Famous Speedboats of the World
Miss Englands, Miss Americas and a Miss Britain
The weary years of war over, men were able to return to their racing speedboats. The C.M.B.s [coastal motor boats] had been interesting and very different from the fastest boats in the world at the time when war broke out in 1914, but they had not been faster, and in 1919 the fastest boat was still the Maple Leaf IV, which in 1912 had reached 40 knots and in 1913 50 knots, while defending the Harmsworth Trophy.
But it was a changed world, in which tremendous strides had been made in the powers of engines available, as a result of efforts made during the war years. Also, prices were now much higher. Something of the sporting element of racing the fastest speedboats was lost, for only a few very rich men could afford to do it, and the effort and organization now required to build and race a record breaker made it resemble a commercial undertaking rather than a light-hearted adventure.
Though something was lost in this way, nothing was forfeited in the fields that lay open to be conquered; and much was added to the potential dangers of trying to conquer them. The time was approaching when men were to drive boats at double the speed of Maple Leaf IV and to reach the once undreamed of speed of 100 m.p.h. over the water.
Only a few years were needed to achieve this. In 1920 the races for the Harmsworth Trophy were again held and a new competitor, the Miss America, from the U.S.A., appeared. She was a smaller boat than the 40 ft. Maple Leaf IV, measuring only 26 ft. overall, and she carried 800 horsepower. She won the trophy, and reached a speed of 56 knots.
Miss America was the first of a series of speedboats, all bearing the same name and owned by Commodore Gar Wood, who for some years was to prove himself able to lead British boats and pilots round the race course, and also to hold the world's record for the fastest boat in the world.
The Miss Americas were, of course, planing boats or hydroplanes, but they were remarkably different from Maple Leaf IV and the pre-war types of recordbreaking speedboats, and equally unlike those that we know today. Firstly, in terms of what we now expect in record-breaking hydroplanes, they were large and heavy craft. Miss America X, for example, the last and fastest of the series, was 38 ft. in length. This large, almost flat-bottomed hull had none of the delicacy or subtlety of shape that later record breakers were to acquire. She was a simple veebottom boat with a broad, flat stern where the pilot sat, right aft, on a bench running across the boat and behind a vertical steering wheel on a pillar. Beside him sat the engineer; before him, near the middle of the hull, were four enormous, pounding, roaring Packard engines each developing 1,600 horse-power, giving the gigantic total of 6,400 horse-power; and all this in a boat only 38 ft. in length and 10 ft. 6 in. in beam!
This was the method of obtaining high speed in the Miss America-to cram in just as much power as the boat could hold, using a number of the most powerful engines available. It was the manner of brute force, and for a number of years it was successful. Gar Wood set up a world's record of 92.8 m.p.h in 1928 with Miss America VII, which stood until Sir Henry Seagrave won the record for Britain in 1930 in Miss England II with a speed of 98.7 m.p.h. But Gar Wood was not beaten and in 1932 he regained the record of Miss America IX with a speed of 111.7 m.p.h. The record was recaptured for Britain, lost again to America in 1932, regained by Miss England III, then once more lost to Gar Wood's Miss America X. The competition was fierce, but ultimately the Miss Americas faded from the competition, tenaciously though Gar Wood fought for the records. The Miss Americas, with their heavy load of engines, were like floating power stations, and the type of boat that held the future secret of fast travel over the water, were to be lighter, more delicate and more subtly thought-out boats. Miss England II was to show the way towards the new kind of record breaker.
However, during the twelve years between 1920 and 1932 the speed of Maple Leaf IV had been more than doubled. The world itself was a much fastermoving place now. Maple Leaf IV seemed like a museum piece; but soon also did the Miss Americas, which had achieved so much. The beginning of their eclipse glimmered with the appearance of a new British boat, Miss England. She was designed by Fred Cooper, whose name was to become famous, and was built by the firm of British Power Boats at Hythe, near Southampton, which belonged to Hubert Scott-Paine, himself a celebrated owner and pilot of speedboats. At this time Miss America VII held the Harmsworth Trophy, and was also the fastest boat in the world on a straight course. Miss England was chiefly remarkable in having only one engine, a Napier Lion developing 930 horsepower, compared with the total of 2,300 horsepower installed in Miss America VII. Yet Major Segrave, later to become Sir Henry Segrave, brought the little craft to America, and though she was not quite so fast as Miss America VII, she was so much more manoeuvrable, so much quicker at taking the turns in the course, that she was able to beat the American boat. In his effort to hold the British craft Gar Wood wrenched the steering wheel of his clumsy craft over at the corners, and before the race was over the strain on the steering gear had broken it. The little British boat was victorious.
But she was not able to make the speed of Miss America VII on the straight, and so failed to establish a new world's record, though she reached 90 miles an hour. She had, however, demonstrated that the future of high speed boats might lie not in floating crates stuffed with power, like the Miss Americas, but in lighter craft cleverly designed and making better use of smaller engines.
So at the end of 1929 a contract was placed for a new hydroplane to be built from drawings by the same designer. Lord Wakefield offered to shoulder the enormous expense that the construction and racing of the boat was likely to entail. Thus Miss England II came into being, a boat intended to regain for her country the honours of the hydroplane world, which the Miss Americas of Gar Wood had securely clasped since the end of the 1914-1918 War.
Perhaps no speedboat has ever had a career that was at once so exciting, varied, tragic, and successful as the Miss England II. She was the first boat to achieve 100 miles an hour. She gained the world's record with a speed of 98.7 m.p.h. and later raised it twice, eventually reaching 110.2 m.p.h. She raced not only over measured miles but round courses in many parts of the world. She proved faster than other boats with double her power. Twice she capsized and sank. Sir Henry Segrave as we shall tell later, was killed while piloting her.
Miss England II was also an unusually graceful craft, in this respect unlike most hydroplanes; for whatever their other qualities elegance is not usually among them. Her hull showed not only her latent speed but also a degree of seaworthiness that later world's record holders were to lose. And though her 32 ft. of length was packed with engines and other machinery, shafting, fuel tanks and instruments, there was room on board for a crew of three to be squeezed into the small cockpit amidships.
Miss England II was basically like the stepped hydroplanes that we have been studying earlier. The hull was planked with three layers of timber along the bottom-a system known as "triple skin" -while the topsides had double skin planking. But the step in the bottom of the hull was independent from the hull proper and bolted on to it, and was built especially strongly to withstand the great stresses that it would be called on to carry at high speeds.
The two Rolls-Royce engines were in the stern behind the seats of the pilot and engineers. There was one very unusual feature in the propulsion arrangements. The tiny 14 in. diameter propeller that drove her turned at no less than r 2,000 revolutions a minute, or 200 times in every second. This was a brilliant experiment by the designer, Fred Cooper, and proved to be the solution of a problem that had always dogged high-speed boats.
A slow turning propeller has to be of bigger diameter than a smaller one if it is to transmit the necessary power. But there are two reasons why big propellers are not wanted in speedboats. One of them is due to the excessive amount of what we call "torque" that they produce. Very roughly, this means that there is a strong tendency when a large propeller is delivering big power behind a small light boat for the propeller to turn the boat over. It tries to twist the boat round its own propeller shaft; which clearly would be a most undesirable thing to happen! At the least it would make the boat difficult to steer and manoeuvre. Another reason is that a big propeller needs to have a propeller shaft of large diameter, and correspondingly large brackets and fittings securing the shaft to the hull where it runs along outside it. Now at high speeds the resistance that the shaft and its brackets offers to the water is very considerable, and is one of the most important features slowing down the boat. The small propeller gets over these two difficulties. Fred Cooper's cleverness lay in realizing, for reasons too complicated to explain here, that so small and fast-turning a propeller would be able to drive the boat effectively and would not, as many people expected, simply cavitate violently and make a hole in the water.
In Miss England II both engines were coupled to the same propeller, so that this small object, which would almost fit into a lady's handbag, was transmitting 3,500 horse-power, and it proved capable of driving a boat weighing 5½ tons at more than 100 miles an hour.
When completed in 1930 the boat was taken to Lake Windermere in Westmorland. A few days of trials were held and some small troubles put right. It was fine June weather and in the evening of Thursday the 12th, after a successful run with the boat, Sir Henry Segrave decided to attack the record of Miss America VII on the morrow. He had no sailor's superstitions about it being a Friday, and the 13th of the month as well. The crew of three were even confident enough the next morning as to leave behind their life jackets. Sir Henry motored the boat slowly to the far end of the course; then he made two fast runs over the measured mile. He next set about making a yet faster run under full throttle. Suddenly, at the highest speed she had yet reached, disaster overtook the hydroplane in the middle of the lake.
There was much doubt for some time as to what had happened to Miss England II, for when accidents like this occur at high speed they are all over too suddenly for proper observation by eye. Only the cine camera focused on the boat at the time of the accident can tell a complete story of what takes place in the few seconds that may separate the successful boat running at high speed and the overturned wreck.
Miss England II, while going at about 120 miles an hour, struck a floating log of wood. The impact was on the port side near the front of the forward step in the bottom of the hull, and going at the speed she was, the log instantly made a hole in the bottom, strongly though it was built. I pointed out earlier that the step was separately constructed from the hull proper, and the mere holing of it alone need not have endangered the boat. But going at such high speed there followed a sequence of events that capsized her. Water rushed in through the hole created by the log, which split the wood planking of the step, and the great pressure tore away the forward part of the step from the hull. This, hanging down in the water, was able to upset the balance and stability of the fast-moving boat and she rolled over.
Sir Henry Segrave and one of his mechanics were killed, and thus two brave men died in the cause of speed over the water. But a few minutes before meeting their end they had proved Miss England II to be the first boat that had reached 100 m.p.h., and they had established a new water speed record of 98.7 m.p.h., about 6 m.p.h. faster than the record of two years earlier by Gar Wood in Miss America VII. They had achieved this on the two trial runs over the measured mile which had preceded the fatal record attempt at full throttle. Miss England II was capable of much greater speeds than the 98.7 m.p.h. which brought her the record, and she was shortly to prove it.
For her story did not end with the tragedy of that Friday on Lake Windermere. After capsizing, she remained afloat for a time, her bow sticking vertically out of the water, the rest of the hull submerged. Then she slid under, and the lake covered her. But her hull, apart from the damaged step which had been torn off, was hardly damaged. She was brought back to the surface with grappling wires, a few repairs were made to the hull, the engine was overhauled, and then Miss England II -the fastest boat in the world-was back in commission. A new pilot, Mr. Kaye Don, who like Sir Henry Segrave had been a racing motorist before taking to the sea, was given charge of the boat by Lord Wakefield.
His first task was to raise the world's record that had been made on Lake Windermere and so prove the high speeds of which the boat had shown herself capable. After a series of trials she was shipped out to the Argentine river Parana las Palmas, which at first proved to be as unsuitable a place for a record attempt as could have been selected. The lives of two men had already been lost through the boat striking a log, and perhaps the log she had hit was the only one anywhere near the measured mile course. But the Argentine river proved to be full of logs, floating or partly submerged. The dangers of trying to make a speed record in waters such as these were obvious. But eventually, mainly thanks to the ingenuity of the boat's designer, Fred Cooper, the river was cleared of obstructions by the local fishing boats. The operation was not an easy one, and we may suspect that everyone was anxious about the state of the course when the record attempts were made.
It is also likely that the new pilot, Kaye Don, was at first not experienced enough in handling the boat, though he was a most courageous man. One of the difficult arts in handling high speed boats of this type is getting them into what is known as "on the step"; that is, of making them skim effectively and quickly as the speed rises. It was most important that this should be done in the case of Miss England II, for her exhausts were cooled by water driven in by the speed of the boat; and if the speed was too low insufficient cold water entered to prevent the exhaust manifolds burning out. On two occasions this happened. There were various other troubles; but before long the world's water speed record was raised to 103.5 m.p.h.
The adventurous career continued. No speedboat had so full and exciting a life as Miss England II. She was now shipped to Italy, and on Lake Garda she raised her own record yet further to 110.2 miles an hour. She was proving what she was capable of.
Her career up to this time had consisted of successful record-breaking attempts. These entail running over a straight measured mile under the most ideal conditions that can be achieved and making the biggest speed of which the boat is capable. But we have already seen in our story of speedboats that they may spend part of their time racing round courses against one another. This requires several abilities in the boat and a kind of skill in the pilot not needed when rushing flat-out over a measured mile. Firstly, the boat must be able to take corners, or round the marks in the course, not merely safely but as quickly as possible. She must be manoeuvrable and be most carefully handled by the pilot under these conditions. Secondly, the courses over which speedboats race against one another may not offer the ideal, glassy-smooth, lake-water conditions necessary when breaking a world's record. Even speedboats have to become, under these conditions, to some small extent, seaworthy.
In September 1931 the Harmsworth, or British International Trophy, was once more contested, and the brave little Miss England II and her intrepid pilot, Kaye Don, faced the competition of Gar Wood in Miss America IX and Gar Wood's brother, George Wood, in Miss America VIII. It was a series of races that led to considerable bitterness on account of what many people regarded as the foul play of Gar Wood, though it is actually not impossible to justify what he did.
It was soon clear that Miss England II, though smaller and developing less power than Miss America IX, was much the faster boat. When the three boats met at Detroit for the first race Miss England II jumped immediately into the lead. Within a few seconds she was well ahead of her rivals, and before long the two American boats were trailing far astern. By the end of the fourth lap Kaye Don had driven his boat into a lead of half the course, and he won the race at a speed of 89. 13 m.p.h.
It was evident that Miss England II was far the best boat of the three, and Gar Wood, aware that barring accidents to the white English boat he could not hope to win the Trophy, devised a trick that led to her disqualification in the second race. Before the starting gun was fired Gar Wood rushed Miss America IX over the starting line. He was promptly disqualified. But the ruse succeeded in making Kaye Don believe that he had missed hearing the gun; so he sped after the American boat, and like her was over the line, and therefore disqualified some seconds before the gun was fired. Then the way was clear for the only boat not disqualified, the Miss America VIII, to complete the course and claim the race.
Meanwhile Kaye Don, not understanding that both he and Gar Wood were out of the race, was racing after his rival, who having started just before him was now ahead. In his endeavour to catch up he took a tight turn at the first mark and rashly ran straight through the wash of Miss America IX. The result was that Miss England II capsized and sank. Kaye Don and his two mechanics were saved, and the boat was later salvaged for the second time in her life. The fiasco of a race was declared void, and there was a popular outcry against the trickery of Commodore Wood. However, many people were prepared to claim that just as in a sailing race one helmsman may try to force another to take his yacht over the line before the gun, so it was not unfair for Gar Wood to do all in his power to mislead the Englishman and egg him on to disqualification. There was something to be said for the argument. But it was an unsatisfactory way of trying to beat a clearly better boat, and Miss England II was the heroine of the story.
Gar Wood did not regard himself as defeated yet, and in February 1932 he raised the world's water speed record at Miami, Florida, 111.65 m.p.h.., in Miss America IX. Now, however, a new Miss England was being built. Miss England III was again sponsored by Lord Wakefield, and it was said that she cost him more than £50,000, which indicates how far beyond the reach of most people the owning of record-breaking hydroplanes had become. She was built by the well-known firm of Thornycroft and was powered by two Rolls-Royce engines totalling almost 4,000 b.h.p. Five months after Gar Wood had set up his world's speed record at Miami, Kaye Don at the wheel of Miss England III established a new record of 119.75 m.p.h. on Loch Lomond. In the furious competition between the Miss Englands and Miss Americas the former were once more on top. Two other records were beaten that morning. One run was completed at a speed of 120.5 m.p.h., and Miss England III thereby became the first boat to travel at two miles per minute. At the same time she was the first boat to reach 100 knots. Miss England III had proved herself; though her record was to stand only a few months.
But later in the same year there was disappointment in the U.S.A. Miss America X now had installed more than half as much power again as the British boat, but Gar Wood can have felt none too confident as he faced the new British boat, which he knew was even better than the one that had proved so much superior to his own in the earlier races for the Harmsworth Trophy. But fortune was against Miss England III. Throttle and cooling trouble put one engine out of action in the last lap of the first race. Again in the second race an engine stopped, after a fierce burst of flame had burned the pilot, and though Kaye Don valiantly kept the boat moving the mechanic was unable to rectify the trouble, and soon the second engine gave way too.
Miss England III was fairly beaten, and in the same month Gar Wood raised the world's water speed record to 124.86 m.p.h., which was five miles an hour better than Miss England III's speed of only two months earlier. So for the third time in a single year a new water speed record was established.
So ended the years of competition between the Miss Englands and the Miss Americas. Since 1928 the competition had been intense, and the tempo increased in the final year which brought defeat to the British boat. In the course of the five years fresh records had been established seven times. Man had for the first time travelled at 100 m. p. h. over the water, and later for the first time at 100 knots. It was felt that the last record of Miss America X would not easily be beaten. And, indeed, it was not so. Five years were to pass before it was raised-this time by a British boat.
But the years were not without distinction. When the first Miss England had appeared to challenge Miss America VIII it had been shown that a small boat might be as fast as a larger one of higher power. There now appeared from a British designer and builder another tiny craft, Miss Britain III. Built and designed by Hubert Scott-Paine, the builder of the first Miss England, she was just over 24 ft. in length and she was driven by a single Napier Lion engine of 1,375 horse-power. She was a lovely little craft, constructed of aluminium alloy, with the engine in a streamlined cowling aft which also contained two cockpits for the crew. By this time Miss America X had had her power increased to the tremendous figure of 7,800 horse-power, or more than five-and-a-half times that of Miss Britain III. Nevertheless, in 1933, racing against the big American at Detroit for the Harmsworth Trophy, her speed proved to be only slightly lower, and she was much admired for the beauty and skill of her design. In England she set up a record for speed over salt water by reaching more than 100 m.p.h. on Southampton Water, and in the following year she achieved 110.11 m.p.h. at Genoa. She was a great little boat which pointed the new way for fast craft. The future lay with boats like her, not with the giant Miss Americas.
(Reprinted from Famous Speedboats of the World by D. Phillips-Birt [St. Martins Press, 1959], Ch.5)
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