A History of Power Boat Racing

on Lake Winnipesaukee

 By Mark Howard

Owner/driver - Scotty

 

1927 - Winnipesaukee Power Boat Association

 

At the end of the 1926 boating season the lake’s racers decided to formalize their hobby in order to better promote boat racing. Other areas of the country that raced boats were organized around associations that helped foster competition and the New Hampshire racers decided they needed a similar body. Such a group would help provide a bond of friendship and would place Lake Winnipesaukee on par with the rest of the country. The fall and winter of 1926 saw numerous discussions that culminated in January 1927. Fourteen lakes region boosters met at the Hotel Belmont in New York City while attending the annual New York Boat Show. Discussions were finalized and the Winnipesaukee Power Boat Association (WPBA) was born. In short order, by-laws were adopted, officers were elected, three race courses around the lake were sketched out and even a burgee was designed. All major lakes region and capital city newspapers were notified and the call went out for members and volunteers. Within a few months, there would be 42 members representing every major community around the lake.

 

The WPBA decided to hold 12 races around the lake over the 1927 boating season, starting in July. There would be four races held in each of the three different locations; Weirs, Wolfeboro & Alton Bay. The first three races would be in the form of a handicap trial for the remaining races. Trophies would be awarded at every race and points for every racer would be summarized at the end of the season. These points would be awarded not only for participation but also finishing order.

 

The first major racing of 1927 occurred not on the lake, not even in New Hampshire, but in Massachusetts in June. The Gold Cup Association was hosting the Governor Fuller Gold Cup sweepstakes in Boston’s Dorchester Bay and the organizers expressed the desire for some of the “New Hampshire Navy” to make the trip south to participate in the competition. The only NH racer able to make the trip was Samuel Dunsford and he elected to bring his Gold Cup racer, RAINBOW IV which was powered by a 240 hp Packard Gold Cup six cylinder engine. At the time of the invitation, Dunsford planned on entering the Gold Cup Regatta but found on his arrival in Boston there were so few entries, the race organizers changed the rules from Gold Cup to Sweepstakes, meaning any power craft regardless of power could enter. This forced Dunsford to compete with other boats whose power was over twice what Rainbow carried, including some boats that were powered by 500 hp Liberty V-12’s. This power discrepancy, coupled with an awkwardly designed course that forced very tight turns, placed Dunsford at a severe disadvantage. Still, Dunsford managed to come in third place and caught the attention of Charles Chapman, editor of Motor Boating Magazine who commented Dunsford’s driving was “marvelous”.

 

Due to the short notice of the Boston race, Dunsford was not able to arrange rail transportation, but was forced to trailer RAINBOW IV over the roads. Although this method is obviously the preferred transportation today, in 1927 the roads around New Hampshire were so poor this method of shipment carried risks. Loaded and unloaded from Lakeport, she was trailered to Boston down Route #3. During the trip back to the lake,  RAINBOW IV suffered damage to her hull that was severe enough to require some reconstruction of her bottom. She would make the opening races on 3 July, but would not be back in full racing trim until 10 July.

 

 

The 12 races officially sanctioned by the WPBA were the backbone of the 1927 racing season, but were not the only planned racing events. The Weirs Business Association, 22 members strong, met in June to plan their own series of races that would be held in conjunction with the WPBA. While boat racing was the major draw for the Weirs, the association had other activities planned in conjunction with the races including band concerts, the Veterans Reunion week and a newly rebuilt Weirs beach. Spring had been marked by poor weather and the association was concerned about guest attendance in the summer. Hotel bookings were starting to improve in late June, but the members felt there was plenty of room for improvement. A strong showing of boat races was expected to insure a steady draw of tourists. As in the previous year, the Boston & Maine Railroad agreed to provide special runs from Boston and southern New Hampshire to the Weirs. The association voted to sponsor races during the off Sundays, not to conflict with the WPBA races. The upshot of these plans was racing could be expected at the Weirs every Sunday during July and August. The associations’ races would still follow the WPBA rules and regulations and would be run on the same course, but all prizes and racing points would remain separate from the WPBA totals.

 

Throughout New Hampshire, boat registrations were up to over 1,000 boats licensed to use New Hampshire’s inland waterways. Over two thirds of those boats were expected to be on Lake Winnipesaukee. One local marina operator, Jim Irwin Sr., had the exclusive agency to sell Dodge Watercars on the lake. Jim had a sample boat available for review and actively solicited demonstrations to any interested people, complete with door to door service. Local newspapers commented on Jim doing “all sorts of stunts with his demonstrator” that included waterskiing and loading down the 26ft boat with up to 30 passengers to demonstrate seaworthiness. Chris-Craft’s were on the lake, but only in limited numbers when compared to Hackers and Dodge boats. In fact, only two years earlier, Sam Dunsford was credited with importing the first Chris-Craft onto the lake. Dunsford named the boat BABS II and raced her extensively throughout the twenties and thirties.

 

Dozens of new boats were expected to make their appearance, both standard runabouts built by established manufacturers, and custom built boats designed and built by local craftsmen. The practice today is to purchase boats from established companies, but the situation in 1927 was very different. Local boaters would readily approach boat builders and commission a craft. Boatyards that serviced the lake, such as Goodhue & Hawkins in Wolfeboro advertised their boat building capabilities. The yard was willing to sell customers Chris-Craft or Gar Wood boats, but was fully capable of designing and building anything the customer might desire. Boat builders that wanted to break into the market tried even selling their boats through local lumber yards. The Florida Variety Company designed and built sled type “Speed Hulls” and proudly offered them for sale through the Carroll County Land and Lumber Co.

 

One such custom boat was commissioned by Fred Johnson of Concord and named PSYCHE. He was a frequent summer visitor and during the winter of 1926, had a 28ft speed boat designed and built on the second floor of an old highway department garage in downtown Concord. In early July she was transported to Lakeport and launched to much fanfare. Painted battleship grey with a red, white and green waterline, she was powered by a 220 hp Wright Hispano-Suiza V-8.

 

Other new, custom built boats were scheduled to make their appearance, PATS 2 and MURIEL. PATS 2 was owned by two brothers from Tilton and was a 20 ft single step hydroplane powered by a Renault airplane motor that put out 300 hp. MURIEL, 29 ft long, was built in Manchester on the third floor of the Sanborn Carriage Factory. Completed in June, she was lowered onto a trailer and shipped to Glendale. She was constructed by a team of local craftsmen and was powered by a Wright Hispano-Suiza V-8 engine. Additional new boats were, a “Baby Gar” runabout named SAY WHEN raced out of Black Cat island and YANKEE FLYER, a 26 ft Hackercraft runabout out of Alton Bay. SAY WHEN was a large boat, 33ft long and was powered by a Liberty engine. She would prove to be a fierce competitor who raced all over the lake at all three racing venues.

 

Also making their introduction were the 151 class ‘Pelican’ race boats powered by 50 hp Universal motors. These boats were all made to a standard design and shared the same type of engine and so were expected to generate very close racing. They were 16 ft long and could carry two people. These snappy little craft had a very tight turning radius, could reach 40-45 mph, and had overall remarkable running qualities. 

The first races of the season were scheduled for Alton Bay on Sunday, July 2. These races were managed by the WPBA and nine classes were expected to compete. There were enough classes to encompass any type of powerboat on the lake and speeds were expected to be between 20–60 miles per hour. The first three races at Alton, the Weirs and Wolfeboro acted as handicapping races where the boats would all be given the handicap they would race with for the remainder of the season. The first competitive races were scheduled for the following week, 6 July.

  

Racing for the 1927 season started well with dozens of boats making the effort in the three locations on 2, 3 and 4 July. Although some racers made it a point to compete at all three locations, others elected to contest only one of the races. These local favorites were cheered on by the crowds as they rooted for their home town boys against the other major contenders. The Alton Bay race on 2 July was won by YANKEE FLYER with WILDCAT, a 1925 Hall-Scott “special” powered Ditchburn taking a close second. The following day at the Weirs saw seven boats compete for the open handicap sweepstakes. The course was 2 ½ miles long and had been laid out by a local engineer over the winter at the request of the WPBA. The course allowed for a one mile straightaway and easy radius turns to help keep lap speeds high. This race was won by PAMKIN with RIP III in second. Robert Peterson, owner and driver of RIP III, wasn’t pleased with his performance and vowed his next boat, already under construction, would run much faster. Sam Dunsford showed up with RAINBOW IV but was unable to run her at full speed due to the recent structural upgrades and repairs. Dunsford had much better luck racing his new 151 class Hacker speedster, TIRED TIM, as he won both heats.

 

Wolfeboro had high hopes for the races held on Monday, 4 July to be the crowning races for the weekend. The Wolfeboro Chamber of Commerce had taken over the planning of both the parade and boat races from the American Legion and had taken out ads in the local papers for people to come to town and support the local festivities. These activities weren’t seen as money making opportunities but more an opportunity to give Wolfeboro a good time and draw a certain amount of positive publicity. Townspeople were urged to patronize local businesses and turn out with “spirit and enthusiasm befitting the day”. The town drew over 10,000 visitors but poor weather placed a considerable dampener on the boat racing. 

A strong west wind blew steadily all day making the water unusually rough with high white caps. Most of the classes of racing had to be cancelled because many of the boats that had intended to race couldn’t make it to Wolfeboro. Even the judges’ float anchored in the bay broke loose and began to drift toward the shore. Quick thinking by Nat Goodhue on board his steamer ROWENA saved the day by pushing the float back out to its intended location. Still, two of the nine classes managed to complete a race, the Handicap speedboat and the Hacker-Dolphin.

 

A third class, outboard motor boats, had to be stopped after one lap due to a serious injury that occurred when the driver was thrown out of his boat in such a way that his right shoulder and arm were severely lacerated. The driver, Walter Meloon, was turning up the motor of his boat when he got up on one knee to see over the waves when suddenly he saw a large powerboat in front of him. He tried to swerve and his steering handle broke, sending him into the water. He was treated at Huggins hospital and released a few days later.

 

The next weekend saw better weather and races were held at the Weirs on Sunday, 10 July. The race saw the return of Dunsford’s RAINBOW IV as well as the new racer, PSYCHE. PSYCHE won her debut race, but broke her propeller shaft on the last heat and so was knocked out of contention. Fred Johnson, the owner/driver, wasn’t deterred and promised he would be back. Glenroy Scott’s WILDCAT won the last heat while Dunsford came in second in both heats with RAINBOW IV. Dunsford went on to win the following week at the Weirs and finished third a week later. Racing on the 23rd in Wolfeboro saw a large crowd and some new boats making their racing debut. Weather was poor as there was a light rain falling all day, but the water was very smooth making for fast heats. The spectators numbered over 5000 and were scattered on shore and out in the bay. Of the top three boats, two, MISS WEIR & RAM, had no previous racing record and demonstrated the close nature of the competition. Both WILDCAT and RAINBOW IV raced and actually finished first and second, but as they were the most heavily handicapped boats racing on the lake, were awarded 4th and 5th places.

 

By the end of July, the WPBA race standings were published:

Boat                                       Driver / Owner                                      Points

RAINBOW IV                      Commodore S. Dunsford                      525

WILDCAT                            Vice Commodore G. Scott                    440

DODGIT                               J. R. Irwin Sr.                                        335

JEAN L                                 F. L. Lane                                              315

SAY WHEN                          A. F. Doty                                              225

PSYCHE                                F. L. Johnson                                        220

YANKEE FLYER                 C. Cram                                                 150

PAMPKIN                            H. O. Whitney                                        45

 

While the point spread looks daunting, especially for the bottom two boats, it should be noted the winner of any race would be awarded 200 points, with the number of points trailing off significantly for the lower finishers. The point system was geared heavily toward the winners and gave short shrift to boats that ran consistently, but finished 4th or lower. This seems very different from racing point systems today that value consistent performances, but the emphasis in 1927 was on speed, Speed, SPEED. Further, since the racers were largely out of town businessmen and other amateurs, it was not unusual for the principals to miss one or two weeks of racing. In order to keep things competitive, the point system was thought to give these racers a fair chance of catching up with their opponents.

 

  

 

Racing continued every weekend throughout August on every Saturday and Sunday. Earlier engine problems that hampered the racers were gradually ironed out and the boats really started to hit stride. SAY WHEN and DODGIT stand out as performing very strongly. SAY WHEN’s engine was racing in full form while Jim Irwin Sr. and his ‘mechanician’ Frank Brooks, finished sorting out his favorite Dodge Watercar, DODGIT. SAY WHEN managed to beat both WILDCAT and RAINBOW IV at the fourth series of merchant races held at the Weirs on 7 August. The crowds lining the banks and on the water were so large local papers claimed it was impossible to count how many thousands of people witnessed the race as “every available space along the water front was taken up by spectators. The Weirs Bay was crowded with craft of all kinds, the largest number ever seen assembled in the bay, and the automobiles were parked everywhere”. Crowds were so thick on the water at Alton Bay the Mount Washington had trouble getting to the pier. So much so, she ended up inadvertently ramming a patrol boat, throwing the officer into the water as the patrol boat was unable to get out of the Mount’s way.

 

In the middle of August, the Weirs merchant race standings were published: 

Boat                                       Driver / Owner                                 Points

DODGIT                               J. R. Irwin Sr.                                    700

WILDCAT                            Vice Commodore G. Scott                 660

RAINBOW IV                      Commodore S. Dunsford                   560

 

The Weirs was Jim Irwin’s home race and he made every effort to compete in every possible race. He had been trailing Dunsford and Scott all season but a first and second place in the two heats run on 14 August allowed him to overtake the other two. Observers weren’t sure if Irwin’s performance was the result of DODGIT’s even running or Jim’s very spirited driving.

 

In mid-August Commodore Dunsford presented a large trophy to the WPBA to be used “as the association saw fit”. It was Dunsford’s hope the trophy could be used to crown the fastest boat on Lake Winnipesaukee, and he left it up to the association to decide how this should be accomplished. The WPBA decided to hold a 25 mile free-for-all race where there would be no handicap. The race would be held at the Weirs on Labor Day and competitors would race 10 times around the standard course to determine the winner. Further, because of the special nature of the trophy, the WPBA elected to make it a permanent award. If any person could win the trophy three times, it would become their permanent possession. This would be an annual event, to be held on Labor Day until the trophy was claimed by one of the racers. The list of boats likely to compete was short, but included the best and fastest the lake had to offer. They included RIP IV, which was the follow on boat to RIP III Robert Peterson had promised back in early July. An unusual Hacker design that was locally built, she was powered by a Liberty V-12 that was rated at 500 hp. Another Liberty powered boat was JAYEE II, a custom built Gar Wood that had been delivered to the lake a few weeks earlier.

 

Labor Day proved to be the grand finale for the 1927 racing season, not only as it decided the WPBA champion, but also crowned the fastest boat on Lake Winnipesaukee in the Commodore’s cup race. The WPBA series winner was A.F. Doty in his “Baby Gar” out of Black Cat Island, SAY WHEN. Second place went to the custom Ditchburn WILDCAT raced by Vice Commodore G. Scott. Jim Irwin Sr. came in third with his Dodge Watercar, DODGIT. Although Commodore Dunsford was the defending champion from the 1926 races, he and RAINBOW IV could only manage fourth place.

 

The Commodore’s Cup race turned out to be, in the words of a local writer “unquestionably the greatest and most thrilling in the annals of boat racing on Lake Winnipesaukee.” Four boats contested the 25 mile race; RAINBOW IV raced by Commodore Dunsford, WILDCAT raced by Vice Commodore Scott, JAYEE II owned by W. Corby and RIP IV raced by Robert Peterson. The race started with all four boats abreast the starting line but within a lap, turned out to be a heated contest between RIP IV and JAYEE II. RIP IV was clearly the fastest boat down the straightaway due to her unique hull design that more closely resembled a modern three point hydroplane than the conventional runabout design of the times. However, Peterson was forced to slow way down to make the turns, and that allowed JAYEE II the opportunity she needed to catch up. Being a more conventional hull design, JAYEE II was able to take the turns at almost full speed. But as soon as the boats came out of the turn, RIP IV “would literally walk away from the Corby entry.” In the end, Peterson and his 500 hp Liberty were too much for the Gar Wood and she took the Commodore’s Cup with an elapsed time of 30 minutes and 25 seconds. Her fastest lap was run in 2 minutes and 50 seconds, which considering the laps were 2.5 miles long was quite an achievement. Observers on the shore and in the bay couldn’t believe how fast Peterson was going. Her speed down the straightaway was estimated at 65-70 mph, which for 1927 was simply unbelievable.

 

Later that evening, the WPBA held its first Ball in the Winnipesaukee Gardens. All the season awards and trophies were handed out, including the Commodore’s Cup. Boatmen from all across the lake came to enjoy the festivities and applaud the accomplishments of their fellow racers. A writer earlier in the season, commenting on the racing at the lake wrote, “we are witnessing speed boat racing that is second to almost none in the United States. We are not always fully aware of the fact that the speed attained by our contenders is equally as fast as that in the majority of the Gold Cup races held in this country.” If there were any doubts, they were swept away by Peterson’s performance. The fact that RIP IV was locally built made the victory all the more impressive. There were many motivations behind all the racing that was taking place; a sincere desire to promote the local region, pride in local craftsmanship and capabilities, and no doubt strong egos that just wanted to show off. Whatever the reason, the racers on the lake were part of an effort that not only showcased the best current marine technology in the country, but also helped advance the state of the art.

 

Click here for the next Chapter - 1928

 


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