The Ventnor Three-Pointers

By Fred Farley

The now-defunct Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey, occupies a special place in hydroplane history. It was there that the modern three-point design concept had its genesis.

Ventnor engineers Adolph and Arno Apel , a father-and-son team, popularized the idea of a race boat that rode on two pontoon-like running surfaces called sponsons and a submerged propeller. The Apels didn't originate the three-point design, but they're the ones that made it work. And power boat racing hasn't been the same since.

At the 1936 President's Cup in Washington, D.C., the winner was a Gold Cup Class rig, the Ma-Ja II, owned by Jack Rutherfurd and powered by a 621 cubic inch Packard engine. Ma-Ja II was a step hydroplane, produced by Ventnor which had been building motor boats since 1902. Ma-Ja's fastest heat was 57 miles per hour. That same weekend at Washington, the performance of another Ventnor craft, the Miss Manteo II, did not escape notice.

Miss Manteo II, owned by H.A. Greef and driven by L.D. Hassell, was a 225 Cubic Inch Class hull, powered by a Lycoming engine. She was one of the very first boats in the world with sponsons affixed to the sides and the first to win a race.

At the President's Cup Regatta, Miss Manteo II won both heats of the 225 Class National Championship Race over thirteen other boats. Driver Hassell pulled a remarkable 55.384 miles per hour out of her in the opening stanza. This speed was within two miles per hour of the speed posted by the larger, heavier, and more powerful Gold Cup boats in the race for the President's Cup. This was an amazing feat, considering the very rough water conditions prevailing at the time.

Likewise that weekend, Miss Manteo II entered the race for the John Charles Thomas Trophy for 225s at Washington. The craft again demonstrated its superiority over all other boats of this class by winning all three heats in the almost ocean-like Potomac River chop.

Miss Manteo II earned yet another distinction at the 1936 President's Cup when she entered the mile trials and set a 225 Class straightaway record of 69.215. This compared to the unsupercharged 625 cubic inch Gold Cup Class mark of 72.727 set the year before by El Lagarto.

The performance of Miss Manteo II at Washington could not be overlooked. The boat's three-point principle, as developed by the Apels, provided a hull that offered much less resistance to the water than was possible with the non-sponson boats.

One important object of the three-point design was to insure a maximum amount of air passing under the bottom of the boat, which in fact rode on a large compressed volume of air. This significantly reduced the coefficient of friction between the hull and the water.

A further object of the three-point concept was the use of the sponsons to help hold the boat in its correct planing attitude. The sponsons also increased stability and concentrated the air under the bottom of the boat, resulting in an air-lift to the hull proper.

Still another feature of the three-point design was a specifically designed bottom. This helped to further concentrate and entrap the flow of air gained by the momentum of the boat and also to help prevent the craft from skidding.

Not surprisingly, on the heels of the Miss Manteo II success, the tiny Ventnor Boat Works facility near Atlantic City found itself swamped with orders for three-point hydroplanes. These included S. Mortimer Auerbach's 135 Class Emancipator VI, Jack "Pop" Cooper's 225 Class Tops II (the future Slo-mo-shun I), and George Cannon's 225 Class Gray Goose 2d. So successful were these and other Ventnor three-pointers of that era that the Apels applied for (in 1937) and were granted (in 1938) a patent on their ingenious design from the United States Patent Office.

Strangely, only one owner-Jack Rutherfurd-elected to exploit the Ventnor three-point breakthrough in the Gold Cup Class in 1937. Rutherfurd named the craft Juno, which used the same naturally aspirated Packard that had formerly powered Ma-Ja II. The hull of Juno was originally intended to go to China as one of the Chinese government's "Suicide Fleet" of torpedo-carrying motor war craft. But more about that later.

The Lycoming-powered Ventnor 225s were all the rage in 1937. The little 225s, which measured 16 feet in length, started catching up with their bigger brothers, the Gold Cup boats. This was especially the case with Tops II, owned and driven by the colorful "Pop" Cooper of Kansas City, Missouri.

Tops II won first prize in the National Sweepstakes Regatta at Red Bank, New Jersey, on August 15-16, 1937. Cooper finished first, second, and first and averaged 62.194 for the 45 miles. Tops II defeated a couple of Gold Cup Class rigs, the Ma-Ja II and the vintage Miss Palm Beach (formerly Miss Columbia), handled by Jack and Maude Rutherfurd respectively. Ma-Ja II won the second heat, but Tops II sprinted to a course record of 64.424 for the 15-mile distance in the finale. (The previous high had been 63.114 set the year before by Mel Crook in the unlimited step hydroplane Betty V.)

Also at Red Bank, Tops II and Cooper raised the 225 Class mile straightaway record to 73.171, which eclipsed El Lagarto's Gold Cup Class standard of 72.727.

The 1937 National Sweepstakes marked the first time that the Gold Cuppers and the 225s had ever met in competition. Tops II's victory led to speculation that there would be much discussion when the members of the Gold Cup Contest Board met in the Fall of 1937 to discuss plans for the perpetuation of the Gold Cup Class. (The Board voted to retain the 600 to 732 cubic inch rule, much to the disappointment of the 225 Class proponents.)

Tops II's performance at Red Bank served notice once again that the Ventnor three-point design could indeed hold its own in the acid test of competition. Still, as a group, the Gold Cup owners remained unconvinced. But not for long.

At the 1937 President's Cup, defending champion Jack Rutherfurd elected to fight it out not with the tried and proven Ma-Ja II but with the radical Juno. On the morning of the race, Rutherfurd pulled a remarkable 84.606 over the measured mile with the craft, which weighed just over a ton and used the Ma-Ja's 360-horsepower Packard. This bettered El Lagarto's mark by nearly 12 miles per hour! Truly, the era of the sponson boat had arrived.

The modern three-point concept had had its origin when representatives of the Chinese government contracted with Ventnor for a fleet of high speed suicide boats. The Chinese wanted a hull that would travel in the area of 50 to 60 miles per hour and carry a 500-pound bomb in the bow. The driver would take this, ram an enemy ship, and blow it up.

Over a dozen of these crafts were built by Ventnor, a company that secondarily manufactured a line of water skis.

As production of the suicide boats got underway, a serious problem was encountered. The 20-foot rigs proved to be terribly erratic. At high speeds and in the corners, they tended to dig in and plow on account of all that weight in the bow.

Perplexed, Adolph and Arno Apel took a pair of Ventnor water skis and juryrigged the skis with some two-by-fours on the sides of the boats with the hope of improving the riding characteristics. When they tested, they found that the skis came down, absorbed the weight, and greatly stabilized the boats.

The Apels then built these stabilizers right onto the outside of the hulls. This was the original basis for modern sponsons! The fact that Ventnor specialized not only in boats but also in water skis has to be one of the oddest quirks of the industry. It was these two elements coming together that created the three-point design that still dominates more than sixty years later.

Adolph Apel had experimented with the concept of two forward planing surfaces before. Tech, Jr., a 1915 Ventnor hull, owned by Coleman DuPont, had been so equipped. But the boat had such difficulty in cornering that the idea was abandoned.

As for the suicide boats, thirteen or fourteen of them were sent over to China, and no one seems to know what ever happened to them. As far as is known, they were never used in a war situation for the purpose that they were intended.

With one suicide boat still remaining to be shipped overseas, the money from the Chinese government inexplicably stopped. So, this last boat wasn't sent but rather was placed in storage at the Ventnor plant. It was this craft that was acquired by Rutherfurd and became the trend-setting Juno. And it was the overnight success of this "suicide-boat-turned-racing-craft" that made believers out of a lot of people. Indeed many felt that only refinement of the Ventnor three-point concept was all that stood between the time-honored step hydroplane and obsolescence.

The Juno's 84 mile an hour standard for 625 cubic inch unsupercharged Gold Cup Class boats was all the more remarkable considering that this was faster than the 625 cubic inch supercharged Gold Cup Class record of 82.298. (This was set by Clell Perry and the Notre Dame on the following day and on the same body of water.)

The old-style boats, nevertheless, still had a lot of life in them in 1937, the Juno's success at Washington, D.C., not withstanding. The fast-steppers would continue to be a factor in Gold Cup and Unlimited Class racing for another two decades. On the same weekend as the Juno's and the Notre Dame's straightaway achievements, Count Theo Rossi's Alagi, an Italian step hydroplane, set an American 12-Litre Gold Cup Class record of 91.408 over the measured mile.

In the first heat of the 1937 President's Cup, the forces of new and old met head on. Juno the three-pointer and Notre Dame the fast-stepper battled on even terms the entire distance with the defending champion Rutherfurd taking it at 65.265. Perry did 64.516, while Rossi and Alagi checked in third at 63.069.

It was more of the same in Heat Two, which was run in much rougher water. But the action was to be short-lived. While duking it out with Notre Dame for the lead for three-quarters of the first lap, Juno took a wild leap into the air at full speed, landed upside down, and sank almost immediately. Later, it developed that the gas pedal had stuck down and Rutherfurd had been unable to slow his craft for the turn. He and riding mechanic Jack Lynch were thrown clear and uninjured, and Juno was not badly damaged.

But Rutherfurd-and the Apels-had proven a point. They demonstrated that sponson boats were indeed competitive with the step hydroplanes. As a result, big-time boat racing would never be the same.

The importance of the Ventnor three-pointer in hydroplane history is considerable. In the words of "Wild Bill" Cantrell, "Juno is the boat that started it all. When he (Rutherfurd) came out and did so well, the rest of us had to build sponsons on our boats to keep up with him."

The Ventnor Boat Works continued to crank out competitive three-point hydroplanes throughout the 1930s and '40s before going out of business in the 1950s.

The first three-pointer to win an APBA Gold Cup race was Ventnor's My Sin in 1939 with owner/driver Guy Simmons. My Sin repeated as Gold Cup champion in 1941 and also in 1946 (as Guy Lombardo's Tempo VI).

After World War II, a number of the pre-war Ventnors were repowered with Allison engines when the Gold Cup Class changed over to the Unlimited Class. These included Tempo VI and the 1947 Gold Cup winner Miss Peps V.

The best of the post-war Ventnors was Jack Schafer's Such Crust I, which won the 1948 Unlimited Class National High Point Championship with Dan Arena driving.

The last Ventnor boat to win an unlimited race was Henry Kaiser's Scooter, a remodeled former pleasure craft with the sponsons located largely underneath the hull. The cockpit was located amidships, while the Allison engine was situated in the stern. With Jack Regas at the wheel, Scooter captured the Lake Tahoe Yacht Club Championship and the Lake Tahoe Mapes Trophy during the Summer of 1954.