Speedboat Kings :
The French Challenge
1926 Harmsworth Trophy
In 1925 a challenge for the British International Trophy came from France. Henri Esdres, Paris department store owner, built the Excelsior-France, powered with two 16-cylinder engines. T. A. Clark, pilot, took it over the waters of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, for trial.
After the trial Esdres flashed a challenge to America.
I did not know if [Gar] Wood would answer the challenge. There had been no Harmsworth race in four years. Besides, one of his Miss Americas had just been destroyed on the banks of the Indian River, Florida. Driving at fifty-five miles an hour, Wood suddenly lost control of the boat. It swerved, ran into the bank, hit a tree. The boat was completely destroyed.
As secretary of the Yachtsmen's Association of America, I informed Wood of the French challenge, asking him if he would defend the Trophy.
Wood wired back to me at Detroit immediately:
"I will defend the Harmsworth Trophy against all challengers with a new Miss America."
He returned to Detroit, built Miss America III and IV, spent $25,000 for five Liberty engines. He was ready for the French challenge.
In a trial run on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, the French challenger caught fire and burned. It was a complete loss. It was too late for Esdres to build another boat. The Harmsworth race was cancelled.
Wood threatened to quit racing. He had built two boats at a tremendous cost, boats that might never be used.
But Monsieur Esdres was determined. He built another boat in France and challenged again the following spring, 1926. I relayed the challenge again to Wood, who was in Florida. Wood wired back:
"Will defend Harmsworth. Because of tremendous cost of time and money to build defending boats should require considerable forfeiture from France in case they don't show up. Suggest $5,000."
But in spite of Wood's word that he would defend the Harmsworth Trophy he did not get ready for the challenger. "I'm not building any more boats. If they come there'll be a race. You can count on that. We'll be there-with my old boats. I'm not spending any more time and money."
Wood didn't expect the French to go through with the challenge. For a time it looked like he was right. The summer was slipping by and no word reached America about the French boat. Finally, midway in August, a report came from France that the French boat had been crated and was ready for shipment. I kept Wood informed of developments.
Wood came to me one day, said, "Lee, see if you can't confirm that report, will you? I'm not getting ready to race until we find out if that French boat is actually on its way.
I communicated with our European correspondent. The shipment was confirmed, the French boat was on its way to America.
Only then-fifteen days before the day of the race-did Wood start to build a new boat, Miss America V. In two years he spent $50,000 getting ready for the challenge.
On the day when the race was scheduled to be run-Saturday, September 4-the French boat arrived and was put into the water at Detroit. A little group of Americans stood by, watching-Chris Smith, Gar Wood, William E. Metzger, A. A. Schantz, Charles E. Sorensen, Sheldon Clark, Dr. James Inches, W. D. Edenburn, Otto Barthel. These men knew boats. To them the Excelsior-France was similar to the American speedboats which Chris Smith had built fifteen years before. The water left the hull as it does in a displacement boat. The hull listed to one side as though it were out of balance. It was powered with two 16-cylinder engines.
The officials postponed the race until September 7 to get the French boat ready.
A few minutes before the race T. A. Clark, pilot of the ExcelsiorFrance, called Edenburn, chairman of the race committee. "I'm afraid I can't start," he said. "All my air bottles are gone."
"Air bottles?" said Edenburn. "What air bottles?"
"Why, to start my engines. I need compressed air to start my engines and all my bottles were used up in the trials, getting the boat ready."
Edenburn couldn't believe his ears. "They're all gone?" he asked.
They were all gone.
Edenburn said, "We'll postpone the race one hour. Can you get ready in an hour-if you get some help?"
Clark said he probably could.
Edenburn called Wood on the phone right away, asked him if he could loan the Frenchman a tank of compressed air to get his engines started.
Wood said he could.
That was against Harmsworth rules. But Wood waived the rules.
But after the hour postponement, no French boat was on the river. Edenburn called Wood again at Grayhaven. Over 250,000 spectators had crowded to the river banks and on countless boats to see the thundering hydroplane France had sent to America to lift the British International Trophy. "Come on out with your boats," Eddie told Wood. "Let's have a race anyway. The French can't get ready."
Wood refused. "I'm not going out there with no one to race," he said.
Edenburn sent a cruising speedboat over to the French headquarters with instructions to tow the challenger to the starting line. But even under tow the Excelsior-France refused to start.
The heat was canceled. The crowds went home. The French kept working on their boat, trying to get the engines to start.
The next day Wood himself took a hand. He agreed again with Edenburn to waive the rules and put his own men to work on the terrible invader. But Wood's men didn't know the humours of those French engines. Orlin Johnson brought in a compressed air tank. It ran dry. "Get another tank," Wood told his men.
They jumped into an automobile and scoured the city. They got one and brought it back. But the new tank wouldn't work. The French coupling did not fit the American tank. Wood's men went to work fashioning a new coupling but by the time it was finished there wasn't enough pressure in the tank to transfer the air.
Finally, Wood's men towed the Excelsior-France around the river until the engines started.
Clark kept his engines going desperately until Wood and the race officials got ready. Wood sent his three boats down the stretch and across the line with the gun. At that moment the Excelsior-France was roaring up the river-in the opposite direction. Clark swung his boat around finally and headed for the line. He went a half mile, kangarooing all the way. Then suddenly, he stopped. His engines died.
Wood's three boats raced on to complete the heat. The race was over-in one heat. Clark sat in the cockpit of his boat enraged at the pile of quiet machinery in his lap.
Ed. Chartier, writer for the Detroit News, told the story of the race:
"Tuesday, by gee cripe, she was one sad day for French peep. Detroit she was on Belle Isle by de tousands and she was go der waiting fur to see de pride from France come by the rivaire Detroit, on de sam rivaire what Monsieur Cadillac come long tam ago.
"Everyone she was held hees bret and zim, bang, boom come de boat of Mistaire Gar Wood. She go lak hell and after while long tam wen Mistaire Gar Wood was on hees way back to Algonac come de French boat. She was make everyone sad and many peep she had tear on de eye. Pasutte Trudeau, Nazaire Leblanc, Grosse Panse L' amoureaux, Damas Janisse, Georges Chatel she all had mak bet an La France. Every dam wan have to walk to hees home on Rivaire Canard over de bridge and out Jeff Ave. De peep on St. Joachim pareesh, with Ball Parent, Narcisse Neveus, and Judge Gendron she all hold sad re-union on de front porch on de church and she say: 'Vive Lamerique! By gee cripe, next tam France she send boat she send good wan'."
Before the race, when Wood's men were working on the French boat, Orlin Johnson and Jay Smith measured her propeller pitch. It was fifty inches. Wood used a thirty-six inch pitch on his boats. Johnson turned to Jay Smith and said, "I don't see how they can get any speed out of this boat with that much pitch. They can't turn enough revolutions with that propeller."
These men know before every race what kind of a boat they're up against. Before the 1921 race they saw the laminated wood on the Maple Leaf VII breaking up on the forward plane. They knew then that the English boat would never get around thirty miles of the course. It didn't. It was out on the second lap.
The only invading boat Wood's men ever had any respect for was the Miss England III driven by Kaye Don in 1932. It was modeled after Wood's Miss America IX.
Even Kaye Don's Miss England II, world record holder in 1931, was not regarded highly, although it won the first heat of the race at Detroit. But Wood saw before the race how difficult the boat was to handle. He felt that if he could crowd this English boat it could not last. Wood crowded Don in the second heat. Don turned over on the first lap.
In justice to the French, however, it can safely be said that the Excelsior-France was not representative of what French engineers and boat builders could do. The French had built formidable Harmsworth boats in the past. The Trefle-A-Quatre won the British International Trophy at Osborne Bay, England, in 1904 at an average speed of 26.63 miles an hour.
Another French boat, Desperjons II, won the first heat of the 1913 Harmsworth race at Osborne Bay, England.
M. Victor Despujols built a thirty-two foot hydroplane in 1914 powered with two 6-cylinder Despujols engines driving separate propellers. The boat was reputed to have traveled seventy-two miles an hour on the River Seine near Paris.
Jean Dupuy, French outboard driver, now holds the world Class X outboard record of 79.03 miles per hour made over a one-kilometer course on the Seine River at Paris, France.
The 1926 challenge for the Trophy cannot be called a challenge from France in the same sense that the subsequent English challengers represented England. It was more the effort of one individual, as Wood's defense of the Trophy had always been. The English have the backing of the British Air Ministry and, it may be said, the English engines represent England because they are government engines.
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.8)
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