A Ride With Joe Fellows [1921]

I have ridden in seasleds, I have been up in airplanes and I have done my share of joyriding on slippery asphalt boulevards at the rate of a mile a minute, but I really didn't know just what a real red-blooded thrill was until the afternoon last January when I went out to sea with Joe Fellows in his forty-mile-an-hour runabout and bucked the big ground-swells in Santa Barbara Channel.

When you're going forty miles an hour in an automobile on land, you're traveling considerably faster than the average traffic officer likes to give his official sanction to. But when you get out at sea and face off into the vague distances toward Japan in the face of a long westerly groundswell, and the man at the throttle begins to open her up until at last you are flying into the face of the oncoming seas at the speed of an express train, then you begin to realize that right up until that particular time you've been missing a whole lot of fun and real excitement in your young life. And you begin to appreciate right away why it is that men like Fellows and Farnum and Garbutt have been building boats year after year to win the Catalina ocean race and consider it the greatest sporting event on the calendar.

It was late in the afternoon when I drove up to the Fellows & Stewart boat yard at Wilmington with Mr. C. E. Smith, the manager of the San Pedro branch of the Standard Gas Engine Co. Mr. Smith and I had spent the earlier hours looking over the municipal fishing terminals and inspecting the tuna and sardine boats, but had found it slow work getting around to the various channels and waterways of Los Angeles Harbor in a land vehicle. Joe Fellows greeted us as we alighted from the car and after showing us a number of interesting yachts and work boats under construction at the yard, told us that if we had time to take a ride with him, he would show us more of the harbor in half an hour than we could see in an automobile all day long. And he was absolutely right about it. When we got into his boat and he opened up the throttle, we went speeding down the harbor so fast that we wondered if the channel was long enough for us to stop in before we came to the end of it. The only trouble was that our impression of the fishing fleet was rather fleeting because we went by it so fast that it looked like a continuous pontoon bridge.

By profession Joe Fellows is one of the oldest and most experienced boat-builders on the Pacific Coast, but by inclination he is the most ardent and enthusiastic speed boat racing man that ever turned over a flywheel. There's only one thing he'd rather do than build boats and that's to race 'em, and he never misses an opportunity to get into a contest. For years, he has had a boat in the Catalina ocean race, and the boat he built this spring, Fellows IV, is the fifth or sixth boat that he has produced for this contest, and each and every one of these boats he has designed, built and raced himself. His present boat, Fellows IV, is a 26-footer with a beam of 6 ft. 3 in. She is powered with a 225-h.p. Model GR Sterling engine, swinging a 20"x32" Hyde wheel, which gives her a speed light of 42 miles an hour. She was staunchly built so as to stand the buffetings of the waves in the Channel races, and a special effort was made by the designer to work out a model that would be seaworthy and dry when running at full speed through a choppy sea. How well he succeeded in this latter feature I had an opportunity that afternoon to find out.

As he whirled up and down the different waterways, it was quite apparent that Joe was a privileged character in those parts, because the passing tugs and passenger boats all saluted us and gave us plenty of seaway to get by. We ran past the fishing docks, the ship yards and out through the anchorage of the Los Angeles Yacht club where we saw what is undoubtedly one of the finest fleets of power boats and auxiliary yachts on the Coast. And then we rounded the end of the breakwater and put out to sea.

I had thought we were running at maximum speed when we came down the channel, but as we rounded the lighthouse, Joe stepped on something and then the little ship seemed to light right out from under us and the manner in which the State of California began to fade away in our rear made me begin to feel homesick for my native land. There wasn't much sea running, just a long, lazy groundswell, which was swinging along toward shore at the rate of four or five miles an hour, but five added to forty makes forty-five and that's the exact rate at which we began to jump over the tops of those swells. In fact, the tops were about the only things we hit, as our boat seemed to disdain entirely the troughs in between the seas. When we'd hit the crests, the spray flew outboard in every direction but no solid water came aboard, and in fact my clothes were just as dry after we'd been out half an hour as when we started.

Presently Joe spied the steamer "Avalon" off across the channel coming in from Catalina Island. The "Avalon" is a big boat and she makes about 16 knots and throws up a sea behind her like a torpedo destroyer. Joe circled around the boat until he was off about a quarter of a mile and then at full speed he headed directly for the big seas that were curling back astern of her. Mixed up with the groundswells of the channel, the wash behind the boat looked considerably like pictures I have seen of Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls, and we were heading into this maelstrom in a 26-foot open boat at the rate of forty miles an hour. Although I had the utmost faith in our skipper, I must admit to some trepidation when I saw the bow wave from the steamer looming up ahead of us three or four feet high and curling on its crest like a breaker on a shallow bar. I looked rather enviously at the people ensconced comfortably and safely on the deck of the steamer above us. But there wasn't much time for any invidious comparisons. All I know is that for about thirty seconds the Fellows IV was leaping and plunging like a broncho at the Pendleton Round-up and then suddenly we were out in the smooth water again and Smith and I were looking at each other, rather surprised we were still there. But as far as we could see, we hadn't even taken any spray aboard. We repeated the same performance three or four times without seeming to get any damper, and then Joe got in between the stern waves and ran the boat right up to where a sign on the stern of the steamer read "Twin Propellers-Keep Clear" was staring us in the face. The water from the stern of the boat ran down hill at an angle of about 45 degrees, and on this hillside, with our bow pointing upward about eight feet behind the boat and our stern down in a cavity about five feet below sea level, we rode along behind the Avalon at about sixteen miles an hour while the girls up on the deck amused themselves by throwing peanuts down to us. I guess they thought we were monkeys, and you can hardly blame them.

Then, as a final thriller, we ran alongside the Avalon at full speed and when we got even with her bow, cut straight across the front about eight feet ahead of her. Now it may be all right for Joe Fellows and Douglas Fairbanks to do stunts like that but I haven't had the experience that Joe has and I probably don't carry as much life insurance as "Doug" and all I've got to say is that while it's thrilling now to look back upon it, I must confess that at the moment, I thought we were putting considerably more faith in the reliability of Charley Criqui's "Model GR" than the reputation of even that splendid engine could possibly warrant. I've never seen the Mauretania but if I ever do, I feel assured that she can never look half as big or as deadly as the "Avalon" did just at the moment we rounded her bow eight feet ahead of her cutwater.

However, all's well that ends well, and they tell me that Joe has been doing stunts like that all his life, and he says that when his time comes he'll probably be run over by a Ford or pass off in some other plebian and commonplace manner, and why not have some real thrills in the meantime. So, whenever things get monotonous around the shop and life begins to pall, Joe jumps into his boat, puts out to sea and amuses himself by bucking the ocean rollers in the Channel or circling around the incoming steamers. I guess he must be out there every Sunday, for the following week I went over to Avalon on the steamer and sure enough, when we got out in the Channel, there was Joe in the "Fellows IV," going through many of the same antics that he did on the day that we accompanied him. And this time I had my camera along and took some pictures, which I reproduce herewith, to give some idea of the way the boat looks in action.

And if you're down around San Pedro way at any time and wish to spend a week or so there and only have one afternoon to do it in, I can heartily recommend that you look up Joe Fellows and get him to show you the harbor in Fellows IV.

(Reprinted from Pacific Motor Boat, April 1921)