An Early Boat Racing History [1906]

Motor Boat Racing: Its Origin

Now that motorboating is the sport of the many and not of the few, when every boy about the water knows more than one would expect about power-craftsmanship, a glance into the past may not be amiss. Some day, say in 3004, some journalist may wish to prepare an article on the subject of motorboating, in which case, by referring to this page of The Motor Boat, he will at least have a few facts on the babyhood of the business to start on.

For our first essential facts we must go to France, which gave us the bicycle, the automobile and the air machine. it was but natural that the Frenchmen, who were the discoverers and the perfectors of the racing automobile, should be premier in introducing the same form of sport, transferring the venue from land to water. Never much in water sports, the French had given little or no attention to the motor-driven boat until after the automobile had completely captured their fancy and dominated their fashions. The great use of the automobile had made them familiar with the explosive engine, and, after they had come to thoroughly understand the new power producer, they naturally cast about for new fields to conquer.

Having dominated affairs on land they took to the air and to the water. In the former medium Dumont, Lebaudy and others conclusively demonstrated that, with a gasolene engine of high potentiality and small weight, the air could be navigated in power-driven balloons or airships, while a host of notable automobilists found out that, by transferring the engine of an automobile from a chassis to a hull, they developed new speed possibilities, and found themselves much less hampered by legislation on the water than on land.

So it came to pass that the Seine and a few other inland waters of France were speedily taken possession of by a new form of craft which, closely following the lines and appearances of the torpedo boat, and propelled by light but powerful gas engines of the most approved automobile type, were capable of sustained speeds of fifteen miles or more per hour, for great distances and for lengthy periods of action.

Until last year the English — always unbelievers in any maritime affair which emanated from France — refused to take the new departure seriously. To your true Britisher, any vessel which could not successfully hold its own in the turbulent water of the Channel or the North Sea was a toy, was something a Frenchman might favor, but an English sea-dog, never!

Right here a queer cycle of events appears. When on August 22, 1851, the American yacht America sailed around the Isle of Wight and, distancing the entire British fleet, the nearest of which, the Aurora, finished eighteen minutes after her, won the Queen's Cup, the British yachtsmen began to suspect that in things nautical they were not the ultima thule. That the occasion might not be forgotten, the cup so magnificently won by the America was, under a deed of gift to the New York Yacht Club, made a perpetual challenge trophy, and to-day it represents the yachting supremacy of the world. Millions of dollars have been spent to win and to defend it, and the lesson America originally taught the English has been repeated no less than twenty-eight times in the fifty-two years which have elapsed since that epoch-making day in August, 1851.

When James Gordon Bennett , ex-Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and a yachtsman whose flag had flow from the mast head of some of the finest pleasure boats in almost every great harbor in the world, concluded to live henceforth in Paris, he did not, therefore, forget either America or its institutions. Consequently, it did not come in the nature of surprise when in 1899 Mr. Bennett offered a $10,000 challenge cup for the automobile championship of the world. Nor was it at all surprising that, in the deed of gift, he should duplicate the conditions of the America's Cup, thus virtually making the automobile take the place of the yacht, with the scene of the contests shifted from water to land. The idea was a success beyond the most sanguine hopes of even its best friends, and to-day the contest for the Gordon Bennett Cup is the greatest of all international sporting events.

England having won the Cup in 1902, the contesting scene was, under the conditions of the race, shifted from France to Ireland, which call for the defense of the cup over the roads of the country in whose custody the cup is temporarily held through having been won by its representatives at the last previous race.

Enter Mr. Alfred Harmsworth, who, like Mr. Bennett, is a millionaire newspaper proprietor and sportsman. Taking his cue from Mr. Bennett, Mr. Harmsworth once more transferred the international cup contest back to the water from whence Mr. Bennett had sought to remove it when he introduced the automobile contest. The Harmsworth trophy was for motorboats, and was first raced for in Queenstown Harbor, Ireland, during the week of the Gordon Bennett contest. But three aspirants for the new international honors faced the water. These were S. F. Edge's launch, 40 feet in length, driven by a 75-h.p., four-cylinder Napier gasolene motor turning a two-bladed propeller. The size of the cylinder was 6½ inches bore by 7½ inches stroke; its normal speed was 800 R.P.M.; and jump spark ignition was employed. F. Beadle's launch, 30 feet in length, constructed of cedar wood and driven by a 50-h.p. eight-cylinder gasolene motor, with two two-bladed propellers on the same shaft. J. E. Thornycroft's launch, 30 feet long, driven by a 20-h.p. four-cylinder gasolene motor, connected to one 18-inch three-bladed propeller.

The winner was Mr. S. F. Edge's launch, which covered the eight and one-half miles of the course in 24 minutes 44 seconds, beating Beadle by 3 minutes 00 2-5 seconds and Thornycroft by 5 minutes 08 3-5 seconds. This awakened British sportsmen to the possibilities of the speed launch, and they at once ceased to regard it as a French toy. Plans were laid to retain the trophy against all challengers, former experiences in connection with the loss of the Queen's Cup not having been forgotten.

Americans who always prefer to take sporting innovations from British sources favored the speed launch with but small favor until their life-long antagonists, the Englishmen, took it up and, by the winning of the Harmsworth trophy, gave America another excuse for foreign conquest. The result has been the phenomenal vogue of the high-powered, swift-traveling racing launch in this country which will continue to expand until the great American question of "How fast can I go?" is answered in finality, which in the present instance will not be in your day or mine.

Excerpts transcribed from The Motor Boat, Aug. 10, 1906, pp. 9-12.

[Thanks to Greg Calkins for help in preparing this page — LF]