Speedboats in the Desert
By Pat Laflin
"Low barometric pressure and greater water density make the Salton Sea the fastest body of water in the world for speedboat racing," proclaimed an article in National Motorist for January-February, 1950. The article goes on to say that during October a Speedboat Regatta, sponsored by the American Power Boat Association, is held at Desert Beach, the Sea's principal resort. That's 20 years after a Salton Sea Race Program made the front page of the Coachella Submarine of December 13, 1929. Much of the credit goes to a small group of local enthusiasts. These "dry land sailors" started racing on the sea, then took their boats to Elsinore and elsewhere, and sailors from those places started coming to the sea. There were no graded roads down to the sea, and just getting to the water was an adventure. Mecca was the "jumping off point', and Mecca farmers were called upon with regularity to pull out stalled cars. Locals also laid out the racing courses. Ted Gordon rigged up a raft with his own version of a pile driver and with two transit men on the beach to center them, the volunteer workers drove two inch pipes in water ten to fifteen feet deep to make two of the best courses in the country. The Salton Sea Boat Race of December 14, 1929 was particularly exciting because rough waters at regattas at Lake Elsinore and Long Beach that year had kept down speed and there was great expectation that records would fall at Salton Sea. Prizes included the $450 Mackay Circuit Trophy, the $400 trophies awarded by Richfield Oil Co., and the $500 Warren S. Ripple prize, offered for the first Johnson motor to make 50 miles per hour. Both days promised to be busy ones. A loud speaker truck from one of the large oil companies was to be there to announce results as soon as the boats crossed the finish line. Boy Scouts would serve refreshments. This was to be the first race in which Eastern boats and pilots had entered competition with the West, and rivalry was expected to be keen. A follow-up newspaper article of December 16 reported that about 2,000 people attended the event, "mostly outside people with not as many locals as expected. There were five new world records set at this Salton Sea event.
Local racers were active in competition outside the valley. In the same newspaper which reported the upcoming regatta on December 14 and 15, 1929, there was a front page article entitled, "Covington Wins Famous Trophy." Mr. Covington was reported to have the coveted O.K. Hunsaker Trophy, valued at $300 on display in the window of the C.O. Murphy sporting goods store in Coachella, so that the public may look it over, and see that local yachtsmen are on the job in the outboard racing game.
Don Pearson recalls personally the early days of boat racing on the Salton Sea in these words: "It was in the late 1920s that hydroplane racing was innovated on the Salton Sea. The low altitude was thought to be ideal for carburetion and there was talk that this was the 'fastest body of water in the world.'
"Three local men became involved in hydroplane racing and the Salton Sea Yacht Club was organized to sponsor these races. My dad, A.L. Pearson, had his grocery store, C.L. Covington had the meat market and C.E. Murphy had a feed store. My dad named his boat the "Desert Kid", C.L. Covington was the "Diamond C" and Murphy was the "Shamrock". They raced at Lake Elsinore as well as Salton Sea.
"There were some "monied" people traveling this circuit and it soon became apparent in 1929 that small business-men did not belong. Loretta Tumbull, whose father was a judge in Monrovia, was perhaps the first girl to receive recognition as a hydroplane racer. Rodney Pantages used to show up with his wife, driving their "Cord". Bobrich, of Bobrich's Ammonia also sponsored boats. Perhaps the most amusing race was one in which my brother, in our relatively slow boat, nearly won from two of the most noted racers. They became so intent on each other that they missed the course, but they recovered in time to correct their mistake and just beat my brother by a few yards.
"In an attempt to break the mile straightaway record, my dad built a Sea Sled. It was rectangular in shape and very small, light and tapered in a manner that when it began planning, only the very back of the boat would be in the water. He constructed the bottom of fibre-board, which was easily shaped. The day of the testing arrived and we were on the Hwy 99 side of the Salton Sea. The only steering mechanism was the shifting of one's weight from side to side. A couple of trial runs were satisfactory, so, with stop watch in hand, he tried it for fun. It was at the half mile post, nearly in front of us, that part of the bottom came off. A geyser erupted probably 30 feet in the air. The boat began sinking almost immediately, but fortunately in shallow water. Dad jumped in and held the motor up out of the water. When we waded out to help him, his stop watch was in his mouth!
"I recall two occasions of near tragedy on the Salton Sea. One Sunday two or three members of the Covington and Pearson families boarded the launch of Eddie Ruoff for a trip to Pelican Islands at the lower end of the sea. It was necessary to anchor the larger boat some distance from shore and commute in a small boat which was then towed behind. After visiting the sandy islands and observing the waterfowl, we started the return trip just about dark. Ray Covington and I had been riding on the prow of the boat when the wind suddenly came up. The sea became very rough and we joined the rest of the group underneath the canvas. Before we made it back, waves over 8 feet were crashing on us. It was a frightening experience.
"On another occasion, three hydroplanes left from the south side and were going to the salt works, which could be identified by poles and other landmarks. I was riding with my dad in his boat. On the return trip, again after dark, we had no lights but Curly Murphy had a spotlight on his boat. We were ahead of Murphy and about half way back when he increased his speed to take the lead. With his spotlight on us he ran over the back of Dad's boat, on an angle, and knocked the motor loose from the transom. Dad grabbed it and when Murphy circled back with the spotlight, we were able to reconnect the motor and it still ran. Our only guess was that he was holding elsewhere when he ran us down."
The temporary motor boat club which had been sponsoring Salton Sea events formed a permanent organization in 1929. The organizational meeting followed a dinner served at the Desert Tavern. Officers elected were C.O. Murphy, Commodore; A.L. Pearson, Vice Commodore; A.T. Sclater, Rear-Commodore; R.K. Widdecomb, Sec. Treas.; Board of Directors, C.L. Covington, L.J. Yost, T.H. Rosenberger, H.P. Shumway and H.W. Postlethwaite. Initiation fee was fixed at $5 and dues at $6 per year.
At first the boating fraternity from elsewhere tried to get the Salton Sea disqualified as being unfair. To this, George Ames replied, "It's water, isn't it?" By the mid-thirties Kent Hitchcock from Balboa and others popularized it sufficiently to attract national attention and backing by the National Power Boat Association. Then the best boats and drivers in the country were lining up to participate.
The 1948 Regatta was sponsored by the newly organized Desert Beach Yacht Club. It was a massive undertaking for a small club, and the files turned over to the CV Historical Society tell a remarkable story of a club with dues of $10, per year and fifty members putting on an event of national importance. M-G-M newsreel and Life Magazine and scores of other magazines and papers sent reporters. The files reveal letters to Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers requesting the presence of their film crews, starlets, or whatever assistance they could render to lend glamour to the events. Instead of money, the prizes were trophies, and local businesses and organizations provided them. The Official Program for the 1948 Regatta, October 15-18, 1948 noted that Event 30, scheduled for 3:30 PM on October 17th, was "The Gold Cup Class." It went on to say, "Gold Cup Record: Guy Lombardo. Speed: 118.229 mph for one mile on the Salton Sea. These boats are among the fastest in the world. They are up to forty feet in length, weigh up to 2 1/2 tons, and are powered by motors developing as high as 1500 horsepower. They are temperamental, dangerous and spectacular. It is not uncommon for boats of this class to clear the water for distances of sixty to eighty feet. On these occasions, only the perfect balance and ballast of the craft, together with the driver's skill will keep them from capsizing ... Trophies by Glenn Gurley Buick, Indio."
The trophies were called "cheap" by some of the winners. "Neither the businesses, nor the yacht club members were to blame", stated letters of apology to winners, written by Kay Olesen. He went on to explain that this was the first year the Desert Beach Yacht Club had been in charge, and they simply didn't know what was expected. A telegram saved in the yacht club files, dated October 4, 1949 reads,
"K OLESON=IMPERIAL MOTORS=INDIO CALIF= SENDING LARGE CUP EXPRESS TOO LARGE FOR GREYHOUND ... ED BATHKE"
Apparently the 1949 trophies were of adequate size!
A local newspaper reported just before the highly successful 1949 Speed Boat Regatta, "The unlimited world speedboat record tottered precariously today with the disclosure that a flock of the nation's 'hottest' Gold Cuppers were committed to the ninth annual Salton Sea Regatta October 7,8,9, and 10 at Desert Beach. Heading the announcement made at a meeting of the Desert Beach Yacht Club last night at the Indio Hotel was the news that Henry J. Kaiser, Jr. had given his assurance that his famed industrialist father would enter two great boats--'Hot Metal' and 'Aluminum I'.
"Both of the craft are radical in design. Powered by Allison airplane engines, skilled engineers have made corrections that they hope will blast away the present world standards on the course 33 miles away from the Kaiser iron mine at Eagle Mountain. 'Aluminum' is now in Detroit, while the other craft is up at Oakland.
"The American Power Boat Association has assured the club that automobile magnate Horace Dodge of Detroit will also have a topnotch entry in the regatta. The Dodge colors will be flown by either 'My Sweetie' or 'Delphine X'. These boats each pack two 710 horsepower Allison engines. 'My Sweetie' won both the Gold Cup and National Sweepstakes this year at Detroit and carries its propeller midships.
"'Skip-a-long', already entered by Stanley Dollar of the Dollar Steamship Lines of San Francisco, will not appear at the regatta. The club was informed that the boat, winner of the Hamsworth trophy at Detroit, is now at the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
"Another Lake Tahoe casualty was 'Hurricane IV,' prospective entry of Morlan Visel, multimillionaire Los Angeles attorney. It had broken many Gold Cup records. However, Visel flew down to Desert Beach in his private airplane Tuesday and said he would bring three of the new 48 cubic inch class which will run the first national championships here in competition with twelve other boats from Texas.
"'Such Crust I' entered by Jack Schafer of Detroit holds the All-American class record of 126 MPH set at Gull Lake, Florida. Its drivers will be two brothers --Gene and Dan Arena. The Schafer entry was edged out by "Skip-a-long" for the Hamsworth Trophy this year. The American Power Boat Association has warned the Yacht Club that it must be prepared to handle 300 entries for the four-day regatta."
Coachella Valley's own Dr. Louis Novotny was always a popular competitor and in the 1950 regatta he drove his Pacific One Design hydroplane "Cherub II" to a new five-mile competitive mark, 54.545 mph.
The 1950 Salton Sea Regatta was sponsored by the Southern California Speedboat Club, The Los Angeles Speedboat Association, and Roy Hunter, of Desert Beach. The program states "the Regatta this year is being conducted on an emergency basis. When it appeared that cancellation of this year was certain, last minute arrangements were made to get the races on the water. The courses at Desert Beach are famed ... More records have been established here than at any other course in the world in the history of boat racing."
The 1951 Regatta, again held at Desert Beach, called "The South Seas of the Desert" on their letterhead, resulted in 21 World Records Subsequent boat races were held at other beaches, and ultimately on the west side of sea at places like Helen Bums' Salton Sea Beach. It was not all serious, either. The Daily Enterprise of January 5, 1970 had headlines proclaiming, "Salton Sea's bathtub race turns out to be a runaway." A bathtub race it was-and according to Bill Bryan of the sponsoring Indio Jaycees, "we want to keep it loose so people can have fun." The exact number of official entries could not be determined, but the obvious winner, Danny Wegar skimmed the 25 miles to the east shore and back in one hour and four minutes. For his pains, he received a gold-plated plumber's friend and one-fourth of all entry fees. The second and third place finishers didn't come in until nearly two and one half hours later. Thirty entrants had been expected, but only nine tubs actually started. Technical difficulties plus second thoughts about actually taking a bathtub out on Salton Sea apparently took their pre-race toll!