hit ninety-eight miles an hour. That was faster than anything had ever gone on water before.
Johnson was taken to the hospital. Three of his ribs were broken.
Miss Carstairs was already in Detroit, forty miles down the river, with her Estelle II. The race was just thirteen days away.
Could Wood get ready? The chances were a thousand to one that he couldn't. The Packard engines were somewhere at the bottom of the St. Clair River in 60 feet of water. But where? Wood didn't know exactly. But they had to find those engines. They were the only ones like them in the world. It had taken Packard engineers six months to build them.
And if they found the engines-what then? M. J. Steele, Packard engineer, believed they might be cracked. "Those engines hit the cold water at white heat," he said. "We don't know what they'll be like-if we find them."
It looked like the Harmsworth Trophy would at last go back to England.
Half the town of Algonac, the coast guard, the boy scouts, fishermen, everyone was scouring the river looking for those engines.
But Wood didn't wait until the engines were found. And neither did Packard.
Wood, being confined to bed for a day, called his men to his Algonac home-Napoleon Lisee, Vance Smith, Lawrence Smith, James McCarthy, John Brewer-and together they laid out plans for a new and stronger boat. A direct telephone line was installed in Johnson's room at the hospital in Detroit so he could talk directly to the men.
Meanwhile, Packard engineers had a truck standing by at Algonac with the governor taken off ready to rush the engines to their Detroit plant, tear them down, clean them, and build them up again. A motorcycle police escort was ready to guide the truck on its way. Steele and G. H. Brodie, Packard engineers, set up two lines of operation inside the Packard plant-one to tear down the engines, another to build them up. They had everything ready.
Bell divers were sent to the bottom of the St. Clair River. When they started out to search for the engines Mrs. Wood called to them, "Be sure to find the Teddy Bears." The Teddy Bears had been wired to the engines.
Wood himself jumped into the cockpit of his amphibian plane and soared high over the river trying to spot the black blot of the engines at the bottom. But they couldn't be seen.
Then suddenly, Wood remembered something. He had previously learned that an Algonac woman, standing at the corner of her cottage on the river, saw the boat go to pieces. Wood found the woman and from the exact spot where she had been standing calculated the possible location. Vance Smith, who frequently drives Wood's speedboats, went out to do the sounding.
After four days and nights of constant searching the engines were found in sixty feet of water, buried in six feet of black muck.
The bell diver came up first with Mrs. Wood's Teddy Bears.
When the engines were brought to the surface part of the hull was still fastened to them. The tough mahogany wood had ripped off about four inches from where Johnson had been sitting. By only four inches Johnson had escaped being split in two. The impact of the water had driven the rudder straight through the bottom of the boat.
The engines were rushed to Detroit. Every part of them was torn down, cleaned and put together again. Nothing had been damaged.
Meanwhile, the hull builders were working in a mad race with time, driven ahead only by their unquenchable spirit. In exactly thirteen days after the Miss America VI had cracked up, a new boat was built, Miss America VII. Johnson hobbled out of the hospital and supervised the work of setting the engines into the hull.
The new boat went into the 1928 race for the British International Trophy without ever having a trial run. The varnish on her was still wet. Johnson was yet so badly crippled that he had to be lifted into the cockpit. He pressed the starting button and again a new Miss America was on its way and Wood and Johnson were again riding with Death.
After the stirring events of the past two weeks the race itself was in the nature of an anti-climax. Miss Carstairs' boat, Estelle II, took a nose dive after rounding the west turn on the second lap. Miss Carstairs, driving, and her mechanic, Joe Harris, were bulleted into the river.
C. J. Colby, piloting one of the patrol boats on the course, rushed to the scene of the accident. Miss Carstairs was spluttering about in the water, evidently unhurt, clinging to her life-saving jacket. She yelled to Colby, "Get Harris. Get Harris, he's hurt."
Colby rescued Harris while Miss Carstairs was put aboard a cruiser. The man had sustained severe injuries. He was sent to St. Mary's Hospital where the doctors found two broken ribs and an injury to his spine.
Wood's Miss America VII completed the heat flawlessly and won the race.
Miss Carstairs took her broken boat back to England.
After the race, the Trophy safe for another year, Wood and Johnson took Miss America VII over the measured mile at 92.838 miles an hour-an official world record.
To the quarter of a million spectators who witnessed the event along the banks of the river it appeared that England had displayed an aimless effort to lift the trophy. But this was not true to those who knew. The English experts did their best. It is true that the Estelle II could not match the speed of a boat that Wood and his men had built in thirteen days. But it was not due to lack of care in England. The boat was powered with an 875 horsepower Napier Lions engine, the finest product of English engineering at that time. It was an engine similar to the one used by Sir Malcolm Campbell when he set the land speed record at 206.95 miles per hour. It was remarkably compact, weighing only 835 pounds-over one horsepower per pound.
It was the best engine Miss Carstairs could get in England.
And the hull. Every part of the hull was tested and tried by Saunders with extreme care before it was used. The department of Saunder's plant where the hull was taking shape was maintained at an even temperature of sixty degrees night and day for fear that atmospheric changes would affect the efficiency of the thin wood which was tested to withstand a water pressure of fifty pounds to the square inch.
Not only that. The boat was built in the greatest secrecy. The parts were made in different departments of Saunders' plant. Not more than one or two employees knew the complete details of the boat.
This is not carelessness. It took months to build this boat. Every human precaution was used to guard against faulty materials or flaws in workmanship. And yet Wood-in thirteen days-builds a boat vastly superior in every detail. And he does it without blueprints, without models, without testing tanks and all the intricate technical machinery the British have at their command.
I asked Wood's hull builder, Napoleon Lisee, about blueprints one day. He was hurrying to the other end of the shop. The little stubby Frenchmen turned in his tracks and stood there, surprised. "Blueprints!" he said. "What the hell's the use of blueprints. Every boat we make is different. Lay 'em out on the floor, full length. That's the only way."
And that's the way it's done. That's why they can build a winner in fifteen days. There's a strange element of wizardy that floats around Wood's little battered plant on the blue St. Clair River in Michigan. It's the same sort of wizardry that Chris Smith and his sons had in this same spot when they were building the Baby Reliances for Blackton. I have never been able to analyze it. It's one of the eternal riddles of the twentieth century.
It isn't the poor showing of the foreign boats that is the remarkable thing about these Harmsworth races. It's the supreme mastery of Gar Wood and his men. And the work they do. For weeks before a race these men do not get more than three hours sleep a day. One time they worked for forty-four days without getting home.
And they know engines. They know boats. And they build them the simplest way possible. Technique, art, science are thrown to the winds at Algonac. "That's for the experts," Woods says. "Let them have their government test tanks, their models, their studies in skin friction and displacement and their finely-drawn ideas about low weight per horsepower. We'll build boats our way; let results decide."
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.9)
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