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The Short, Fast History of Powerboating

Maritime historian Richard Dodds tells us how the era of recreational boating rose and flourished

From lighthouses to skipjacks, amphibious landings to speedboats, all that and more is in Richard Dodds’ portfolio as Calvert Marine Museum’s Curator of Maritime History. Inside the Solomons museum, runabouts, cruisers and speedboats that look both modern and classic illustrate how that chapter of maritime history rose and flourished in Southern Maryland. Visit the U.S. Powerboat Show in Annapolis this weekend, and you’ll see the vast diversification of their descendants. It all happened in a very short time.


Bay Weekly    Today powerboats are nearly as accessible as cars; pretty much anybody who wants one can have one — though perhaps not the boat of his or her dreams. My father, a World War II sailor, ran a string of runabouts on the Mississippi in the 1950s. I took powerboating for granted. Now I understand he was part of a pioneer generation.

Until the turn of the last century, recreational boating was largely reserved for the well-to-do.

Richard Dodds    Up until the 1890s or so, recreational boating was largely reserved for the well-to-do. A devotee needed to buy a steam launch that had to be operated by a certified marine steam engineer who’d trained for two years. These were big boats, 40 to 60 feet, powered by coal. They were way beyond the means of an average man or woman.
    That changed in early 20th ­century, dramatically.
Bay Weekly    Are the boats we enjoy today a byproduct of war?
Richard Dodds    No. It was the development of the internal combustion engine. By 1900, over 100 companies were making internal combustion engines. This was a huge revolution.


Bay Weekly    So the same force that drove the automobile gave us powerboats?

Richard Dodds    Of those 100 manufacturers, maybe a dozen were turning out early marine engines. Modern boating has its origins in early 20th century energy, inventiveness and optimism. People thought they could do anything.


Bay Weekly    In other words, the engine came before the boat.

Richard Dodds    By 1910, already a number of workboats had been converted to power. Working watermen were among the first to see the benefit. Why row a heavy boat all day long or sail when there’s no wind when you can relatively inexpensively put an engine in your boat and be so much more productive and efficient? Sailing wasn’t romantic back then; it was very practical.
    The boats built for sail with the traditional hull and appearance were not ideal for the transformation. But the small engines, about 10 horsepower, worked fine and were simple, so the average waterman could take care of it himself as there weren’t many repair shops they could take a motor to.


Bay Weekly    Obviously, the internal combustion engine caught on.

Richard Dodds    You could get your catch in a lot quicker than before. Under sail it would take hours and hours. Now you could turn the engine on and be back in half an hour. Watermen saw the advantages immediately, and once they got the money, invested it in these early inboard engines.
    In May 1913, a commercial magazine for watermen wrote that “the gas motor has done more for the Chesapeake region than any other thing in the past century.”


Bay Weekly    Was anything happing that early in pleasure boating?

Richard Dodds    Powerboats also evolved in the early 20th century. The 1920s and 1930s were the era of glamor boats built for people who could afford those beautiful mahogany-hulled runabout Chris-Crafts, Hacker-Crafts, Trumpys and Gar Woods. Many had huge engines inside and were used in racing. Everybody was fascinated with speed, and no one knew what the limits were. Whether by car, plane or boat, they wanted to go faster.
    In turn, new publications like Motor Boat were born in response to the new market.


Bay Weekly    What about the average pleasure boater?

Richard Dodds    For practical reasons, most people didn’t own a pleasure boat even if they wanted to. Democracy would reach the auto industry early with Ford, but in boats it took a little time. The manufacturing base was not there. Perhaps more important, most people did not yet have cars.

Bay Weekly    So you had to have a car to have a boat?

Richard Dodds    Today on weekends you see people hauling boats all over because we have reliable cars, good roads and boat trailers. Before World War I, if you were looking for a boat trailer you’d look in vain. They were individually made by the one who needed it.
    We take marinas for granted now, but there were no real marinas either, or boat ramps. There were boat yards and marine railways, but no marinas.
    If you wanted to get out on the water or go fishing, if you had a decent car and could go by road, you’d come for a week or two, stay at a guest house or hotel and charter a boat to go out fishing, essentially a workboat, with your own captain who knew the boat. Or you could rent a skiff that could be oar-powered, or maybe had an early outboard, and go fishing that way. Then at the end of the holiday, you got in your car and went home. You didn’t bring your boat.


Bay Weekly    That changed …

Richard Dodds    After World War II, gradually. People were tired of war and wanted to get back to living a normal life. Money was available, and servicemen overseas had saved. It was a prosperous, optimistic era, with more and more companies, including Cruise Along here in Solomons, trying to build boats for the average man.
    In early 1946-1947, right after the war, Cruise Along — which previously had built custom yachts — got into this new market. They and other companies learned about plywood doing government work in the war. Now they started turning out relatively inexpensive plywood, 22-foot boats you could pull on a trailer or dock at a marina. Other companies started, too, in the average-man market, and it continued to evolve, with wood construction changing in the 1960s to fiberglass.
    All of these boats were inboards.


By the end of World War II, small outboard motors were being marketed to the masses as an easy way to get out on the water.

Bay Weekly    So outboards have their own story?

Richard Dodds    Another parallel development. The outboard motor was developed by Cameron Waterman about 1905 and called the detachable rowboat motor.
    The outboard was even better for the average person. You didn’t need a bigger boat; you could go out fishing or puttering around in a 12- or 14-foot skiff. In magazine ads, you’d see beautiful young ladies picking up an outboard and clamping it onto the stern of a boat, with a text like throw those oars away.


Bay Weekly    You’ve chronicled the quest for speed in your book, Thrills and Chills: The Golden Era of Powerboat Racing in Southern Maryland.

Richard Dodds    With these developments, the whole sport of powerboat racing took off as well. There were big inboards with giant Packard engines that could go 60 or 70 miles per hour.
    Here on the Chesapeake, you could put an outboard on a small boat and enter a race. From the mid 1950s to late ’70s was the golden era of stock racing when an average person could take a boat they bought to go fishing or take out the family and race it on Sunday afternoon. Races here or in St. Mary’s or Kent Island or Cambridge attracted thousands. It was such a big part of community life, so many local people rooting for a neighbor or cousin.


Bay Weekly    You’ve given us a good story to go with the U.S. Powerboat Show this weekend in Annapolis.

Richard Dodds    All those show offerings go back to the revolution in power in those few decades of the early 20th century. The first motorboat show, by the way, was held in New York in about 1907.