Famous Speedboats of the World :
Skimming boats

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

Even the narrowest, lightest toothpick hulls, if pressed above a certain speed, raised such heavy waves around themselves that they could be made to go no faster. Turbinia achieved 35 knots, but, as the photograph shows, in the process she made plenty of disturbance in the sea. The smaller Ursula made the same speed, and created a similar violent disturbance while doing so. Had the boats been driven even faster wave systems would have been created capable of swamping or capsizing them. A high wave crest would have formed at the bow, another some distance abaft the stern, with a deep trough between in which the boats would be compelled to run. If not swamped by the wave crests they would capsize owing to the lack of buoyant support amidships in the trough of the wave.

All boats of this type are known technically as "displacement" craft. They at all times move through the water, parting it before and around themselves, but at no time rising and skimming. Indeed, as they moved faster they tended to sink a little deeper than when at rest owing to the wave system they created round themselves.

So long as speedboats remained of this type there was a limit to the speed that could be reached. The American designer Clinton Crane, who had been so successful with his boats Dixie and Dixie II, unintentionally gave a practical demonstration of the sort of behaviour that the long, narrow, light hulls might develop under certain conditions. A boat was built to his design named Standard. One day when there was ice on the River Hudson he took her out for a trial run. Four others were with him on board, and they were all dressed in oilskins, rubber boots and life jackets. As the throttle was opened and the speed increased the water seemed to leave the middle part of the boat, so that she hung balanced, as it were, upon her bow and stern wave. Then, suddenly, she rolled over bottom up. The designer, who was piloting the boat, felt as if a giant hand had grasped him from his seat and hurled him into the icy sea. For a few minutes the five crew were swimming in almost freezing water; then they were picked up by an attendant boat.

For many years there had been vague ideas of a better way of moving at high speed over the sea. This was for a ship to be shaped so that it might skim, lifting itself higher out of the water when moving than while at rest, and thereby ridding itself of some of the resistance of the clinging water. The principle behind the idea is that operating when a flat pebble is thrown over the surface of the water as in playing "ducks and drakes". If the pebble is flat enough and thrown fast enough it strikes the water only to rebound into the air, and it may do this several times, hitting the water and jumping out of it again, before losing speed and eventually falling into the water to sink.

What has happened is that the stone, because of its flatness and velocity, has been able to generate a force by striking the surface of the water, and this has been enough to lift it up into the air again. As long as the stone retains its speed and does not topple so that its edge and not its flat side hits the surface, it will continue to rebound or skim. Long before such craft eventually appeared a few people had dreamed of skimming ships able to dash over the surface of the water without ruffling it. Clearly, they could not be allowed, like the skimming stone, to progress in a series of airborne jumps; though certain very small outboard motorboats of later days did just this. But it was proposed that the craft should lift themselves clear enough of the sea to eliminate almost entirely the resistance due to the water. This was something of an idle dream. The action of skimming, however, is behind the mode of operation of all modern fast boats and record breakers.

The idea of planing or skimming over the water was suggested in 1852-over a hundred years ago.

It was revived twenty years later, rather surprisingly by a clergyman, the Rev. C. M. Ramus, Rector of Playden, Rye, and what he suggested was in fact the first hydroplane, though it never became more than a model. The ends of the hull were rounded and the bottom was flat, and with a step or break in it so that it formed two inclined planes. This simple model closely resembled the kind of skimming motorboat, the hydroplane, that was to appear more than fifty years later. The model was tested in the towing tank of the Admiralty Experiment Works, at Torquay, but the idea did not come to anything.

It was not altogether the idea's fault, for it was at root a brilliant one. But in those days there were no engines light and powerful enough to drive such a hull. Remember that the stone sinks if it does not hit the water with sufficient speed, and if a boat is to skim properly she too must be capable of reaching a high speed. Also, it was suggested that the shape of hull represented by the small model would be suitable for a ship 360 ft. long,

50 ft. beam, and displacing 2,500 tons. This was a wild dream. Even today, a century later, nobody has been able to produce so large a ship capable of skimming. There are reasons for this that will be understood later. The ability to skim is confined to moderately small vessels, rarely of much more than about 100 ft. in length, while the best and fastest skimmers are no more than about 30 ft.

At the same time as the Rev. V. M. Ramus produced his idea another one was offered. Again a model was made and tested by the Admiralty Experiment Works. It was formed simply of three wedge-shaped floats fastened together in the form of a triangle. When examined in the testing tank it was towed by lines secured to the crossbar. The three floats made skimming or planing surfaces and the results of the tests were striking, showing that high speeds might be attained with such an arrangement. But again the necessary power for such performance could not be produced.

Later, with the appearance of the internal combustion engine, sufficient power in a light enough form had become available for skimming hulls, at least of small size. By means of the petrol motor installed in the skimming hull really high speeds were at last within reach.

The earliest hydroplanes, as this type of boat was called, for a long time were absolutely flatbottomed, so that their action when driven fast closely resembled that of the skimming stone. But the bottom was unlike the stone in one respect. Along its length it had one or more breaks or "steps". The boat when running fast was carried chiefly by the small surface of the bottom near the steps. By this means the pressure, and hence lifting power of the water operating under the bottom of the hull, was increased and raised the hull higher out of the water. Between the topsides of the hull and the bottom was a sharp angle. It had the effect of forcing the water clear of the hull, preventing it climbing up the sides and clinging, as it did in the older, narrow boats with round bottoms. Thus one more source of water resistance was reduced.

It is not surprising that such an untried and novel kind of boat as the hydroplane should at first have shown a number of tiresome and even dangerous habits. Indeed, with the hydroplane the element of danger in speedboating became much greater. Hydroplanes were potential killers. Also, unlike the long, narrow, round-bottomed boats that they replaced, they were essentially unseaworthy and unable to race in rough water. In later years they were improved; but from that time until the present day the fastest boats in the world have been smooth water craft.

This does not make them less interesting. You do not put a racehorse between the shafts of a farm cart, nor do you expect a person who can run a 100 yards in record time to be much better than anyone else on a week's hike over the mountains. The hydroplane was a specialized type of boat, exciting to pilot and a little dangerous, although able to carry man faster over the water than he had ever managed before.

But one tragedy did occur in America, which led the experienced designer Clinton Crane to abandon his work on fast boats because, in his opinion, they could not be made seaworthy or safe. He produced another boat in his famous series of Dixies, the hydroplane Dixie IV. She proved a most difficult craft to control in rough water, though one of the fastest boats of her day in smooth, and one day during a race she suddenly became uncontrollable after passing through the wash of a tugboat. She sheered wildly off her course, the pilot being unable to check her swing, hit a nearby stone breakwater, and climbing up it with the momentum of her speed cut off the leg of a boy who was watching the race.

Soon after the appearance of the hydroplane the fastest boat in the world was the Duke of Westminster's Pioneer. She was a skimming boat with a single ago horse-power Wolseley engine, and she proved herself capable of 39.1 knots, or nearly 46 m.p.h. But when she went to America to challenge for the Harmsworth Trophy she was beaten by the older type of boat, Dixie III, though she was much the faster of the two. She won the first race and had gained a long lead in the second when she developed engine trouble. The Pioneer lay motionless in the water while Dixie III sped past her and on to the finishing line.

Britain soon regained the lead of the world in speed over the water with one of the most successful hydroplanes ever built. This was the Maple Leaf IV. Like Pioneer and many earlier successful fast boats, she was designed and built by S. E. Saunders of Cowes. She was 40 ft. in length, but different from the earlier craft of the same length in being of good breadth, 8 ft. 5 in., and her almost flat bottom was broken by no fewer than five "steps".

Unlike the present day, suitable metals for the construction of high speed boats were not available. Maple Leaf IV was built entirely of wood, but was put together as strongly as possible. Her two Austin engines gave her a total of 400 horse-power.

There are many people alive today [1959] who remember Maple Leaf IV, her low, sleek hull lying on her moorings in Cowes harbour. Her crew would row out to her in a dinghy. The engines would be started, and after their initial warming roar the boat would slip out into the Solent and then, increasing speed, rise and skim above the surface with all the apparent ease and grace that the hydroplane when running well is able to reveal.

Maple Leaf IV regained the Harmsworth Trophy from America in 1912, and in the following year she successfully defended it against the foreign speedboats that came to Cowes to race against her. She thus vindicated the defeat of Pioneer, and she was a faster boat, reaching speeds of nearly 50 knots.

There were many other excellent hydroplanes at this time; a little French boat called Despujols was one, and in Osborne Bay, near Cowes, she beat Maple Leaf IV in one race during the contest in 1913. But Maple Leaf IV proved faster in the end. Men were quickly mastering the art of designing, building and handling the new kind of skimming boat, and were tasting the entirely new sensation of flashing over the water at speeds greater than the express trains reached on land.

Then war came to Europe.

(Reprinted from Famous Speedboats of the World by D. Phillips-Birt [St. Martin’s Press, 1959], Ch.3)

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