The noise was unmistakable, even before I looked to see what was making it. From my room at Campbell’s Resort on Lake Chelan, I instantly recognized the throaty, unmuffled roar of a Rolls Royce aircraft engine (or maybe an Allison) like those used to power unlimited hydroplanes back in the day.
That high-revved, pulsating drone, straight out of my boyhood, jolted me back more than 50 years in time, to the golden age of hydroplane racing when heroes like Bill Muncey and Mira Slovak piloted the big boats at Lake Washington during the annual Seafair race, kicking up roostertails as they jockeyed around the oval course’s marker buoys.
Back then I knew all the boats and all their drivers and all their histories, going back to the legendary Stan Sayres and the early 1950s Slo-mo-shun era. I watched with fascination (on TV, while Pat O’Day called the race) as the hydros bounced and skittered over the chop at 150 miles per hour or more down the backstretch, dueling for position within a few feet of each other, sliding into the turns with their sponsons showing daylight, then cutting sharply back to the straightaway for a hair-raising finish.
They called them thunderboats, and if you heard them you know why. Put five of them on a course and the noise was deafening.
The classic boats were also dangerous — open cockpits, persnickety hulls, only a helmet and lifejacket to protect drivers who wrestled with a stiff wheel while enduring a kidney-pounding ride in a temperamental craft that might kite and go airborne. Indeed, there were heart-stopping flips and ghastly collisions and hydros rocketing off course into spectators’ boats. Many of our heroes died.
All of these images came back in a nanosecond as I hurried to the balcony of my room to see what was making that noise on the lake.
A boat sped by, throwing up the distinctive spray that only an unlimited can make. Oh my God. Was that Miss Thriftway? Muncey’s boat? After all these years, I remembered U-60’s distinctive paint job, which resembled a brown and orange and white parfait. I looked down the lake along the shoreline and probably gasped. There were several more boats, trailered next to network of docks.
I was supposed to be heading back to Twisp. Instead, I dashed out of the room and down to the lake. Without asking anyone or thinking it was a problem, I hustled into what turned out to be a restricted area. Nobody made me leave. I’m not embarrassed to say that I was like an awe-struck child. Miss Thriftway was indeed there. But that wasn’t all.
There was Miss Bardahl, with the signature green-and-yellow paint job. Oh Boy Oberto, pride of the Seattle company famous for its jerky. Miss Wahoo, a classic design with a gorgeous wooden hull. Miss Budweiser, whose red-and-white prow was often first to cross the finish line. Anyone who followed the hydros in the 1950s and ’60s recognizes these iconic boats. I was in hydro-geek heaven.
Each took a turn on the course, tooling a couple of laps at less-than-top speed. At one point, two boats were on the water at the same time, and while they weren’t racing it was thrilling to see their roostertails catching the day’s brilliant sunlight, and to imagine the races of long ago.
It turns out I had happened upon an expansive boat show at the resort, called Mahogany and Merlot, featuring lots of gorgeous antique boats as well as the display of large and small hydros.
But I was in the thrall of the unlimiteds. Some of the hulls were apparently restored originals, others were replicas, lovingly re-created. Every one of them was beautiful in not only design but also craftsmanship. They managed to look powerful yet elegant, their sleek profiles and jaunty tail fins suggesting speed even when they were parked on shore.
I headed back to Twisp with the sounds of yesteryear reverberating in my head and heart.