We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
If the legendary Gar Wood of Unlimited hydroplane fame were alive and racing today, he would probably be an Offshore competitor. Indeed, Wood's fleet of ten MISS AMERICA hydroplanes, which held sway in Unlimited competition from 1920 to 1933, had a closer kinship with today's Offshore racing craft than a modern Thunderboat.
Both Unlimiteds and Offshores can be traced to a common origin. These sublimely engineered machines are the fastest and most spectacular vessels afloat--constantly re-defining the state of the art on the cutting edge of technology.
The Unlimited/Offshore genesis began around 1910. That's when the first "step" hydroplanes appeared. The "fast-steppers" skimmed over the surface of the water with a notch or "step" located approximately amidships on the underside of the hull.
The "step" allowed the boat to plane over the water with much less friction than was possible with the old-style displacement craft. (The latter subscribed to the only known theory of water speed at the time--plowing through the water rather than planing over it.)
The "step" hydros were often hard to handle, and they rode like bucking broncos. But they were fast. The "steppers" could run in some of the roughest water imaginable--the ocean, large rivers, or large lakes.
Garfield Arthur Wood and Christopher Columbus Smith probably did more to refine the "step" hydroplane concept than anyone else. Wood and Smith collaborated on MISS DETROIT III in 1917. They were the first to try a lightweight aircraft engine adapted for marine use in a race boat. The engine in question was a 1650 cubic inch V-4 Curtiss power plant.
MISS DETROIT III achieved victory in the 1917 Gold Cup on the Mississippi River at Minneapolis. Three years later, Wood's MISS AMERICA I set a long-standing Gold Cup heat record of 70.412 miles per hour on a 5-mile course.
From 1910 to 1936, the "step" hydroplane reigned supreme as the undisputed king of big-time power boat racing. This was especially true in the area of Harmsworth competition.
The British International ("Harmsworth") Trophy was the bronze plaque traditionally emblematic of the speedboat championship of the world. The Harmsworth was technically a race between nations rather than individual boats. During the years between the World Wars, the two countries that usually battled for possession of the Harmsworth Trophy were the United States and Great Britain.
MISS AMERICA I journeyed to England in 1920 and won the race hands down, powered by a pair of Smith-Liberty engines. Wood found that by adding a second engine--and by lengthening the hull accordingly--he had the fastest boat in the world.
By the time MISS AMERICA X came along in 1932, Wood had upped the ante to four giant engines. These were V-12 packards, rated at 7600 horsepower, installed two-by-two in a mahogany hull, 38 feet in length. MISS AMERICA X had great difficulty in cornering, but she was the first to average over 124 mph on a mile straightaway course.
The Gar Wood team was never beaten in Harmsworth competition, and retired undefeated after 1933. Their strongest challenger was MISS ENGLAND II in 1931. With Kaye Don driving, MISS ENGLAND II lost the race to MISS AMERICA VIII but posted the fastest lap ever turned on a closed course at 93 miles per hour, a record that would stand unchallenged until 1949.
The late 1930s witnessed the birth of a radically different concept in competitive power boat designs--the three-point hydroplane, which would forever alter the course of boat racing history.
The first successful three-pointers were the product of the famed Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey. The father and son design team of Adolph and Arno Apel introduced a craft named MISS MANTEO II at the 1936 President's Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C. A 225 Cubic Inch Class competitor, MISS MANTEO II dominated the 225 Class action at Washington and posted speeds that were embarrassingly close to those turned by the larger and more powerful Gold Cup Class hydros.
What the Apels did with MISS MANTEO II was to take the "step," split it in two, and put them on the opposite sides of the hull. These pontoon-like running surfaces were called sponsons. This greatly increased the footprint of the boat. MISS MANTEO II was wider and less prone to tipping over than a "step" hydroiplane.
More importantly, from the standpoint of speed, a three-point hydroplane trapped air in the "tunnel" between the sponsons and had a great deal more "lift" than had been possible with the "step" boats. Even though the propeller was completely submerged in those early days, there was still a lot less friction with the water. And the three-pointer could also corner a lot better and faster.
The decade of the 1940s dawned with the Apels' three-point concept solidly ensconced. More and more owners of Gold Cup and Unlimited Class equipment invested in hulls with sponsons on them. The time-honored "step" hydroplane would soon go the way of the biplane and the Model-T Ford.
The three-point revolution of the late 1930s effectively split big-time power boating into two separate categories. The three-pointers metamorphosed into the prop-riding Thunderboats of today, while the "fast-steppers" evolved into the deep-vee Offshore racers that rose to prominence in the 1950s.
If the three-pointers had one handicap, it was there inability to perform in rough ocean-like chop. They were too lightly constructed and too delicately balanced. Truth to tell, the sponson boats could do their spectacular thing only on small protected bodies of water.
In the years after World War II, such popular rough water regattas as the Harwood's Trophy Marathon Around Manhattan Island and the Fite Memorial Marathon at Ocean City, New Jersey, were largely ignored by the Unlimited fraternity. Race sites such as Lake St. Clair in Michigan, the scene of MISS AMERICA X's 1933 Harmsworth victory over MISS BRITAIN III, were totally unacceptable for three-point boats, which lacked the stability and durability to run safely in that kind of water.
But the "step" hydros--and their successors, the Offshore deep-vees--had no such problem.
The typical pre-war "step" hydroplane had a slight-vee underbody. By increasing the deadrise angle to 16 degrees or greater, this enabled the deep-vee hull to slice through rather than bounce over the surface.
Offshore racing, in the 1940s and early 1950s, was largely an "underground" sport. Hardly anyone paid much attention to it.
Offshore, as it is known today, began around 1957 as the brain child of Sherman "Red" Crise, organizer of the famed Miami-to-Nassau Power Boat Regatta. Crise almost singlehandedly presided over the sport's astonishing re-birth.
The first Miami-to-Nassau winner was the legendary Sam Griffith, who covered 360 miles in 9 hours and 20 minutes. Griffith drove in 6-foot seas at 40 miles per hour.
By 1963, Offshore racing had become wildly popular. The participants petioned the American Power Boat Association for their own administrative division, just as the Unlimited people had done in 1957.
Offshore powerboat competition is a challenge of the open sea. Unlike Unlimited racing, Offshore is primarily endurance racing, rather than a series of short sprints.
Things can--and often do--get pretty hairy in an Offshore race. One hard bounce broke both ankles of a racer at an event in which his craft still finished! Another competitor's boat struck a helicopter during one wild leap! A driver from Texas carried a six-gun to ward off shark attacks in the event that his rig would break down and be adrift on the high seas! Italian racer Ron Bonelli finished a race semi-conscious, was removed from his craft on a stretcher, but won!
Many of the new developments in marine machinery have been tested and demonstrated first in Offshore racing. Fibreglass hulls--tougher yet lighter than wood--have made faster boats possible.
The modern out-drive form of propulsion--which actually steers the boat more effectively than a rudder--has had a tremendous effect on the pleasure craft industry. Outdrive propulsion was first publicly demonstrated in the 1959 Miami-to-Nassau race, and outdrives have figured prominently in almost every race since.
Likewise, high-speed diesel-powered boats were pioneered in ocean racing, which led to a new speed record of better than 60 miles per hour for boats of this type.
In recent years, the catamaran configuration has risen to prominence in the Offshore ranks. The double-hulled catamaran is essentially a deep-vee cut in two with a center section added.
The early catamarans were usually reserved for duty on calmer race courses. For years, many teams would bring two hulls to a race--a catamaran and a deep-vee. If the water was calm on race day morning, the catamaran would be used; if the water was rough, the crew would send out the deep-vee. The catamarans of today are highly refined. The modern double-hulled boats can run competitively in almost any kind of water.
One of the biggest names in Offshore history was the late great Don Aronow, who was to ocean racing what Bill Muncey was to Unlimited hydroplane competition. Aronow, a former chief lifeguard at Coney Island, was bored with retirement after fantastic financial success in real estate before he was 35 years old. He turned to the building and racing of Offshore power boats as a new challenge and achieved instant success with his first boat, THE FORMULA.
Aronow subsequently built and drove many champion hulls, bearing the names DONZI, MAGNUM, and the dominant CIGARETTE RACING TEAM. The original 35-foot CIGARETTE was reputed to be the first craft big enough to have a good-sized bunk and galley down below, but still look like a race boat and go fast. (The accomodations were required by international Offshore rules at the time.)
In 1969, the year of his retirement from racing, Aronow received the Union of International Motorboating's Gold Medal, which was personally presented to Don by the "Gray Fox" Gar Wood. Wood had received the same award in 1928.