Let’s Revive the Step Hydroplane [1954]

It was at the 1952 Red Bank (N. J.) regatta that my seven seasons of inboard motorboat racing came to a sudden and spectacular halt. While leading in the defense of my so-called 135 cubic inch National Championship, Ethel XX took an instantaneous impulse to pitch her unsuspecting driver at 95 m.p.h.. and that was that.

But, while permanent injuries force you to steer clear of the wild stuff from then on, it's an impossible request to ask a died-in-the-wood inboard motorboat racer to forget the sport. Instead, your thoughts center around ways of improving inboard racing, making it safer, more enjoyable. and—certainly—less costly and more worth while.

These thoughts, which I am setting forth, are the cumulation not only of my participating experience, but also as the result of intensely following the sport many years before 3-point hydros, plywood, the 225 Lycoming and World War II.

The first question that comes to mind is: "What good comes from inboard motorboat racing?" First, intelligently indulged in, it's a wonderful source of enjoyment for spectators, contestants, crews and officials. Second, and to my mind more important, it serves to develop hull designs, materials, structural arrangements, and even engines.

The experience gained from racing during the '20's and '30's played a vital part in the development of the famous torpedo and air-sea rescue craft. A minimum of research and development was needed to rush these craft into completed form. The solution to the problem of building lightness with strength came directly from racers and high speed, sea-going cruisers of the Gar, Jr., and Cigarette type. Solutions to the problem of developing super-powered engines plus power-transmission equipment and propellers came straight from Gar Wood's Miss Americas and their 2,500 cubic inch Packards which he was responsible for developing from 800 h.p. to 1,900 h.p. in five short years. No one can deny that proved the immense value of motorboat racing.

So much for the first question. Now, for the second: "flow can we lower the soaring costs of racing?" Combine the two questions, and our goal is for a truly development class that could feature low construction and racing costs—quite an objective.

Now, dear reader, if you will bear with me for a few more lines, we will then hit the core of our objective. Let's go back to 1936—the year which heralded the first practical 3-point suspension hydroplanes. Up to that time, all successful racers were of the step-hydroplane type and had been for twenty-five years. This development sounded a death knell for the step boat; and now, almost twenty years later, this fine hull form has been all but forgotten. Only in the Hacker-designed Gold Cup craft do you see examples of the once unbeatable step hydroplane. Yet, when properly designed, constructed and operated, the manifold advantages of this type hull shine through, as witness Miss Pepsi.

A step-hydroplane will carry more weight at its intended speed than will a 3-pointer. In rough water she will show to advantage; and she is considerably superior in the department of high-speed maneuvering. Thus, while the prop-riding 3-pointer is almost impossible to beat under good competitive conditions, the step-hydroplane has long shown an adaptability for applications other than just racing—specifically, in the field of high-speed patrol, air-sea rescue, and torpedo boats. It's a shame that this excellent hull form has been largely ignored for almost twenty years.

So, isn't it about time that a "trial balloon" be released concerning establishment of a racing class for inboard step-hydroplanes? We have the many class examples of the next thing to it in the form of monoplane, one-man, racing machines, laughingly called "Inboard Racing Runabouts." However, the wild and perilous leaping qualities displayed by the front-runners in these classes also prove this type of hull useless from the standpoint of applying such a variation of the stepless hull into activities other than racing.

Actually, today's racing runabouts are being driven far beyond reasonable limits of safety that a monoplane, or stepless hydroplane, hull permits. Specifically, I refer to time. E class which has officially recorded speeds in excess of 80 m.p.h. would serve to calm down these wild gyrations, and make a somewhat faster, but more stable, class of limits. Since they don't even begin .to resemble runabouts in the wildest stretch of imagination, it might be worthwhile for the rule-makers to consider allowing step-hydroplane hulls in these classes as well as stepless hydroplane hulls, and let the owner choose the type he prefers to race.

Now come thoughts on engines. Practically all classes permit hopping-up of standard automotive engines. This practice has long since reached the point where the expense of such a hop-up is overpowering. So is the expense of maintaining such short-lived critters. You've got to be either "loaded," a mechanic, or preferably, a "loaded mechanic." With the advent of the furious horsepower race raging among automobile manufacturers, we motorboat racers now have the golden opportunity of obtaining high-horsepower, low-weight engines that, when thoroughly stripped, will kick a well-designed hydroplane along at an extremely impressive rate.

So, now you've discovered the proposal: A stock, 335 cubic inch step-hydroplane class. To me. the word stock means STOCK, not "stock." Were I formulating the rules, nothing could be altered except, possibly, permitting solid valve lifters in place of hydraulic lifters. This business of cam-slipping. head-grinding, etc., and still nodding "stock" is so much bunk. You can't keep an owner from properly assembling his engine so that it will run at its peak, but that should be the absolute and definite limit. That's why the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association classes of the '20's thrived so well. When hopping-up started, racing collapsed, and it took years for inboard racing to flourish again in this region. Besides, we've got so much power available now, hot-rodding is unnecessary. What really makes a race is lots of entries and close competition. Stock engines will encourage new blood and will tend to keep speeds between the fastest and slowest at a narrow spread.

I would further suggest that since step-hydroplanes are weight carriers, let them carry about 170 pounds extra in the form of a riding mechanic. Anyone who helps with a racer usually wants to ride in it. That's natural. Also, a riding mechanic can be of considerable assistance to the driver in watching instruments and the boat in general, checking their start, keeping track of competitors, etc.

As long as the Communist menace is with us, we'll have to "keep our powder dry." In line with this fact, it is my opinion that we could utilize such a racing class to further develop the step-hydroplane hull with an eye towards its possible use in future high-speed military craft. This one objective, alone, would constitute ample excuse for instituting the Stock 335 cubic inch Step-Hydroplane Class.

Also, unlike the high degree of development seen in the 3-point hull, the combinations possible in regard to step arrangements, balance points, steering and propulsion are almost boundless. In short, the step hydroplane has not reached its peak of development.

Try some combinations of these for possibilities:

STEPS: Steps can be straight across, V'd aft, or V'd forward. Such steps can be used in combination with longitudinal steps, or lapped planking, for additional venting.

NUMBER OF STEPS: Normally from one to five. A one-stepper is usually fastest while a multi-stepper is more seaworthy.

BALANCE: On a single-step boat, weight should be concentrated on either the forward or the aft plane. Take your choice. Buffer steps have proved useful in preventing plunging.

STEERING: Either stern or bow rudder; and if you're all adventurer, combination of both.

PROPULSION: Surface or submerged propellers. Vee, direct, or inboard-outboard drive; streamlined or exposed shafting.


Get ten or twelve of our new 335 cubic inch stock, step-hydros together at a regatta, and you're likely to see ten or twelve differently designed boats. Wouldn't that relieve the sameness that we see at today's regattas?

From an esthetic point of view, a well-designed step-hydroplane inboard can be about the most beautiful form of racing machine to answer a starting run. Specifically, I refer to Miss Pepsi, My Sweetie, Miss Canada III, the Arena-designed Notre Dame, and Count Rossi's famous Alagi—to mention big-boat examples. John L. Hacker has been responsible for the most beautiful limited-class boats in years gone by. Plans for Hacker's best appeared in the January 1937 issue of MoToR BOATING. She's an 18-foot, 225 class beauty! The very nature of their shape permits low, eye-pleasing lines.

New Materials Facilitate Construction

The big problems of step boats used to be in the realm of step venting and keeping these hulls in alignment. With materials available today that were unheard of 20 years ago, these problems should present no particular difficulty. A plywood bottom without seams can receive vent ports behind the step without seriously weakening the structure. That was difficult with planked craft. Plywood sides act as excellent stiffeners and should keep these hulls from bending. Modern agents for bonding should assure a tight, strong hull that will hold its shape.

Such excellent materials were unavailable in the hey-day of the partially-developed inboard step-hydroplane.

Now, as to speeds, what should we expect? An 18-foot hull, complete with a 230 h.p. Cadillac engine, should weigh in the neighborhood of 1,300 pounds. Add 400 more for crew, oil and gas, and we have a racing total of 1,700 pounds, or 7.4 lbs./h.p. This should he good enough for straightaway speeds under competitive conditions of 80 m.p.h.—maybe more. Now really, isn't that pretty darned fast?

Since such a class should produce dependable, fairly sea-worthy racers capable of carrying substantial amounts of fuel, some interesting thoughts occur concerning special races. These craft would be ideal for closed-course marathons over irregular courses—similar in thought to automobile road races —or for long-distance marathons similar to what the outboarders are doing. Do we always have to race around standard courses with two straightaways and two turns?

While on the subject of using stock automobile engines of 335 cubic inches or less for racing, this idea could he applied to a class of 3-point racers and a class of stepless hydroplanes (racing runabouts). The runabouts should also carry a crew of two and have similar dimensions, thus making them eligible to race with the suggested step-hydroplanes. For comparative purposes, that would be very interesting.

Hydroplane designers of old, may we hear from you?

(Reprinted from Motor Boating, December 1954)