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Early Outboard Motor Boat Racing in British Columbia
by John M. MacFarlane 2013
George Hynek was the Pacific Northwest Champion of Class–C outboard motorboat racing c1936. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Recently I recalled summers spent on Shawnigan Lake, near Victoria BC where an early hydroplane – the Royal Flush, often took runs in the mid 1950s, sometimes towing up to eight water skiers or taking high speed runs in the evening when the water was smooth. I recall that Popular Mechanics and Mechanics Illustrated magazine often featured articles on how to build an outboard motor racing boat from plywood in a garage. In my circles these were the ‘speed demons’ that boys talked about in the school yard.
In a recent conversation with Ken Hynek (a prominent Pacific Northwest restorer of vintage steam railway locomotives) the subject of outboard motorboat racing came up. He mentioned attending races in his youth and I was startled to learn that Ken’s father George Hynek (1910–1979) was a championship racer in the 1930s into the 1950s.
George Hynek is now virtually unknown outside his family circles as a very active participant in and organizer of outboard motorboat racing on the Pacific coast of British Columbia. He was one of the founders and first President of the Vancouver Outboard Boating Club. He worked in the ship chandler’s business for the Edward Lipsett Ltd. who also handled Scott–Attwater outboard engines. He was still involved when he was the Regatta Chairman at Hatzic Lake B.C. in July 1955. He was personally interested most in the Class C runabouts which he personally built and raced.
George Hynek and his friend Bill Young at Hatzic Lake about 1955. to the side is a home built trailer designed to carry three Class C hulls. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
His son Ken now remembers that they were noisy, flat bottomed and small. He recalls a two–man "cracker–box" class boat that went so fast it hopped from wave to wave. There were also boats powered by alcohol (called alky’s) that had a large trumpet exhaust and not equipped with a muffler. The noise was deafening. The Class C boats used a stock outboard, often a Mercury, with a crude steering mechanism and wheel. Drivers knelt down and held a dead–man throttle in case of accident.
The pit area. The size of the outboards has increased by this time and become more technically sophisticated than those used in the 1930s. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
In the early days drivers wore a life jacket but no helmet. The Vancouver Sun newspaper in 1936 sports page report stated that Hynek travelled at the then startling speed of 38.97 miles per hour. He was the Pacific Northwest Champion c1936. Another larger class boat driven by Rolly Hubbard was clocked at 66.66 miles per hour.
After the Second World War some drivers started to adopt the use of safety equipment in response to the perceived dangers of crashes and explosions. The driver in this image has adapted football gear to his use. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Hynek was the first in his area to use ‘Lubriplate’ in the bottom of the leg of the engine. This was a proprietary product which resemble white grease – rather than using oil in the leg. The boat was carried in the back of a pickup truck. Some racers towed a trailer and real enthusiasts carried boats stacked up one on top of the other.
The Vancouver Outboard Boating Club brought together enthusiasts of racing small, usually home–built, wooden boats on Hatzic Lake, Harrison Lake, Nanaimo Harbour, Portage Inlet at Victoria, Cordova Bay (near Victoria). Some members travelled to Seattle, Portland, and Nanaimo to race their boats. Later they changed their name to the Vancouver Cruising Club to reflect changing demographics in boat owners and changing boating use patterns.
Hydroplane (pre–World War Two) (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Early boats were generally home–built from plywood which was readily available to "do–it–yourself" home builders. In fact for many boaters this was the only reasonably priced entry into boating at that time. Stories abound (and some may be true) about boats built in the basement that were too big to bring up the stairs after completion.
A hydroplane called "Meet the Girlfriend" (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Boats at the dock of the Harrison Lake Boat House (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Racing was (and is) a highly organized affair. Safety concerns and keeping the races organized is the central focus. Ken Hynek recalls that there were large signals operated on shore as well as flags to communicate with the drivers of the boats.
The commonly accepted signals include:
- Green Flag – the race course is open
- White Flag – one minute to the start, and last lap in the race
- Checkered Flag – finish of the race (displayed at the judge’s stand only)
- Black flag – all boats to return to the pit area immediately
- Red flag – race is stopped, drivers wait for further instructions
- Blue/White Flag – stalled or flipped boat on the course
The pit crew and drivers at Harrison Lake regatta. George Hynek, kneeling, second from the right. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
The pit crew was essential to fixing last minute problems and keeping the engines running. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
An announcer calls the heat. Now drivers prepare Kevlar driving suits and life jackets; the drivers and their pit crews launch the boats. The driver climbs in and straps on the helmet as the pit crew points the boat towards the course. Two to four minutes before the race starts a green flag is displayed on the judge’s stand. The engines are started and boats head to the far end of the course, known as the milling area.
The starting clock on the dock at Hatzic Lake B.C. The race has most likely already started as the boats would be much more bunched up close to each other at the starting line. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
One minute before the race starts a 60 second clock begins its countdown to zero. A white flag is displayed on the judge’s stand. The drivers jockey for position while watching the clock countdown, at 30 seconds most boats are committed to a lane, by 15 seconds the throttles are squeezed and the boats accelerate towards the starting line. The driver’s goal is to hit the line at top speed just as the clock hits zero. If he is too early he is disqualified, but can still race the heat. If the boat is late a lot of distance has to be made up.
The run to the first turn is a drag race and it’s not unusual for several boats to get there at the same time. Typically one boat comes out first. At the start of the last lap a white flag is again displayed signaling one lap to the finish. A checkered flag on the judge’s stand signals that the race is over. The black flag is displayed after the last boat crosses the line.
Boats were easily swamped or sunk during running. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Today there does not appear to be any formal outboard (or inboard) racing in British Columbia outside of the http://bathtubbing.com/bathtub famous World Championship Bathtub Race from Nanaimo to Vancouver, part of the Nanaimo Marine Festival. This is a long distance race running from Vancouver Island to the mainland of British Columbia at Vancouver.
World War Two interrupted racing but it resumed for a while into the 1950s. Now it exists mainly in the USA and in Ontario. Gradually the emphasis shifted to inboard engines which were more complicated and more expensive to build and operate. As boats grew bigger and faster, access by hobbyists and enthusiasts was limited by costs, technology and risk to driver safety.
Race underway at Harrison Lake. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Nanaimo racer Jack Clarke, and friends in Seattle with their boats still loaded in the trailer. They were probably travelling to a regatta at Green Lake in Seattle. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
A rare picture of champion female driver Dorothy Dennis from 1935. She is wearing the regulation life jacket – no safety helmet was required at the time. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
A confident Dorothy Dennis relaxing in the cockpit of her boat in 1935. (Photo with permission from the Hynek collection.)
Modern Outboard Motorboat Racing
The small "kneel down" boats which dominated in the early days are still racing in some regions of North America. I have not yet been able to find evidence of organized motor boat racing today in British Columbia. Whether this is just a lack of interest or a reaction to the noise, danger and potential environmental impact I could not say.
There is plenty of organized racing in the United States, in neighbouring Washington and Oregon. The American Outboard Federation was established in 1971 in Oklahoma. It’s stated purpose, is "to provide the sport of boat racing with an organization which would work toward the goals of increasing participation in the sport, create more public interest, a more cohesive existence between racing participants and the national organization, and an overall better program of racing."
During the years the forms of racing conducted by the American Outboard Federation have also changed. It now consists mainly of stock and super stock (modified outboard) hydroplanes and runabouts. The PRO or ‘alky’ (alcohol) burners are making a comeback and have recognized classes. Inflatable racing is new to American Outboard Federation and OPC, the former, OPB classes of yesteryear are making a showing. The American Outboard Federation is also continually adding drag classes to our venues.
In Canada today outboard motor boat racing is organized by the Canadian Boating Federation – based mainly in eastern Canada. Founded in 1950, the Canadian Boating Federation is the National Authority recognised by the Union International Motonautique. In British Columbia they sponsor the Fort St. John River Race.
Author’s Note: I am indebted to Ken Hynek for his reminiscences and access to his photographs and memorabilia during the preparation of the article.
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John M. (2013) Outboard Motorboat Racing in British Columbia. Nauticapedia.ca 2013. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Ouboard Racing.php
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