Famous Speedboats of the World :
Boats That Can Almost Fly

Toothpick Boats
Skimming Boats
Miss Englands, Miss America and a Miss Britain
Bluebird Goes On
Yet Another Bluebird
Boats That Can Almost Fly

You may be wondering what can happen next to make yet faster boats and higher world's speed records. This is a difficult question to answer, for you have no doubt already realized that the record breakers of the last ten years or so are only just boats. They are boats on the verge of flying—flying boats without wings, which cannot take to the air yet do no more than merely touch the water that carries them. But so great is their speed that though only a few square inches of the boat may at any moment be' in contact with the water, each touch of it is like the blow of a giants' hammer threatening to break open the skin of the hull. And all the while is the ever-present danger that forces of the air rushing past the hull may hurl it over on its side or back to destruction.

Perhaps there is a limit not far away beyond where we are now when further speed becomes impossible. We have come a long way in the half century that separates Dixie cutting through the water at about 40 miles an hour and Bluebird skimming over it at nearly 250 miles an hour. Speeds have been increased by five times, a total of 200 miles an hour, and a little arithmetic will show that this averages an increase in speed of five miles an hour for every year since the early part of the century. A little more arithmetic will show that if the same rate of progress were to continue boats would be able to travel at between 400-500 miles an hour by the year A.D. 2000. Will this happen? I do not think so. Before long higher speeds will become impossible. This need not surprise you. You may remember that in the first chapter it was shown that the speeds of ships during the many centuries when the only way of propelling them was by means of wind in sails or the muscles of men using oars, speeds increased very little. A limit of development had been reached. The same thing may happen again. The laws of nature may forbid yet faster speedboats.

You need not be disappointed either. We are speaking here only of maximum speeds, the speeds that make the world's records. Though the jetpropelled hydroplanes of this kind may now be able to do more than 250 miles an hour, the fastest type of boat capable of going to sea in even a modest way, and making short passages along a coastline or across the Channel, cannot manage more than about 50 knots or 572 miles an hour. You see what a huge gap there is between the world's record and the fastest type of boat that is capable of any useful work, carrying passengers or crossing an ordinary sort of seaway. This is a gap that waits to have a bridge thrown across it. Already today some progress is being made in the work. In its way it is almost as exciting as record breaking.

We have seen that the record-breaking boats of today are of no use for anything but running over measured miles or kilometres on the most placid lake water, and they do even this at considerable risk to the pilot. It does not mean that the boats are useless; they may be able to provide valuable lessons to guide the design of slower but more practical vessels.

We have also studied the types of fast boat used in the Mosquito fleets during two world wars-boats owing a debt to what was learned from the record breakers of their day. These small, fast warships, having to carry their load of guns, torpedoes, and ammunition and to remain at sea in rough weather were unable to achieve much more than 45 knots. Yet we should remember that this is about as fast as any seagoing ship of any size has ever moved. A naval destroyer is not so fast, and the express Atlantic liners rarely exceed 31 knots.

The problem of designing really fast boats that are at the same time moderately seaworthy and able to carry a useful load is a difficult one. Not only must they be able to drive their way or skim over the dense and "sticky" substance that water is, but they must be able to face waves. For the surface of the sea, even in the calmest weather, is rarely quite flat, and in only a light wind waves are raised capable of endangering the record-breaking kind of boat. It is the fact that the sea is always more or less rough, and sometimes very rough indeed, that makes speed over it so difficult! Though you may be able to produce a boat able to reach 100 knots or so it will be forced down in speed to a mere ten knots and less as soon as the wind whips the surface of the water into even small waves. Against the enormous storm waves of the ocean, of course, few ships can move at even this speed, and often they are forced to heave-to, that is, to stop going ahead at all.

The aeroplane is able to avoid the turmoil of the ocean surface by soaring above it; the submarine by diving beneath into the dark regions of water which are perpetually still however tumultuous the storm waves above. The ship alone is tied to the tumult and compelled to fight it.

During recent years a brilliant though not new idea has been applied to fast boats. This consists of nothing less than lifting them out of the water on what we may think of as water wings fixed to stilts projecting below the surface. By this means the hull itself is in the air, above the rough surface of the sea, free from its resistance and the blows of the waves.

You will wonder how this is done. You know that an aeroplane is carried on its wings. Wings are long, slender, more or less flat objects, and when these pass through the air at a suitable angle they are able to generate what is aptly called "lift", which is a force acting upwards and able to support the aircraft. Wings are able to work in water as well as air. They are able to do so more effectively, in fact, for water is the thicker or more dense substance.

Suppose therefore we arrange for a boat to be fitted with wings on legs so arranged that they may project down into the water under the hull. Then, when the boat gathers speed the wings are able to lift the boat; when it is going fast enough they are able to lift the hull altogether out of the water. Then you have nothing in the water but the wings themselves, supporting the hull clear of the sea. Such wings are called "hydrofoils" just as the wings of an aeroplane may be called "aerofoils".

It is easy to see that the idea of hydrofoil craft is a most promising one, and during the last few years big developments have been made with them. Like many other good ideas this one was born years before it produced any striking results. In igt i, at the time when the early skimming boat Maple Leaf IV was becoming famous, two Americans fitted hydrofoils on a small rowing dinghy. The foils were no more than narrow wings fixed across the hull a few feet beneath the bottom. When the dinghy was towed astern of a motor boat it was lifted on the hydrofoils clear above the surface of the water. At a speed of only six knots-unspectacular even for those days-the hull of the dinghy was raised by the hydrofoils altogether out of the sea.

Other experiments were made, especially with models, for here as elsewhere models proved of the greatest value in discovering the value of new ideas. In 1919 trials were made with hydrofoils arranged like a ladder under the hull of a boat, and this is of particular interest because it is one of the systems in use today. You will be able to understand the arrangement from the illustrations. But still at this time, though the idea appeared interesting, there seemed no practical application for it, and few important developments have occurred. However, in 1914, a hydrofoil craft known as HD/4 reached a speed of a little more than 70 m.p.h. on the Bras d'Or lake in Nova Scotia, Canada. She was thus the fastest boat in the world at that time, proving capable of higher speeds than the skimming boats of her day; but because nobody could regard a craft that was lifted above the sea by wings on stilts as a true boat the achievement did not lead to any sustained interest or further progress. There was still so much to be done in producing faster boats of a more ordinary kind.

But hydrofoil vessels were not wholly forgotten, though much more attention was devoted to the skimming speedboats that we have been dealing with earlier. The Germans were especially interested in the hydrofoil idea, and this culminated during the Second World War when a number of hydrofoil craft were designed, built and tested under the authority of the government. One such boat was 46 ft. long and was able to carry a pair of torpedoes at a speed of 55 knots. Here obviously was a great achievement, but the Germans found many snags in their efforts to produce hydrofoil craft capable of taking an effective part in the operations of war, and in spite of their efforts none was ever used for fighting.

After the war the British Admiralty were able to examine what the Germans had achieved. We now reach the point in our story when Sir Malcolm Campbell was trying to raise his speed record of 141.7 m.p.h., when naval torpedo and fast gunboats were capable of 50 knots; when, in fact, speeds over the water were so high that it appeared difficult to make them any higher, especially if a craft able to operate in a rough sea was needed. The hydrofoil principle now gained a new significance. Here perhaps was the way of achieving not world'srecord-breaking speeds, but at least speeds far higher than any previously within the range of possibility so long as boats had to plough through the surface of breaking waves.

The British and Americans both settled to work. A British inventor, Christopher Hook, patented a type of hydrofoil craft; the American Navy instigated a programme of research. A hydrofoil craft named White Hawk owned by two English people, Mr. and Mrs. Hanning-Lee, reached a speed of 125 m.p.h. on Lake Windermere, where Sir Henry Segrave and one of his mechanics had been killed going at almost the same speed in Miss England II, more than twenty years earlier. The important day of the hydrofoil craft-though such had been known and used for nearly half a century-was opening.

Now the firm of Saunders-Roe, which built some of the earliest of the speedboats that we have discussed, and which have continued throughout our story of speed at sea to build important craft, was commissioned by the Canadian Government to design and build a hydrofoil vessel 60 ft. in length. She had her sets of hydrofoils forward and aft arranged on the ladder system, and she was named Bras D'or after the lake where thirty-two years earlier the HD/4 had achieved a speed of 70 m.p.h.

We can expect that in the future more and more use will be made of hydrofoil craft, and they may become quite a common sight round the coast and for short sea passages where speed is important. This does not mean that large ocean-going ships like liners or aircraft carriers will be lifted on hydrofoils. For reasons that we need not discuss, there is a limit to the size that hydrofoil craft may be. Exactly what this limit is nobody can yet be sure, but it would be far below that of the liner or bulk cargo carrier. But they will come to be used as ferries and for similar fast passenger purposes, perhaps across the Channel and in the North Sea. For the first time in the history of seafaring, vessels as fast as certain types of speedboats will be able to cross stormy stretches of the sea without loss in speed, carried in the air, above the disturbance, on their hydrofoils. This, you will agree, is an exciting development to expect.

Meanwhile, speedboats of the skimming type continue to be used for many purposes. These are fairly good seagoing vessels, but not nearly so fast as the world's record breakers we have been describing. But they are capable of speeds of from 40 to 5o knots, of remaining at sea in rough weather, and performing many vital services. Such craft may be used for ambulance purposes, for fire fighting, and for carrying passengers. Working craft of this kind are the development of the last fifty or so years, during which men have been striving towards ever higher speeds over the water.

(Reprinted from Famous Speedboats of the World by D. Phillips-Birt [St. Martin’s Press, 1959], Ch.10)

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This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
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Leslie Field, 2000