Chasing The Gold Cup In Hydroplanes
The oldest trophy in motor sports returns to Seattle
“There’s nothing like the Unlimited,” says Corey Peabody, defending champion of the American Power Boat Association (APBA) Gold Cup, the oldest trophy in all of motor sports.
The equivalent of Formula 1 on water, ‘H1 Unlimited’ is the premier class of motor boat racing and the Gold Cup is the most coveted chase in the seasonal circuit.
In 2022, Peabody placed first at the Guntersville Lake Hydrofest in Guntersville, Alabama where the Cup was held, clocking an average speed of 148 mph in his ‘Lynx Healthcare’ hydroplane.
This year, following Bill Cahill's successful bid for the race, the 113th running of the Gold Cup will take place in Seattle, Washington. Cahill is owner of Seattle-based Beacon Plumbing.
It’s a fitting celebration that the oldest motor sport trophy will return to the Pacific Northwest for the first time since 1985, since Seattle is where the modern hydroplane, the world’s fastest boat, was born.
Similar to the terra firma Grand Prix, hydroplanes are super-charged racing machines that can clear 200 mph on water straights. Every aspect of the boat is customized and a crew team monitors the performance offshore during a race.
Canard, cowling, sponsons- hydroplanes have their own lexicon that separates them from ordinary power boats. As the name suggests, they are part plane and part water craft.
“You can’t go to a hydroplane store and buy the parts. We have to make everything,” Peabody explains.
30 feet long, 14 feet wide, and weighing 6,500 lbs, hydroplanes are thrust by 3,000 HP turbine engines that were originally made for helicopters.
Drivers sit behind the steering wheel and control the boat’s speed, lift, and drag using foot pedals. The glass canopy that encases the tight cockpit is the same as those used in F-16 fighter jets.
An air mask and an escape hatch on the floor are added safety measures in case the boat flips and takes in water.
Hydroplanes employ 3-bladed propellers that are razor-thin and 16 inches in diameter. Highly specialized, their design and fabrication are closely guarded secrets.
Mounted in the rear, the prop is only half submerged at high speeds, while the other half and the rest of the boat are actually flying above the water surface.
Spinning at over 9,000 RPM, the props create a spectacular 300-foot vapor jet resembling a ‘roostertail’ that enthralls spectators watching from the shorelines.
At full power, the blades’ lifespan is limited to under 2 hours after which they are replaced with fresh blades, otherwise the stern risks being destroyed with increased vibrations.
“We count every minute of the propeller once we go over 80 mph,” Peabody notes.
At a cost of $18,000 for each prop, up from $12,000 just 2 years ago, it’s one of the factors that make hydroplane racing an expensive pursuit.
This year, the “Greatest Show on H-2-0” will take 9 hydroplane teams to water fests in Alabama (Guntersville), Indiana (Madison), Washington (Tri-Cities, Seattle), and California (San Diego).
The typical course is 2-2.5 miles long and each event comprises 3 laps in the initial heat, followed by 5 laps in the final.
Today’s marine racing beasts are a far cry from the early days when a group of New York area yacht clubs formed the APBA (1903) and sponsored the Gold Cup to bring attention to their sport.
Andrew Muntz, hydroplane historian and Board member at Unlimited, points out that motorized boat racing originated in the late 19th century when ship propulsion was converted from steam to internal combustion, and hulls were modified to narrower shapes.
Muntz is publisher of the Unlimited News Journal and author of ‘At The Ragged Edge: Hydroplane Racing & The Sport’s Most Competitive Racers’, which recounts the greater-than-life stories of 2 icons of the sport, Gar Wood and Bill Muncey.
The inaugural Cup in 1904 was a 32-mile, round-trip chase up the Hudson River. Nine ‘auto boats’, as they were called back then, registered but only 3 ended up competing for the trophy.
Carl Riotte, representing the Columbia Yacht Club, steered his 6-cylinder, 110-HP Standard to victory, averaging 23 mph on the waterway. The New York Daily Tribune wrote on June 24th, 1904:
“In less than 15 seconds [after the starting gun] the Standard had passed them both, and all three were traveling up the river at a speed equal to that of the average local passenger train.”
By 1911, speed boats were no longer ploughing through the water as much as skimming over it with newly-designed ‘steppers’ on the underside of the hull.
They became the primary racing vessels in the 1920s-30s, but proved to be unstable and were prone to tipping.
The creation of pontoons, or sponsons, at the end of the 1930s helped solve that problem and set the stage for the 3-point hydroplane architecture.
The APBA’s tradition of running strictly ‘gentlemen’s runabouts’ in boat racing became a relic of the past.
While the dual-hull structures performed well in calm waters, they were handicapped in the open sea. In contrast, the older steppers excelled in higher waves offshore, resulting in the creation of 2 sporting categories in power boat racing.
But it wasn’t until after World War II, when surplus military hardware became available, that hydroplanes started thundering above the water.
Seattle native Ted Jones perfected the concept of prop-riding with a semi-submerged propeller that started winning races. “It wasn’t just thrust, but it created lift,” says Muntz.
On June 26, 1950, Jones set the mile straightaway record of 160 mph on Lake Washington, breaking the old mark by 20 mph.
A month later, representing the Seattle Yacht Club, Jones piloted the ‘Slo-Mo Shun IV’ to win handily at the 1950 Gold Cup on the Detroit River where the race had been won by local teams 15 times since 1904.
The jewel in the Unlimited’s crown now moved to Seattle where it would be defended for the next 8 consecutive years (except 1956), giving birth to the water-borne rivalry between the 2 cities.
Muntz explains, “Detroit had a monopoly on guys who knew how to build engines, but Seattle had guys that knew aerodynamics because of Boeing.”
Hydroplane racing became a cultural fixture in the Northwest and the biggest spectator draw for a generation of fans who grew up in Seattle, which at the time had no major league sports teams.
That golden era is largely gone as the number of people attending a race today rarely exceeds 50,000 whereas in decades past, hydroplane events in Seattle commanded well over 300,000 spectators.
With just 5 scheduled races a year and 9 teams operating on a largely volunteer basis, Unlimited today is more of a traveling road show than a self-sustaining sports league.
Peabody is one of the few lucky participants who makes a living in the world of hydroplane racing. Asked if the niche sport can expand beyond its current boundary, he responds “It’s hard to grow it, but it can be done.”
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