14 March 2013

Queen of the Speedboat King

In 1931 Gar Wood first broke the 100 MPH barrier on the water with Miss America IX


Miss America IX takes your breath away in every respect. Just sitting there under her canvas covers, you can see the menacing silhouettes of the four rows of exhaust stacks.

Without the covers, the simplistic beauty of the gleaming mahogany hull and pine deck is enough to make you gasp. Another gasp comes when the twin 550-horsepower Chevy big blocks fire up and settle down to a fierce, cammy and totally unmuffled idle. And quite literally, as Miss America IX pulls away from her slip, the heat and fumes coming from the 12 stacks truly take your breath away, making it nearly impossible to breathe until speed picks up and the exhaust rises above the small cockpit just in front of the transom.

Some men just crave speed, and Garfield “Gar” Wood was one of them. The self-made industrialist parlayed his invention of the modern hydraulic lift bed — for unloading coal trucks — into an industrial empire. And with that empire came the wherewithal to indulge his passion for speed on water. From 1916 to 1921, he utterly dominated Gold Cup speedboat competition, while between 1920 and 1933 he also secured the Harmsworth Trophy for the United States no fewer than nine times. The first two Harmsworth victories came in boats built by the Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company, which Wood had acquired. And after Smith left to start Chris-Craft in 1923, the Miss America series of Woodowned machines continued to win, with Wood at the wheel all but once.

And the New World Champion
When it left the Gar Wood boatyard in 1930, Miss America IX was powered by a pair of 2,500-cid V-12 engines based on Packard-built Liberty aero engine block castings. At first, power output was less than 500 horsepower each, but gradually they were developed with overhead valves and supercharging to produce 1,600 horsepower.

Piloting Miss America IX and with riding mechanic Orlin Johnson on the throttles, in March 1931, Gar Wood set a new record on water when he hit 102.2564 mph. With more horsepower, the following February he upped the mark to 111.712, reinstating the 30-foot mahogany and spruce Miss America IX as the fastest boat in the world. In addition to the records, in 1931 and 1932 Wood used the potent craft to defend the Harmsworth Trophy, although in 1931, he and arch rival Kaye Don both jumped the start and ultimately the trophy went to Wood’s brother in Miss America VIII.

By 1932, Miss America IX had been supplanted by the four-engined Miss America X and stored without engines because, as Wood historian Tony Mollica explained, “these racing boats only lasted for a couple of years before they were put away. To have a boat last this long is truly remarkable.”

She may have been put away, but she wasn’t untouched. In 1936, the government requisitioned the potent Liberty-based engines from Miss America X (originally from Miss Americas VIII and IX), which were used to prototype the power units for PT boats. And so she sat for years, until 1970 when Chuck Mistele acquired her, replaced the front decking and made the changes needed to fit a pair of potent big-block Chevrolet engines. Since then, Mistele has proudly enjoyed and shared Miss America IX, and sometimes that has meant opening the throttles wide.

The Ride of a Lifetime
More than 40 years after she was returned to the water, it’s a sparkling early morning on Lake Dora in Tavares, Florida. The mahogany and gold leaf beauty virtually glows as Mistele fires up the twin 550-horsepower Chevys. That may sound like a lot less than what she once had, but because of the lighter engines and much reduced fuel capacity, she weighs about half of what she did back then, which means the power to weight ratio isn’t that different from 1931.

The sound from the 12 unmuffled exhaust stacks makes it clear that those engines are powerful. The idle is a bit lumpy, but the beat smooths out as the distinguished looking Mistele — think George Washington without the wig or wooden teeth — gently opens the throttles and the heat and unburned fuel swirl around the cockpit area. Immediately the bow rises high under power, obscuring forward vision, but gradually lowers as the speed picks up.

Miss America IX effortlessly skims along, hydroplaning above the water, rather than riding in it. Later, Mistele explains that at speed the boat is really just riding on the spray it generates and on its two massive propellers. The hull is stepped, meaning that about halfway aft from the bow, the bottom steps up eight inches, becoming shallower at the stern. What this means, says Mistele, is “when she is riding on her lines the stern isn’t even touching water.”

And because the stern isn’t in contact with the water, Miss America IX uses a bow rudder — you can see it as the bow lifts under acceleration — to both point the boat and to stabilize her. Though the bow rudder has its part in turning, most directional change comes from the throttles. Open one and close the other as you spin the wheel, and she turns. Nowadays, all the controls are in front of Mistele, but in its racing days, Orlin Johnson handled the throttles of the huge aero Packards and Gar Wood manned the wheel. And if they weren’t perfectly synchronized for high-speed turns around the buoys, the risk for capsizing was huge.

For the most part, Mistele turns Miss America IX at low speeds. Sure, she has a new, stronger, glued bottom to her hull, but with no Harmsworth Trophy competitors in sight he sees no need to stress the 82-year-old timbers with the dramatic high-speed turns that would have been essential in 1931 when Gar Wood raced Kaye Don in Miss England II on the Detroit River.

Today there’s no such risk, though the noise is incredible and the acceleration is unreal, emphasized by the feeling of gliding along the water and that fine white spray. By the time each of the black-faced tachometers hits 4,000 rpm, Miss America IX is doing about 55 mph. Add another 1,500 revolutions and the old beauty is flying at approximately 75 mph. With the wind blowing his hair and a big grin, Mistele admits that “after 42 years I still get a thrill every time.” And that’s without using the remaining 1,000 rpm, which Mistele reckons will still take her above 100 mph.

At speed Miss America IX doesn’t feel unstable, but you can sense a slight side-to-side oscillation. Toss in the marvelous noise from the engines — just a couple of feet forward of the cockpit — and the terrific acceleration and spray and the whole experience is incredibly intense. With the nose lowered as the boat rushes along the water, the horizon approaches rapidly. So does the shoreline. But as soon as Mistele closes the throttles and the mighty 454s cease their bellowing, the 30-footer slows with alacrity as the boat settles on the water and both the hull and the large twin screws create massive drag. As Mistele shuts off the big blocks, the silence is overpowering and just emphasizes the intensity of Miss America IX in action. All that motion was enough to make this the fastest boat in the world in 1931 and 1932. And according to one Smithsonian curator, Miss America IX “is to water what the Spirit of St. Louis is to aviation.” Whether sitting in her slip, still on the water, or at full throttle, she exudes a certain majesty, proving that she really is the “Queen of the Speedboat King.”

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