One summer high-school break, I wanted to do something else than build more model airplanes and practice trombone. I often read Popular Mechanics magazines on rainy days and found myself staring at an article “Build your own Racing Hydroplane.” The plans looked amazingly like those of model airplanes, only larger. It was an eight-foot, single-seat, racing boat that rode a few inches over the water at 30 mph using only a 7-1/2 or 10 hp outboard. Other than size, there wouldn’t be much difference between building it and the model airplanes I was familiar with. I had helped my father build a kit rowboat in a neighbor’s basement the year before, so I knew the work involved. All I had to do was scale-up the magazine plans, find some space, spend part of my $100 lifetime savings, and saw a few pieces of wood into shape.
A local bread baker gave me a roll of wrapping paper for the plans, and I cut out paper templates like my mother used to make dresses. Bicycling to a lumberyard to look for marine wood, I quickly discovered it cost far more than planned. But there was nothing wrong with less-expensive white pine, a strong and easy wood to work with. With hand saws, planes, and files, I soon had $30 worth of shaped wooden hydroplane pieces lying in a corner of the basement. A major family discussion ensued. Where would I assemble it, because I would never get it out of our basement once I started it there. My father agreed to let me use our single-car garage, but it meant having to park his beloved station wagon in the driveway for the summer. I’d never begun a project of this magnitude before and he probably wondered how far I would get before giving up.
The following Saturday, I began fastening the pieces together over a set of borrowed saw-horses. Only a few weeks later, the frame of what looked like a real hydroplane began appearing. My exhilaration was short-lived after discovering brass screws to fasten a plywood skin cost far more than my budget, but my father came to the rescue, suggesting I use then-new, less-expensive fasteners called screw-nails. I was back in business. After tracing more paper patterns onto thin plywood, I hand-sawed each skin piece and nailed each section into place on the hydroplane’s frame.
By the end of July, Dad was checking progress every day. When would he be able to park his car in the garage again? After filling the boat’s seams, filing, and hand-sanding, I painted it with primer and topcoat paint that cost another $15. I added a girlfriend’s name on its sides, hoping to get a kiss and maybe she would pay for the paint. Neither came to pass, and now I had a real problem. I had a beautiful machine sitting in the garage, nearing a budget limit, but without an engine, steering wheel, hand-throttle, or stabilizing rudder. I think my father was surprised his sixteen-year-old had actually built a purposeful racing hull, but delivering more newspapers wouldn’t help.
My parents decided to advance a little money against future birthday and Christmas presents, and Dad found an old $75 Mercury 7-1/2 hp outboard motor for me that he could also use for fishing. Of course, I had to rebuild it to show I was capable of more than just wood-working. Then one night he unwrapped a racing steering wheel he’d found on the east side. An engine throttle soon followed. It was called a “dead man’s throttle” because if a driver is thrown out of a hydroplane at high speed, a spring-loaded lever kills the engine and the boat won’t run out of control. My mother began worrying about my safety, and “dead man’s” throttle didn’t assuage any fears, so I agreed to wear an old football helmet, life preserver, and safety harness.
After Labor Day, everything was ready to go. Dad found a public launch site in Waterford and we loaded the boat, motor, gasoline, helmet, life-preserver, and a toy paddle. It was a calm, cool mid-morning when we finally slid it into the water, and I was soon chugging along the shoreline of a long-forgotten lake until the tiny hull lifted and began skimming over the water as designed. The engine rose to a howl and the lake surface rushed by. Holding the throttle wide open, I edged back into the cockpit and was soon flying across the water, glorious sunlight glittering across a small chop. Distant green shore rushed by and I was alone with the howl of wind and engine.
Waving excitedly at my father and passing speedboats, I followed the shoreline before turning the steering wheel. The boat pointed in a different direction but continued straight across the water. Uh, oh. In my hurry to try the boat, I had forgotten to install the bottom stabilizing fin. I barely missed hitting a diving platform before throttling back and carefully returning to our launch point at half-throttle, without telling Dad about the near miss. I somehow doubt the football helmet and life-preserver would have helped.
After a few more summers dashing across local lakes, I began tiring of the boat, ready to move on, a friendship that was cooling. Building the hydroplane had been a time of father-son bonding difficult to repeat. I was away from home a few years later when Dad wrote to ask the fateful question, should he sell it to a couple of boys in the neighborhood? It would be a loss for both of us. He later said they mounted a 25 hp Mercury engine on it, and probably scared themselves silly if they didn’t kill themselves first. Did they ever wonder who “Carole Lee” was that was painted on its sides?