Putting the “Unlimited” into Hydroplanes

photo from acbs.org

Forward by Pat Butler, ACBS NC/LT Chapter Historian

Browsing through the International ACBS website I was drawn to an article describing the exciting and intriguing Racing Boats of the early 1900’s.  This story of the Harmsworth Trophy Race and the excitement around this historic race event fits right into the renewed interest in Wooden Boat Racing our ACBS Chapter and so many others are experiencing.  

In the early 1900’s Gar Wood and Chris Smith, two men who blazed across wooden boat history, were just beginning to bring their collective passion and ingenuity to the boating world. The legends both men would become had not yet been written. Here you can learn just a little of their early successes and failures in careers that cross decades. The resurgence of interest in racing boats and races is long overdue and articles like this can encourage a renewed interest in that incredible piece of wooden boat history!

The author of this article and its prologue is Kirsten Johnson, grandniece of Gar Wood, and a lifelong travel and boating enthusiast. She spent many years collecting family history, memorabilia and prior research of the Wood Family. Concluding her research, she is writing a biography of her Uncle Gar and the Wood Family. Ms. Johnson was pleased to give our ACBS Chapter permission to republish her stories, stating that she “hoped the members enjoy this little bit of history.  I have been researching Gar and the Wood family for several years and, they were, certainly, a fascinating and entertaining bunch.”

Part 1: Putting the “Unlimited” in Hydroplanes

When the calendar recently turned from 2019 to 2020, it marked the centurial of a truly epic year in speedboat racing history. 1920 was a year of speedboat glory for America, and for two American men in particular. Gar Wood and Chris Smith – working out of a small boat shop in Algonac, Michigan – built the fastest speedboat in the world. With this boat, they won the world’s supreme, Unlimited-class speedboat racing championship – the Harmsworth Trophy. The boat was Miss America – a sleek hydroplane made of Philippine mahogany and driven by two converted 12-cylinder, 500-horsepower Liberty airplane powerplants.1

 The powerplants that characterized “Unlimited” – the term used to describe a class of racing boats that had no restrictions on the displacement size of their piston engines – began a radical reformulation in 1918. Gar Wood, an auto mechanic turned newly-minted millionaire from his invention of the hydraulic hoist, was now indulging the boat-racing passion that he developed in childhood. Outwardly personable and unassuming, Wood’s underlying fiercely competitive nature compelled his involvement in virtually every aspect of the design and building of his race boats.

Applying the innovative thinking that inspired his hoist invention, Wood saw a new potential solution to the problem of weight versus horsepower and speed. Marine engines were much heavier than the airplane engines of the time period. “If we want speed,“ Wood reasoned, “we’ve got to cut weight.”2 Additionally, Gar theorized that “airplane motors had to be more dependable than boat motors, since there was little margin for engine failure in the air.”3

Wood’s visionary plan had many naysayers. Skeptics believed airplane motors would fail in speedboats smashing through choppy water because they were too fragile, with too many delicate parts. Regardless of the warnings of the engineers, Wood – wielding the power one derives from being the primary financier of a project – held firm.       

The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, an American aircraft manufacturer founded in 1916, had contracted with the British government to build powerful, lightweight, 12-cylinder V-type engines. Wood acquired one for his prospective 1918 race boat. As the aircraft powerplant was being adapted into a marine engine over the 1917-1918 winter, Chris Smith was building a 20-foot hull for the new speedboat. The result was the Miss Detroit III, the lightest craft for her power ever built. She was 400 pounds lighter than her predecessor, with an increase of propeller revolutions to 2,000 per minute.4 Driven by the converted Curtiss 1650 cubic inch, 400-horsepower aviation engine, the revolutionary hydroplane handily won the 1918 Gold Cup. Her fastest 5-mile lap was recorded as 59.3 mph, an increase of 6 mph over the 1917 record.5 A race account reported “it was apparent that she was a 70-mile boat.” When running full throttle, “she had no difficulty in passing everything in sight.”6

The Miss Detroit III demonstrated the potentially unlimited speeds that race boats could attain with aircraft engines, which silenced some initial critics. However, new protests arose against the use of converted airplane motors in established races – from marine engine companies as well as race boat owners. When calls for disqualification were lodged against Wood’s boat during the next racing season on the grounds that the rules required “marine” engines, Gar contended, “If an airplane engine runs a boat all right that makes it a marine engine, doesn’t it? Please tell me what a marine engine is. I’m looking for someone who can define it.”7  

Wood’s speedboating interests went beyond simply collecting trophies at annual regattas. Gar was genuinely dedicated to discovering what limits there were on greater over-the-water speeds, and then striving to overcome them. He was frustrated by the new American Power Boat Association (APBA) racing rules meant to handicap his engine-adaptation ingenuity.

With the European war at an end, he turned his focus to a new possibility overseas. England sponsored a race that promoted visionary thinking – the Unlimited speedboat championship of the world.

From its inception in 1903, the British International Trophy race (aka the Harmsworth Trophy) was intended as a test of engineering and design, and to encourage the development of hulls and engines in watercraft. The 1903 Deed of Gift expressly stated that: “The race should serve a most effective means of bringing marine motors and the design of launch hulls to a state of perfection.”There was no limit placed on the horsepower or form of motive power employed, but boats could not exceed 40 feet in length.8

During the 1919-1920 winter in Algonac, Wood and Smith built two hydroplanes to take to England for the 1920 Harmsworth race; packing two powerful, converted Liberty airplane engines in each. Miss Detroit V was 38 feet, heavier, and designed for rough water. Miss America was smaller at 26 feet, faster, and designed for calm water.9

For several years, the residents of tiny, riverside Algonac had delighted in the thrill of many of the fastest boats in America being built in their village. During speed tests, locals lined the waterfront to watch the mahogany missiles thunder over the river. Now, two hydroplanes from Algonac were going to the world championship in England! The town talk was of race boats, hulls, engines, propellers, speed. How fast would the new creations of Gar Wood’s and Chris Smith’s exceptionalism go?  

The builders of the two race boats were no less unmoved by the magnitude of their endeavor. An account of events describes an evening when Miss America lay in her cradle, awaiting shipment to England. Chris Smith – who would soon launch a company called Chris-Craft – was seen down on his knees at her stern. He was stroking her bow, and quietly saying, “You’ll do, my girl, you’ll do.”10

Story by Kirsten N. Johnson, January 12, 2020

Notes

1. Barrett, J. Lee, Speedboat Kings, Hardscrabble Books and the Historical Society of Michigan, 1986, p. 44.

2. Ibid., p. 36.

3. “Rearview Mirror Look at Speedboat King,” Detroit News, May 10, 1997

4. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 37.

5. “Miss Detroit III Wins the Gold Cup,” MoToR BoatinG, October 1918, p. 42. 

6. Ibid., p. 9.

7. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 41.

8. “Harmsworth Deed of Gift,” The Rudder, May 1903, p. 304.

9. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 44.

10. “Old Algonac Awaits Dawn and Bets Are All on Gar,” Detroit Free Press, September 17, 1932

Part 2: Gar Wood and Miss America Win the 1920 Harmsworth Trophy Race

When the calendar recently turned from 2019 to 2020, it marked the centurial of a truly epic year in speedboat racing history. One hundred years ago, 1920 was a time for speedboat glory in America, and for two American men in particular. Gar Wood and Chris Smith – working out of a small boat shop in Algonac, Michigan – built the fastest speedboat in the world. With this boat, they won the world’s supreme, unlimited-class speedboat racing championship – the Harmsworth Trophy. The boat was Miss America – a sleek hydroplane made of Philippine mahogany and driven by two converted 12-cylinder, 500-horsepower Liberty airplane powerplants.

From 1914-1919, the Great War in Europe precluded the Harmsworth Trophy competition. This race between nations – established by England in 1903 – was won by England in 1912 and 1913. The announcement that the competition would renew in 1920 prompted challenges from France, Spain, and America. The European countries eventually withdrew, but America sent three boats to the 1920 August event. Two were Michigan-built hydroplanes, Miss America and Miss Detroit V. The third was Whip-Po’-Will, Jr. (aka Whip), a speedboat from America’s northeastern coast.2  

The Harmsworth Trophy Race activities were traditionally based on the Isle of Wight – a small island south of England – in a village called Cowes. Since 1826 – nearly a century – Cowes staged Regatta Week in August. Magnificent boats and yachts adorned the water around the tranquil island, signaling that European royalty and noted gentry were assembling for summer social recreation. Upon arrival at the historic racecourse, the three British defenders were greeted with enthusiastic and patriotic ceremony. They were Sunbeam-Despujols (with a Sunbeam engine), Maple Leaf V (with four Sunbeam engines totaling 1800 horsepower), and Maple Leaf VI (with two Rolls-Royce engines totaling 1100 horsepower).3

The American delegation of watercraft and crews, after shipping across the Atlantic, were welcomed into the festivities. Regatta officials and participants initially regarded the Yankee speedboats with curiosity and moderate skepticism. These perceptions appeared to gain credence when – three days before the first Harmsworth heat – a sudden fiery explosion in the bay attracted immediate and alarmed attention. Whip-Po’-Will, Jr., on a trial run, had apparently suffered a catastrophic gasoline leak in her twin Bugatti engines. Whip’s crew abandoned their flaming craft, diving into the sea where nearby boats rescued them. There was no saving Whip, however; onlookers could only watch as the ocean slowly swallowed the blazing, stately speedboat.4  

The Yankees were now reduced to just two race boats, with gossip circulating that these were also experiencing engine problems. However, neither boat owner denounced these rumors. Gar Wood, the registered owner of Miss America, was occupied with race preparations. Gar Wood Jr., his two-year-old son and the registered owner of Miss Detroit V, currently lacked the appropriate vocabulary. Wood Sr.’s actions further stoked speculation; he only drove Miss Detroit V – a heavy, 38-foot craft built for rough water – for trial runs. The British defenders, observing the performances, were collectively unimpressed. Miss America, meanwhile, remained cloistered in the boathouse.5

On August 10, 1920, the five speedboats convened in the Solent – a smooth stretch of water near the island – for the first “heat” (race). The Harmsworth Trophy racecourse was an elongated elliptical shape consisting of five laps. Each lap was about six miles – two extended straightaways anchored by a turn around a buoy at each end – for a total distance of approximately thirty miles. One heat was run per day. The first country to win two heats was proclaimed the winner.6

Miss America finally appeared, cruising regally over the calm and quiet sea that had been rough and choppy early that week. At 26 feet long, she was smaller and lighter than the Miss Detroit V. She had been designed to race on the very sort of smooth water she was now idling across. Miss America was piloted by Gar Wood and had two mechanics aboard. One mechanic was Phil Wood – Gar’s brother – while the other was Jay Smith – a son of Chris Smith. The crew of Miss Detroit V was no less a family affair. Her pilot was George Wood, another Wood brother; and one mechanic was Bernard Smith, another Smith son. Additional members of the Wood racing team cheered the competitors from the deck of a nearby yacht. They included Gar’s wife Murlen – who had christened Miss America with champagne – and Gar Wood Jr., the youthful race boat owner.7

When the starting gun fired, the boats that thundered across the starting line were piloted by daring, ambitious individuals whose names would remain legendary far past their lifetimes. Maple Leaf V was driven by English flying ace Harry Hawker, who would later partner with Tom Sopwith (of Sopwith Camel aviation fame) to build Hawker aircraft. Sir Algernon Guinness, an English baronet of the Guinness brewery family and world-record race car driver, drove the Sunbeam-Despujols. All their prior speed and maneuvering experience, however, gave them no collective advantage. The two Yankee boats quickly surged to the front, with Miss America slightly leading her sister. They appeared astonishingly light on the water, creating minimal wake even as they swept around the buoys. By contrast the British boatsappeared to clumsily slosh and pound around the course, and the glistening wings of water they slung skyward in the turns – perpetually thrilling for spectators – now added to the ungainly impression.8  

Miss America gained a substantial lead following only one lap, while Miss Detroit V began misfiring and slowed. Although Hawker briefly maneuvered into second place – a potential contest as Maple Leaf V carried twice the horsepower as Miss America – no threat materialized. Hawker eventually fell into last place, while Gar kept the throttles open and occasionally looked back for boats that never came. Miss America sailed across the finish line in an easy win, completing the 30-mile course in just over 38 minutes. Miss Detroit V was fourth, a casualty of burnt spark plugs.9 

The racecourse was again a pleasing sight the following day; with clear skies, a light breeze, and large windjammer yachts scattered on the calm, gleaming water near the course. The sunny good fortune also shone on the Americans. The two Yankee speedboats immediately took the lead, Miss America streaking ahead like a mahogany comet. For the entirety of the heat, Gar Wood had no competition – Miss Detroit V did not close the lead enough to even stoke brotherly rivalry. When the two boats crossed the finish line – securing first and second place – Miss America had run an average speed of approximately 55 mph, with a best lap of 65 mph – without having yet reached her top potential speed.10

Gar Wood and Miss America – in a stunning display of what harmonious balance between hull design and engine innovation could achieve – were triumphant in the world’s unlimited-power, supreme speedboat championship. The Harmsworth Trophy was going to America.

Story by Kirsten N. Johnson, January 12, 2020

Notes

1. Barrett, J. Lee, Speedboat Kings, Hardscrabble Books and the Historical Society of Michigan, 1986, p. 44.

2. Bradley, W.F., “America Wins Motor Boat Supremacy,” Motor Boating, Sept 1920, p. 9.

3. Ibid.

4. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 46.

5. “Gar Wood – From Miss America to Deadly PT Boats (part 4),” Detroit Free Press, August 15, 1943

6. Bradley, Motor Boating, p. 10.

7. Barrett, Speedboat Kings, p. 47.

8. Bradley, Motor Boating, p. 10.

9. Ibid., p. 11.

10. Ibid.

About the Author, Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten N. Johnson is a lifelong travel and boating enthusiast and the great-niece of Gar Wood, the legendary speedboat racer. Growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina, she developed an enduring passion for outdoor activities and sporting events. After receiving degrees in registered nursing and health information technology, for many years Kirsten worked as a travel nurse contractor at multiple healthcare sites throughout the U.S and Alaska.

Kirsten has spent many years researching the Wood family, interviewing family members, and collecting family letters and documents. She is an ACBS member of both the Smith Mountain Lake and Blue Ridge Chapters and a member of the Antique Boat Museum. She currently lives in Virginia, where she is writing a biography about Gar Wood and the Wood family.