Famous Speedboats of the World

Ch.2, Toothpick Boats

There is a saying that you can make a barn door fly if you give it enough power. Speed anywhere, on land, sea or in the air, is basically a matter of providing the big kick of many horse-power. It was because the steam engine was able to provide a bigger kick to a small boat than the wind that the early steam launches were able to travel faster than any sailing craft of their size, and in some cases faster than any sailing ships had ever moved.

But there was a limit to the amount of kick that a steam engine could give, unless the engine were to become too large and heavy to be fitted in a small fast boat. However, another type of machinery was being developed which held the secret of high speed over the water. This was the internal combustion engine.

The steam engine developed its power from water heated in a boiler which was separate from the engine itself, and the pressure of steam so generated was made to turn the machinery. In the new type of engine the power was provided by burning, in a confined space, a highly inflammable mixture of air and fuel. The confined space was the cylinder, the rapid burning was in fact a small explosion, and the pressure of it forced down a piston. By means of several cylinders and a rapid series of explosions continuous power was developed. And all the weight and complications of the boiler and furnace of a steam engine were eliminated. This was the internal combustion motor. Because it was able to develop high power while remaining comparatively small and light the motor was able to bring within reach higher speeds on the water than people had hitherto dreamed of.

The story of speedboats and of their steadily increasing speeds during the last half century is the result of many technical achievements by designers and engineers, and the most important of them all has been the invention of lighter and ever lighter engines. The problem has always been to give a boat as much power with as little weight as possible, so that each horse-power has the minimum load to propel. At the beginning of the century the best engines weighed about 7 pounds for each horse-power that they delivered. Now engines may weigh less than one pound per horsepower.

In the early days of the present century, when motor cars were still a novelty and driving them an adventure, there were engineers in several countries bent on improving the internal combustion engine for use in faster and faster cars. These were the pioneers of the motor industry, and some of them were founding the firms that have since become world famous for the manufacture of internal combustion engines. A few of these men became interested not only in speed on land but also over the water.

This led to the co-operation of the boatbuilder and naval architect with the racing motor driver and engineer. At first the architects knew little about the engines and the engineers nothing about boats. Each side had a lot to learn. For a number of years the speedboats were piloted by motor racing drivers who did not understand the sea or the effects on a boat's behaviour of wind and current, and this led many times to exciting or dangerous happenings during races.

One of the first motorboats belonged to Gottlieb Daimler, whose name is still carried by the wellknown make of car. She was a small launch and had an engine running on benzine and developing 1½ horse-power. From so small a beginning were to evolve engines of 2,000 horsepower and more.

By 1900 many engineers in several countries, especially in France and Italy, had produced reliable automobile engines which they wished to fit into boats. Nathaniel Herreshoff in America still believed that he was able to produce a small, light steam plant that could drive a boat faster than any internal combustion motor, and in an attempt to prove it he built a beautiful little steam launch called Swift Sure. But she was beaten in a race with one of the new motor-driven boats, named Vingt-et-Un II, which had a 75 horsepower Panhard engine. Herreshoff was at last convinced that for fast boats the day of the steam engine was over.

In 1903 Sir Alfred Harmsworth, an owner of newspapers who later became Lord Northcliffe, offered a cup, at first called the Harmsworth Trophy, though it later became better known as the British International Trophy, for international motorboat racing. The races were to be between boats of less than 40 ft. in length and the engines had to be made in the country that the boat represented. This trophy was one of the greatest incentives to the development of fast motor boats.

Late in 1903 a new boat was put into the water, a narrow slip of a craft, 35 ft. long, driven by a 75 horse-power Napier engine. She was called the Napier Minor. In great secrecy, before dawn one morning, the little vessel was given her first trials on a reach of the upper Thames. And as the sun came through the mist of the breaking day she was being hurled over the smooth water, while her engine's roar broke the quiet of the river banks and fields beyond. Shortly afterwards she won the Harmsworth Trophy at a speed of 23½ miles an hour.

The speeds of the fastest motorboats was still low -only a little more than that of the fastest sailing ships. But it must not be forgotten that the Napier Minor was a tiny ship in comparison. No sailing craft of her size could have reached much more than one-third of her speed.

These early fast boats, unlike those which were to be developed in later years, were reasonably seaworthy and able to withstand a certain amount of rough water. In the same year that Napier Minor won the Harmsworth Trophy a cross-Channel race from Calais to Dover was held. It was a test not only of speed but equally of seaworthiness and reliability. The reliability was a most important feature of the test, for at this time the engines of the boats often failed, and pilots had of necessity to be skilled engineers as well. Time and again in the course of a race boats' engines would choke and die, perhaps because a dash of water had put the ignition system out of action, perhaps because the fuel supply failed. Then driver and mechanic would have to set on the engine in a frenzy of activity to get it started again. Of the twenty-one boats that started across the Channel twenty finished, of which Napier Minor was second, being beaten by Mercedes IV. The French destroyer that was detailed to escort the racers had the utmost difficulty in keeping up with the leading boats.

In the U.S.A. people continued to be interested in the speedboat, and in 1907 a challenge was made by the Motor Boat Club of America for the Harmsworth Trophy. The boat was called Dixie. She won the race and the trophy crossed the Atlantic. In the following year it was, therefore, the turn of America to defend the cup, and for this purpose a new boat, Dixie II, was built. Her designer, Clinton Crane, took the sporting risk of guaranteeing the owner of the boat a speed of 35 m.p.h., and if this was not achieved the owner was to be relieved of paying a penny for either the hull or engine.

Clinton Crane produced a boat of the maximum length allowed, – 40 ft. – and gave her the thinnest and lightest shaving of a hull, only 5 ft. in breadth and weighing under 1,000 lb., which was less than half the weight of the engine that was installed. It is not surprising that the mechanics who fitted the engine into the boat were horrified at the lightness and apparent delicacy of the narrow wooden shell that was to carry it over the water at so high a speed.

But Dixie II was brilliantly successful. When her throttle was opened wide she seemed almost to fly over the water, and after winning the Harmsworth Trophy she was timed on the measured mile at a speed of 36.6 m.p.h. This was the fastest speed at which a boat of this size had yet moved. Nearly double the speed of the fastest sailing ship had been reached.

Shortly afterwards a new boat was built in England by S. E. Saunders Limited, of Cowes, for the Duke of Westminster. She was the Ursula, larger than Dixie II, but with the same kind of long, slender hull, the sections of which were round and soft and in places almost semi-circular, while the hull was low in the water and shaped to reduce wind resistance to the minimum. Ursula is an early example of streamlining in a speedboat.

She was both fast and seaworthy, and was raced successfully at Monte Carlo, where at that time important speedboat race meetings used to be held, and a fair amount of sea and swell were usually encountered. With her White Ensign streaming stiff as a board astern of her she took the lead from her competitors in many of the races. Her maximum speed was 35 knots, or 40.3 miles an hour.

With Ursula we reach the end of one stage in the story of speedboats. The internal combustion engine, with its combination of power and lightness, which was continually being improved, was showing the way to ever higher speeds over the water. But now another change was needed if yet greater speeds were to be reached. This was a new type of hull; one able to skim over the water.

(Reprinted from Famous Speedboats of the World by D. Phillips-Birt [St. Martin’s Press, 1959], Ch.2)