"Sure I'll Try Again" Gar Wood
By J. Lee Barrett
Secretary, Yachtsmen's Association of America
Behind the headlines that tell of the international rivalry in speedboating is a long tale of friendly, daring sportsmanship.
"What kind of a man is Gar Wood? How does he win his races? How does he keep a crew of men so loyally together to risk their lives in this sport? Why does he spend so much money just for a thrill?"
People have asked me these questions many times. Half of them I could never answer. I had known the man for a number of years, had written much about his racing epics. His road nature had sent something racing through my blood to make me wonder at him.
A technician, an amateur astronomer, an inventor, a tinkerer, a sportsman, all bundled up in one flaming personality that hurled him through a tremendous life at a burning clip . . . a man who possibly rode with Death beside him more often than any other man in the world, the first man to drive a boat over fifty miles an hour, the first man to go over one hundred miles an hour in a boat, the first and only man ever to drive a boat over 125 miles an hour.
I knew he was a fighter. No man could pull himself to the top of the heap without a scrapping heart. No man could win the trophies he has won without having something that smiles at the verve and piquant tang of some of the greatest races in the world. He threw himself into danger every time he stepped into one of his frightened hydroplanes.
"What kind of a man is Gar Wood?"
That and the other questions I wanted answered. No longer than it takes to flip a coin I was dashing over the hogback bridge at Grayhaven in Detroit to see the Grey Fox, as they so often called him. I swept down the road to the tip of an arm of land that jutted out into Lake St. Clair. I tumbled out of the car and a gaunt, medieval castle loomed before me, flinging its tower up over a breeze-lashed lake as though it were the lone sentinel of America's speedboat supremacy. Its front stared across the water to the shores of Canada a mile away. It seemed to be flinging an eternal challenge to Canada and England.
I caught the figure of Gar Wood topped by a brilliant mop of white hair. He came toward me with a dashing, cavalier smile, a warm hand and an infectious flick of an eyelash. His buoyant and boyish manner, the print of youth in the lines of his face whipped apple-red by the winds, the cold fire of the north woods, and the smashing water spray that stings like hailstones when the throttles of his Miss America are open on the straightaways, all struck me deeply.
We sat down and talked of boats and trophies. His conversation crackled along like forest fire.
"I don't know why I'm in this racing game," he said finally. "It seems like suicide sometimes. And then the cost is so tremendous. There's a trophy," pointing to a small silver trophy on the mantelpiece, "that cost a small fortune before I won it."
He recalled his bitterest battles with his best smile. He loves the sting of smashing spray, the flames of the exhaust stacks in front of him. A little mistake may mean death but he takes the chance. He loves the sport and has often spent his last dollar to buy a boat. His narrow escapes would fill a volume. He hit a piece of driftwood once on the St. Clair River while going at high speed. His boat leaped from him, sent him sailing into the air. He was cut with flying pieces of wood, knocked dizzy, and saved from drowning by three girls in a rowboat. Seventeen times he's been hurled out of his boats only to climb back into them again.
Wood spends his winters hunting in the north and at his Miami home on the Indian River, Florida, racing his boats, deep-sea fishing, yachting, and peering through his telescopes in his astronomical observatory there.
His interests are manifold . . . pipe organs, oil burners, television, telescopes, hydraulic hoists, aeroplanes, speedboats, photographic cameras and lenses, even turtles and domestic turkeys. His brain is packed full of schemes and inventions. I went away from his castle that night stricken almost speechless at his tremendous modesty, his fund of technical knowledge, his simple, homespun humor, and rich manner. It was for me an evening of supreme paradoxes. I did not go, though, before he told me the most dramatic, the most scintillant sea story I had ever heard.
It was his first experiment with the 1,000 horsepower aviation engines which he got from the Packard Motor Car Company after the war. The boys at his Algonac plant built a hull for two of these engines while he was away. Wood wanted to see how much power they had.
When he came back to Algonac, he and Orlin Johnson, his mechanic, took the boat out on the St. Clair River one day. It was just fifteen days before Gar's first race with Betty Carstairs, the British challenger, who was that very morning tuning up her Napier engines in the Estelle III on the Detroit River forty miles away.
The Miss America VI, Wood's new boat, gave Wood and Johnson the fastest boat ride they had ever had in their lives. The slightest touch of the throttle and the whole quivering thing leaped into life. They were going so fast that their eyeballs were flattened out of shape by the force of the wind. They couldn't see very clearly. It was the first time in his life that Wood feared to give Johnson the signal for open throttle.
They came back to the boathouse and strung the boat up in the well. Wood thought about the thing all night. He decided before he got out of bed in the morning that they were going to run the boat "wide open" that day. He woke early, got Johnson out of bed and said to him:
"Orlin, what do you say we run her open today." The St. Clair River was smooth as glass.
"Well," Johnson said, "If you can hang on to the wheel I can certainly hang on to the throttles."
They went to the boathouse, stuffed their ears with cotton to protect their eardrums from the terrific roar of the engines, put heavy goggles on to save their sight and their eyeballs, smeared their faces with heavy grease to protect their skin from the flames shooting out of the exhaust stacks ahead of them, strapped on their lifebelts, and jumped into the cockpit.
They almost went to their death.
Johnson started the engines, touched the throttle, and as straight as an arrow the boat flew like a living thing up the St. Clair River. Wood didn't know how fast they were going, but he gave Johnson the signal for open throttle. Johnson responded. Bedlam broke loose. The flesh on their bodies was being torn from their bones. At least, that's how it seemed. The whole thundering herd of two thousand horsepower was riding through Wood's head. The boat seemed to stand still while all the world was flying by them at tremendous speed. Wood swung his head around to the stern, just for a fleeting moment. He seemed to be at the base of a giant cataract with tons of water thundering down toward him. The thing defied description.
Wood took a quick look at Johnson. He never would have known him. Johnson's face was whipped out of shape by the wind. They went this way about a mile. An explosion! All Wood's sensations ceased. The first feeling he had was that of ice cold water. He didn't know if he were alive, unconscious, or dead. He opened his eyes. What he saw he couldn't explain very well but he knew he was in a swift whirlpool of flying sticks and gas tanks spinning in a deafening roar.
The water kept getting more like ice every minute and the water pressure became almost unendurable. He knew then that he was sinking to the bottom of the river. His hands were still on the steering wheel. He didn't know exactly about his arms or legs, whether he still had them with him or not. He kept hanging on to the wheel. The water pressure became so strong though and he wanted to breathe so badly that he had to take his hands from the wheel and try for the surface not knowing if he was in condition to swim. He took his hands off the wheel, shook his arms and legs a little and was almost sure they were still with him. He said afterward that his trip to the surface seemed the longest trip he ever took.
When Wood got to the surface of the water he saw gas tanks still spinning, the water covered with blood, his boat in millions of slivers. The blood told him that Orlin Johnson had been badly hurt or killed. The force of the water had swept Johnson out of the boat. The thought made Wood feel faint. He struggled to a floating gas tank and hung on. A boat came to the rescue and in a moment Johnson's face came to the surface covered with blood. His face had been wrenched out of shape and he was still bleeding from a deep gash across his throat.
Both Wood and Johnson were taken to the dock in a hurry. Johnson remained unconscious for more than an hour. The first thing he said when he opened his eyes was:
"Guess we'll have to build another boat."
The hull then floating around the St. Clair River in slivers had cost Wood $10,000. The engines that were buried somewhere at the bottom of the river had cost him $20,000. The teddy bears tied to the engines Wood's talismans had cost 40 cents.
Wood asked Johnson how fast they were going when the boat broke up. The last thing Johnson remembered on the tachometer was 2,400 revolutions a minute. With the thirty-six inch propeller arc it meant 105 miles an hour, but allowing seven miles an hour for slippage, Wood figured that his Miss America VI was traveling at the unheard of speed of 98 miles an hour. That was two years before Seagrave was smashed to his death in the Miss England II.
Wood sent Johnson to the hospital in Detroit where he lay in plaster casts on his broken ribs. Wood started to build a new boat, Miss America VII. He had fifteen days left to find the engines at the bottom of the river, overhaul them, and build a new hull. The boys at Algonac worked day and light. Bell-divers searched the bottom of the river. They found the engines in four days with the teddy bears still tied to them. The engines were sent to Colonel J. G. Vincent of the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit and with his whole staff of engineers he tore them down, overhauled, and cleaned them. Two days before the race with Betty Carstairs with the English boat, they were set into the new hull.
The world knows the history of that 1928 race, how Wood's new boat fled around the course while the other boats were cracking up and sinking, while Betty Carstairs took a ducking in the Detroit River after her beautiful boat cracked up. Wood had a lot more speed in his new boat than he used. After the race was won and the Harmsworth Trophy was safe for another year he didn't care whether he smashed the boat up or not. He took it out on the river and went ninety-three miles an hour in an official world record.
He didn't know then that a year later, while his Miss America VIII and his teddy bears were again leading the way to victory over Betty Carstairs, that those same engines in the Miss America VII would be at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea in Italy while Orlin Johnson and Gar's brother, Phil, were dazed from another disaster that almost sent them to their death. The Miss America VII was completely smashed to pieces but the lives of those two boys were saved. That's all that mattered to Gar.
Those were the same engines that gave Wood the thrill and the distinction of being the first man to travel over 100 miles an hour on the water, the same engines that broke the world's speed record three times on Indian River, Florida, the same engines that helped Wood defeat Kaye Don two years in succession, that drove Wood over the waters of the St. Clair River to another speed record of 125 miles an hour in his Miss America X. Those engines have history back of them.
It was 4:45 in the afternoon. The starting signal was to go off at 5:00. The Miss England II moved out from its moorings and was being towed across the Detroit River to the judges' stand amid a clamor of horns, sirens, whistles, and bombs.
Kaye Don and his two mechanics, all fitted out in white overalls, strapped in by steel-protecting life preservers, stood on the deck of their challenger stalwart healthy, fearless young Britons, ready to ride to their death for old Britannia, challenging the master for speedboat honors. The stout hearts of these young men made the chills run up and down a million backs, as they stood there moving slowly across the river to get ready for the start. It was momentous, stirring; gripping, testimony of Britain's ambition to be supreme on the water. That little island in the Atlantic was here today in a friendly, calm, but pretentious way to take the last speed honors that America felt slipping from its fist.
The ruddy glow of the river colored the faces of these boys in the light of an already departing sun. The lake had begun to flash the golden sparks of its western sunsets. The hearts of these young Britons must have pounded harder to see that great mass of humanity that America had poured out to do them homage. It was a sight they had never seen in England, a sight they may never see in this world again. The stage was set for a great spectacle.
Faded now into the misty scenes of our yesterdays is the drama of personalities, hulls, engines, and superchargers enacted on the Detroit River in September, 1931.
The duelling between Gar Wood and Kaye Don on those two days has touched the story of motorboating with an heroic glamor that glints no other page in the history of these events.
If the reader would understand these things he must be able to feel the fierce drama of it all, he must know that the nerves of two men were battle-fired, he must picture the tension . . . the danger . . . two engine-thonged boats jockeying for the start down the straightaway stretch toward the gun, the thundering roar of giant engines, five time-balls dropping one each minute from the starting line, the flag . . . the gun . . .wide open across the line and spinning into the first turn . . . one million people gasping. The reader must sense these things. To have seen them is to have seen great drama. The ghost of infinite engineering triumphs walks upon those scenes when the sun throws its red coin into the West and flings it into the sea.
What happened in the second heat?
Both boats shot across the starting line over five seconds ahead of the gun, Miss England 7:26 seconds, Miss America, 9:56 seconds. Both boats were disqualified. Both boats kept going. After Miss England completed the first turn and was being righted for the dash again up the other straightaway toward the upper turn she veered out of control, turned turtle, dove, and sank. Kaye Don and his two mechanics were thrown clear of the boat and were safe. Wood swept his Miss America IX on ahead not knowing what had happened behind him. He was flagged off the course at the judges' stand when he started his second lap. Miss America VIII (Wood had two boats in the race) unable to cope with the speed of the other two boats, went across the line after the gun was fired, completed the race and kept the trophy for America.
Under the international rules, when a boat goes over the line five seconds or less ahead of the starting gun it is penalized three times the number of seconds it is early in going over. If it goes across over five seconds ahead of the gun it is automatically disqualified. Both boats had gone across over five seconds too early. Both were disqualified. Miss England was therefore out of the race even before she flipped and sank.
Wood asked about the safety of Don and his men, and when told they were secure, he returned joyous to his home at Grayhaven . . . the fierce tension gone . . . happy as a boy that the great Harmsworth Trophy was again safe for another year.
The following winter he took his bulleting thunderbolt to the Indian River in Florida and, like the mad Martian that he seemed to be, flew that stick of polished wood up and down that slip of southern glass nine times until he broke the world's speed record with a new mark of 111.712 miles an hour.
Seven times he sent that boat across the measured mile before he actually broke the record. The eighth time he beat Don's world record by almost one-half mile. The rules demanded that any new record must be one-half nautical mile more than the former record. Wood had missed the official record by one-sixth of a tick of a watch. A watch ticks five times a second, Wood was travelling 162 feet a second. He was short of the record by .032 second or 5.2 feet.
The Yachtsmen's Association of America repudiated the record even though Wood had actually gone faster than any man had ever driven a boat. His average was 110.785. Don's record was 110.223. Wood shot his boat across the measured mile twice more. He averaged 111.712 miles an hour. That was the new world's record.
Wood came back to his Grayhaven castle in Detroit. It was in January, 1932. Five men were in his trophy room. An organ throbbed softly somewhere back in the vault. The Old Fox of the water had one knee on the floor and was tracing for four engineers the shape of a new boat on the carpet.
"It can't be done, Mr. Wood. You can't place those engines in tandem that way," one of the engineers said.
"Well, it's going to be done," Wood told him. "I need a boat just like that and we're going to build it. Take my engines out of the old boats and overhaul them. We'll be ready for that race in September."
"You may as well put a torpedo in a peanut or a bomb in an oyster shell," the engineer retorted. "The first trial in that boat will kill you."
"I'll take that chance," was Wood's only comment.
The four engineers got up, suddenly and walked out of that place into-the night. Wood went to bed.
One morning in June of 1932 I was at Wood's plant and at the door of his boatwell. Drama was hanging there. The greatest powerplant in the world stuck into a thin, quivering piece of Philippine mahogany. Four giant engines were ready to tear that stick of wood to pieces. Sixteen carburetors were ready to pour five gallons of gasoline into those engines every mile. Ninety-six spark plugs were waiting for the spark that would send them clicking and firing along the great ways sending out 3,744,000 sparks every thirty miles. The power of fifty Ford engines was here jammed into one hull. More than twice the power of the largest steam locomotive in America.
History was hanging there too. Two of these engines had been dug up from the bottom of the St. Clair River. The other two had been fished out of the Adriatic Sea, where his brother Phil Wood almost went to his death driving the Miss America VII. Wood's two talismans, his teddy bears, were still tied to them. Sixty-four horses strapped fast to a mahogany thunderbolt, ready to belch great amber torches that carried in their flames victory for America, for Algonac, for Gar Wood. Four engines set in tandem. The engineers said it couldn't be done. Gar Wood did it. He had drawn the figure of this speed ship six months before on the carpet of his castle.
The world did not know that Wood had built a new masterpiece. Around its brilliant mahogany hulk was thrown a magic carpet that held safely in its stomach America's power secret. And now, just when the June dawn was rolling fast out of the East, while the world and Algonac were asleep, eight people saw the new defender of the British International (Harmsworth) Trophy, Miss America X, slip out of its cradle for its first taste of water and charge like 6,400 steeds up the river.
It was epochal. That boat was writing the history of daring in the waters of that turquoise river. It came back fast with two mad Martians riding in its cockpit, was again strung up in the well, and we came away speechless at the drama of it all.
(Reprinted from The Rotarian, June 1934, pp.28-30, 58-63)
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