Powerboat Racing on the Chesapeake [1995] (excerpts)

Powerboat regattas, or races, in the Chesapeake Bay region (which includes Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, and North Carolina) can be traced back at least as far as 1906, when a regatta on the Miles River in St. Michaels was documented. Apparently, those races were sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club of Easton and included several types of power and sailing craft. An account of one such regatta in August of 1906 referred to racing canoes measuring 29 and 36 feet and 26 and 36 feet to load waterline, and also to motor races on an eight-mile course. The winner of the latter was Fairbanks of Baltimore, driven by Captain Thomas Lasell, with a time of 39 minutes.

Years ago there were as many as ten races a year in the Chesapeake Bay area. In those early days of racing, and up until the late 1950s, it was customary, and to some a ritual, for Chesapeake Bay yacht clubs to schedule cruises each weekend to an area regatta. During each of the regional regattas, all of the Bay clubs would form huge "spectator fleets" and plan a complete weekend of festivities around the racing activities. Local merchants would have special "Racing Dollar Days" in their stores at the race site. Other groups and organizations would schedule bike races, dances, antique boat shows, water-skiing exhibitions, concerts, and marine-related arts-and-crafts exhibits to coincide with the powerboat races.

It should be noted that in these early regattas all forms of craft were entered in the races, including yachts and workboats, but these vessels were not part of the official sanctioned regatta. The sanctioning body in those days was the Maryland Power Boat Association of New York City, which was a member of the APBA. Why the Maryland Power Boat Association was located in New York City has always been somewhat of a mystery, but one theory is that it was simply an incorporated body which could obtain a quick official sanction from APBA.

Steve Sharp of Havre de Grace, Maryland, who began as a powerboat racing competitor, advanced to become an APBA official, and has come to be an interested fan, gave us a brief look at the everchanging aspects of the sport in the Chesapeake Bay region in his "Glance into the Past" article for a 1984 issue of the HiPointer newsletter. It is reprinted here with his permission.

    

Thirty years ago our sponsors were all yacht clubs. (Maryland YC, Cambridge YC, Miles River YC, Bush River YC etc.). Each club was responsible for providing a clock, buoys, and necessary equipment. We never knew from week to week what sort of clock would be there. And buoys-they ran from cork floats to innertubes with a basket on top! And the President's Cup-50 gallon oil drums! If you hit one of those babies, you lost all. The inboards and outboards each had a set of ancient stop watches—always in need of repair. Al Bauer was usually our referee and announcer. He brought his own flags. We did require an ambulance and fire equipment, but the safety boat left something to be desired. We were lucky if we had a Stoke's basket. Our safety helmets were like a pot with leather ear flaps and a strap. Our safety jackets were big bulky things stuffed with kapok.

If a race was blown out on Saturday, we could run Saturday and Sunday programs on Sunday. Talk about action-those crazy PODS were something else-racing runabouts, 48 runabouts, 91s, 225s, 266s. It was not unusual to have thirty 136s and thirty 280s entered at a race. [A POD is a Pacific One Design, which was popular in the forties. Similar to a runabout pleasure boat, it was a 14-foot single step hydroplane that used a stock Ford 60 engine. The PODS were very heavy since they were constructed of one-half-inch mahogany with an oak frame.]

Essex [MD] continues to have its Governor's Cup Regatta each year at Cox's Point on the Back River. The race was initially sponsored by the Stoney Creek Racing Association and later by the Baltimore Recreation and Parks Board. It became known officially as the Governor's Cup Regatta in 1972. The Essex course is a popular course among the drivers since it is regarded as one of the fastest racecourses in the East.

Most of the other Baltimore regattas were run from the 1940s through the mid-1950s. The Maryland Yacht Club sponsored its regatta on the Patapsco River, and the course ran under the Hanover Street Bridge. The Baltimore Yacht Club held its regatta on the Middle River from about 1947 until 1952. Another popular Baltimore regatta was the Middle River Regatta sponsored by the Wilson Point Men's Club from about 1946 until 1953. The boats were launched at the Glenn L. Martin plant across the river from the club, and the course included the kilo trials for straightaway records. The Stoney Creek Boat Club sponsored a race in the 1950s on Curtis Creek near the U.S. Coast Guard Station.

Racing events spread throughout the Chesapeake region in the middle decades of the century. In Havre de Grace races were conducted-with interruptions-from 1930 to 1990, sponsored first by the Havre de Grace Yacht Club, later by the Lions Club, and finally by the Susquehanna Optimist Club. The Miles River Yacht Club sponsored the St. Michaels powerboat regatta for many years until about 1971. The Solomons Island regatta was run on the Patuxent River until the late fifties, and the Chestertown regatta was run on the Chester River until the mid-sixties. Colonial Beach, Hopewell, and Urbanna, Virginia, also sponsored regattas in the 1950s.

Some areas were able to maintain racing enthusiasm into the eighties and nineties. The Kent Island Yacht Club sponsored the Chesapeake Bay Regatta, which was held on Hog Bay, until 1986. In 1990 the Kent Narrows Racing Association was formed and revived the race as the Kent Narrows Powerboat Challenge which also included the offshore class boats. In Hampton, Virginia, an annual powerboat regatta known as the Hampton Cup Regatta is still being run. It has become one of the major racing events on the East Coast in recent years.

The President's Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C., was one of the most hated events for the drivers. The race was run on the Potomac River at Hains Point and had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous courses in the United States. That certainly proved true in 1966 when on June 20 the phrase "Black Sunday" in relation to racing was coined. Rex Manchester, Don Wilson, and Ron Musson were all killed on the same day during the President's Cup Regatta.

The President's Cup was originally chartered by President Coolidge in 1926, and the first race was won by a gentleman named M. Gordon Hammersley in a $60,000 duraluminum craft, Cigarette IV. Hammersley defeated five other speedboats by averaging 52.2 miles per hour for the forty-five miles of the race. The President's Cup Regatta format changed in the mid-seventies when the unlimited hydroplanes were replaced by the Grand Prix International class. Tom "Slick" Baker of Chester, Maryland, won the 1979 President's Cup driving the Deepwater Special out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Granddaddy of Them All: The Cambridge Regatta

To discuss the history and tradition of powerboat racing in the Chesapeake Bay region, you have to start in Cambridge, Maryland, with the granddaddy of all area powerboat regattas. There were many unofficial races on Chesapeake Bay tributaries before June 20, 1911, but on that date, the first official, sanctioned powerboat regatta was held in Cambridge. Planning actually began in February of that year, when Cambridge Yacht Club Commodore Alfred I. DuPont named Hazelton A. Joyce, Jr., as temporary chairman of the first regatta.

A front-page story appeared in the local newspaper on June 23 with the headline, "Yacht Regatta Great Success." The writer continued:

    

"The speed boat races were highly interesting, especially the performance of the Sand Burr II, a hydroplane that was sent from Atlantic City and which arrived early Tuesday morning by express. The boat, which is only 18 feet long, is equipped with a 125 horsepower engine, which drives 35 honest miles an hour. She showed the local craft what speed really is and when she slid up the river, sitting only upon her propeller, with the entire forward part of the keel out of the water, the natives wondered."

Supposedly, it all started in 1909, when industrialist Alfred I. DuPont visited Cambridge aboard his yacht Alicia and befriended William L. Barrett and his son, Lou. DuPont was intrigued by Barrett's speedboat, which was powered by a three-horsepower, single-cylinder engine. He organized the Cambridge Yacht Club in February 1911 for the sole purpose of staging an official regatta. DuPont was no stranger to the area: He owned an estate in the Neck District and had donated prizes for a series of boat races in Cambridge for a number of years. Three days after the first official regatta was held, with rumor having it that DuPont donated $1,000 in prize money, the CYC Board of Governors decided to buy instead of lease a clubhouse.

A second regatta was held in July of that year. The front page of the Democrat and News reported,

    

The Cambridge Yacht Club is completing arrangements for a notable regatta to be held at Cambridge on Wednesday, July 19, 1911, when hundreds of yachts of the seven clubs of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association will stop at Cambridge on their annual cruise. The clubs represented will be: The Capital Club of Washington, DC; The Baltimore Yacht Club, The Baltimore Motor Yacht Club, and the Corinthian Yacht Club of Baltimore; The Hampton Roads Yacht Club of Norfolk, Virginia; The Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club of Easton, and the Cambridge Yacht Club.

Several hundred boats and several thousand visitors are expected. A special feature of the day will be a free-for-all motor boat race for the championship of the East, in which the fastest boats of several states will compete. One of the starters will be the Pee Vee Ho, owned by P. V. Hoy of Norristown, Pennsylvania. This boat is an exact duplicate of the Sand Burr II that created so much interest at Cambridge at the June regatta and which will race at Peoria, Illinois, next week for the National Motor Boat Championship. The Pee Vee Ho on the 4th of July established a world's record for speed for one mile made in competition by a 20 ft. boat. The Pee Vee Ho will give special exhibitions of her marvelous speed. The race will be an exciting and interesting event and worth going miles to see.

One of the fastest early race boats from Cambridge was Tech Jr., which was raced by T. Coleman DuPont. This boat set a world record in 1912 with an average speed of 58.26 miles per hour.

On July 6, 1938, a new Cambridge Yacht Club was officially opened on the north side of the yacht basin-its current location on Water Street. Funds for the building were donated by Mr. and Mrs. Francis DuPont of Wilmington, Delaware, and Horn's Point (Cambridge). Mr. DuPont presented the keys of the new CYC to Commodore Canton M. Slagle on July 4, 1938, for the club's grand opening. Emmett Andrews was regatta chairman that year, and he proudly announced on July 22: "Special attention will be given the speediest boat entered. In this race Earle W. Orem, Jr., will enter the Seagar. Mr. Orem's boat is capable of making a speed of a mile a minute and is said to exceed any boat in local waters."

In 1939 the regatta had its familiar winners such as Julius Schloss, Earl Orem, Dr. Percy Payne, Ogle Cannon, and Lou Barrett (son of William L. Barrett), but some new attractions were also a part of the festivities. The USS Hamilton, a Navy destroyer, and the Coast Guard vessel Calypso anchored for the races. Maryland's Governor O'Conor was aboard the Navy ship. WFBR radio broadcast the races live for the first time.

By 1940 the media had taken an interest in the sport, and almost all Chesapeake Bay regattas received coverage from the Baltimore News American and Sun newspapers. The Sun even used an airplane for the 1940 races to take special aerial photographs, which appeared in the paper's July 6, 1940, edition.

In 1948 the Cambridge Yacht Club wanted to take the regatta a step further. They announced, "A long-cherished ambition of the Cambridge Yacht Club has been to promote a Gold Cup Race. We have the facilities, including a mile and a half grandstand, ‘the Choptank River Bridge.’ This year come August 14th we will have a 'Gold Cup Race,' with Guy Lombardo playing host to competition in the gold cup field."

Often times today, we hear people speak about how the Gold Cup Regatta was held in Cambridge in the forties, but this is not true. The Gold Cup Regatta, first run on the Hudson River in 1904, is strictly for unlimited hydroplanes and has never been held in the Chesapeake Bay region. Nevertheless, because the unlimited hydros were added to the 1948 Cambridge regatta, it was called a "Gold Cup" race.

Guy Lombardo did indeed bring his Tempo VI to Cambridge for the first so-called Gold Cup (unlimited) race ever held on the Choptank River. The famed orchestra leader had to settle for a second place in the race, however, as Harry Lynn of St. Louis, Missouri, took top prize in his boat La Ha La. That year Governor Lane presented the trophies to the winners, who included Ed Thompson of Dundalk in his T.M. Special. Carrying on a family tradition, in 1994 Ronnie Thompson, Ed's son, entered his T.M. Special in the Cambridge Classic.

The Gold Cup races continued to be held through 1953, but, in fact, few of the entries were true unlimited hydroplanes. Most were either 266-cubic-inch hydros or 7-liter boats. Lynn won two of the races in 1948 and 1949; Joe Van Blerck of Freeport, Long Island, captured the 1950 title; Vincent Schwing of Baltimore won in 1951; Eddie Alexanderwitz of Baltimore in his Wee Tommy Tucker beat out Bob Dawson of Baltimore in 1952; and Frank Foulke of Essex won the last of the Gold Cup trophies in 1953 with his Sagana XIII. In 1954 the Gold Cup race was changed to a free-for-all challenge in which any registered boat could enter, but there was no handicap. Bill Ritner in a boat named Wa Wa beat Eddie Alexanderwitz who came in second.

The Cambridge regatta has had its ups and downs and its joys and sorrows since that first June event of 1911. More than twenty national championships have been settled in Cambridge, and more than twenty-five approved world speed records, some dating back to 1940, have fallen on the Choptank. The regatta has also served as a stepping-stone for many competitors to further their own racing careers. While still a teenager, the late Dean Chenoweth, driver of the famed unlimited hydroplane Miss Budweiser, captured a national title in Cambridge in 1956. Other unlimited competitors, such as Bill Schumacher, Larry Lauterbach, Wheeler Baker, and Tom D'Eath raced in the Chesapeake Bay region before graduating to unlimited hydroplanes. [Don Dunnington, who piloted Nitrogen in 1959 on the unlimited circuit, also raced here].

(Reprinted from Powerboat Racing on the Chesapeake by William W. Mowbray [Tidewater Publishers, 1995])