THE UNLIMITED HYDROS won’t race on Lake Washington next weekend. Perhaps some people won’t care, but for many, especially those who lived here in the 1950s and ’60s, the lack of a Seafair race will cause a special void. It will be missed because hydroplanes were once the city’s greatest passion, a reason to yearn for the coming of summer each year.
Before the Sonics, Mariners, Seahawks, Sounders or Storm, we had hydroplanes. It was the biggest game in town.
The Backstory: It took a worldwide pandemic to sink 70 years of Seattle hydroplane tradition
Younger generations have had sports heroes such as Gary Payton, Ken Griffey Jr., Sue Bird and Russell Wilson, but kids growing up in the Puget Sound area then had Bill Muncey, Jack Regas, Mira Slovak and Ron Musson — hydroplane drivers.
We were captivated by the boats. We stood awestruck if we saw one on display at a shopping center or at the boat show, and we loved watching them in action, throwing spray high into the air and making a thunderous roar that rattled windows 3 miles away.
That’s why, for us kids, the hydroplane races were a highlight of the year. That’s when we would spend the day near the racecourse in wonderment. Our dream was to somehow get into the pits, but most of us settled for gazing through the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of our heroes.
When the big boats weren’t racing, we raced our own little wooden hydroplanes. In neighborhood after neighborhood, kids created miniature boats from scraps of wood; tied them with string to the backs of their bicycles; and “raced” each other around the block, just like the real boats. The one painted green was the Bardahl, the pink one the Hawaii Ka’i, and the brown one Wahoo.
We borrowed a couple of Dad’s playing cards and attached them to the bike frame with clothespins stolen from Mom’s laundry basket, so a proper sound was made as the spokes spun. The most creative among us put a nail at the back of our boats so sparks would fly as it was dragged across the pavement. To us, it looked like the roostertail of a real hydro.
ALL OF THIS passion began with a world-headline-grabbing event that occurred on Lake Washington 70 years ago this summer.
Seattle was in the backwoods of the sports world back then. Oh sure; fans had Husky football and Seattle University basketball. There were the Rainiers of baseball and the Ironmen of hockey, but that was minor-league stuff. It was nothing that could match the big-time happenings in, let’s say — Detroit.
The Motor City had the Tigers of Major League Baseball, a team that led the American League for most of the 1950 season. Detroit was one of only eight cities in the nation that had a team in the National Football League. As for hockey, it had the Red Wings, an Original Six member of the National Hockey League. Led by Hall-of-Famer Sid Abel and a young star named Gordie Howe, they had just won the 1949-50 Stanley Cup championship.
Detroit also was the hub of the boat-racing universe. The most renowned event in that sport, the Gold Cup, had been contested on the Detroit River regularly for almost 35 years, since Christopher Columbus Smith built a boat that won the trophy in 1915. (Smith is also known as the founder of Chris-Craft.)
Boat racers in the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, were involved in smaller limited-class contests — again, minor-league stuff. But a few Seattle racers did have one thing over their brethren in Detroit: They had an exciting new idea.
Since the days of Chris Smith, the bottoms of the boats had steps that would cause the craft to skip across the surface and therefore go faster than those that plowed through the water. That idea was refined in the mid-1930s by a pair of boatbuilders in Ventnor City, New Jersey: Adolph and Arno Apel, who designed a boat that used pontoons (or sponsons) on either side of the bow to lift it out of the water and reduce drag.
The hydroplanes that the Apels built at Ventnor Boat Works were state-of-the-art for race boats when World War II ended, but Ted Jones, a passionate Seattle-area boat racer and a student of his favorite sport, thought the process of making race boats go faster needed to advance one more step: The boat’s stern needed to be out of the water, too.
JONES, A SUPERVISOR at Boeing, had spent many years mulling the concepts of aerodynamics and how they could be applied to race boats. He sketched many of those ideas on papers that he kept hidden in his sock drawer. Then, one day in 1942, he heard from Stan Sayres, a fellow boat racer who owned a successful Chrysler dealership at the corner of Broadway and Madison in Seattle.
Sayres had just purchased one of those Ventnor boats; brought it to the Pacific Northwest; and named it Slo-mo-shun II, a moniker he chose because his wife, Madeleine, had once remarked that his previous hydro was going so fast, it seemed the other boats were in slow motion. Problem was, the new boat arrived with a damaged sponson. Could Jones fix it, he asked?
It was while making these repairs that Jones told Sayres about his scheme for a faster hydroplane. Sayres was intrigued and ordered the construction of Slo-mo-shun III, another limited-class boat that would test the theory.
That boat was successful enough that in 1948, Sayres decided to go big time. He would pay for an Unlimited-class hydroplane — the fastest in the world, the type that competed for the Gold Cup in Detroit. So, a third member was added to their team: a master shipwright named Anchor Jensen, the proprietor of the Jensen Motor Boat Company, one of Seattle’s finest boat builders. Their effort would produce the Slo-mo-shun IV.
Building the hydroplane wasn’t easy. Jones was brash and outspoken, a big-picture guy who didn’t like to get bogged down in minutiae. Jensen, on the other hand, was shy and a perfectionist who obsessed over a boat’s every detail. It was said that there was a wrong way to do things; a right way; and an Anchor Jensen way, which was a few notches beyond the right way. Needless to say, the two clashed.
Construction of the Slo-mo IV began late in 1948 at Jensen’s boatyard, in an old wooden structure nestled on the northwest corner of Portage Bay that featured crystal windows and a high cathedral ceiling, and was steeped with the smell of sawdust and varnish. There, the project lingered for almost a year as Sayres was forced to play the uncomfortable role of referee between his quarreling teammates.
Don Ibsen of Anacortes, the last surviving member of the Slo-mo-shun crew, describes Sayres as a man of few words. “A quiet achiever,” Ibsen says. “Somewhat introverted, and some might say shy. You wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, he drives an unlimited hydroplane.’ No way, you know.”
Finally, the boat was launched in October 1949. The golden-brown craft with red trim attracted a great deal of attention during its test runs on Lake Washington. People wondered about its shape, somewhat like a flying saucer, 28 feet long and nearly 12 feet wide, but mostly they heard its thunderous roar, produced by a 12-cylinder Allison fighter-plane engine. They also were amazed by the plume of water that shot 30 feet into the air behind it — a roostertail, caused because the boat literally flew across the lake’s surface, and its propeller penetrated only halfway into the water.
BY APRIL 1950, as Sayres was building a home on the tip of Hunts Point, the operation moved to a boathouse he had built there.
By June, testing had reached the point where Sayres felt the Slo-mo IV was ready to challenge the world’s straightaway speed record, a mark held by Sir Malcolm Campbell, who in 1939 had driven his boat Bluebird to a speed of 141.74 miles per hour.
Officials from the American Power Boat Association were summoned to measure a 1-mile course near the Sand Point Naval Air Station, and to operate the timing equipment. On the morning of Monday, June 26, after several days of attempts that were canceled by equipment issues and strong winds, the conditions were finally ideal. A light chop was on the lake’s surface.
Sayres was behind the steering wheel, Jones beside him, and together they directed their thundering hydroplane from Hunts Point north toward Kenmore, then turned around and headed south toward Sand Point, where a small crowd had gathered. According to the rules, they needed to make two runs through the 1-mile course, one in each direction, and the average of the runs would be considered for the record.
The first two runs didn’t count. There was a timing error the first time, and then miscommunication between Jones and Sayres caused Sayres to shut down the engine too early. But the third time through was flawless. Sayres pointed Slo-mo IV toward the course and hit the throttle. The roostertail flew high into the air, the timer’s watch clicked on when the boat entered the course and clicked off when it passed the official exactly 1 mile away, and the time was recorded: 21.98 seconds, or an average speed of 163.785 miles per hour.
After a quick refueling, and worried about waves from the Kirkland ferry and from a tug passing by with a tow of logs, Sayres hurriedly turned the boat around to make a run through the course in the opposite direction. Slo-mo IV passed through the course in 22.95 seconds. Though slightly slower than the previous run, it was adequate to give them a two-run average of 160.3235 miles per hour, good enough to easily break Campbell’s record.
News of their accomplishment soon spread around the world. Time magazine described the craft as “Old Faithful on a rampage” and said it was “the fastest thing afloat.” The Associated Press quoted Jones as saying, “We know the boat has a lot more power. No further comment.” Sayres was perhaps a bit more diplomatic when he told the reporter he was “very pleased” at the boat’s performance, and promised he would be taking the boat to Detroit for the Gold Cup, scheduled in late July.
Of course, the news also caught the attention of the Gold Cup racers in Detroit, who saw a headline in The Detroit News that said, “Boat Going 160 mph Just A Blur, Detroit is Next Stop.” Clarence E. Lovejoy of The New York Times gave the Detroit drivers a little bit of hope, though, when he wrote that the Slo-mo IV could “turn out to be a craft more suited for straightaway time trials than for the rugged navigation of buoyed turns in a slam-bang competitive event.”
THE SLO-MO-SHUN IV arrived in Detroit on the back of a flatbed truck and caused a sensation each time it made a test run on the Detroit River. But Jones, who was now driving the boat, didn’t want to disclose too much, just yet. He played to the prognosticators’ doubts by purposely causing the boat to wallow around the turns.
His ruse was revealed on race day, however. The Slo-mo IV was clearly faster than the others. It was third across the line at the start of the day’s first heat, but Jones already was ahead and pulling away by the time the fleet rounded the first turn. He ended a full lap ahead of the second-place finisher, defending Gold Cup champion My Sweetie, owned by Horace Dodge of the famous automotive family.
In the second heat, My Sweetie held a lead for most of the race, with Jones content to follow close behind. His patience paid off midway through the final lap, when My Sweetie’s engine stopped, allowing Jones to speed past to another victory. That made the final heat a mere formality. Jones won it easily. Slo-mo IV was crowned the 1950 Gold Cup champion, and the team went home to Seattle as civic heroes.
In those days, the Gold Cup winner decided where the prestigious race would take place the following year. Consequently, the race was held on Lake Washington for the first time in 1951, the year Sayres, Jones and Jensen introduced a second boat, the Slo-mo-shun V. Others eventually would follow, and Seattle would soon become, and remains, the center of the boat-racing world.
That place in history, and the passion for boat racing in this corner of the nation, explains why the Slo-mo-shun IV still is a treasured artifact, displayed at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry.
“The Slo-mo-shun IV invented summer in Seattle,” says Leonard Garfield, the executive director of the museum. “It not only stole the thunder of the world’s Motor City; it brought glory and an unbridled sense of excitement to the Puget Sound region. It gave us a great reason to get outside every summer for a Seafair celebration that revolved around these flying boats.”
It also inspired us kids to drag little wooden hydroplanes behind our bicycles.
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