When I was a little tyke in the 1960s, I remember going down to the Tidal Basin and watching speedboat races. I think it coincided with the Cherry Blossom Festival. Whatever happened to the event, and why is it not held anymore?
Bob Fowler, Greenbelt
Speedboats in the Tidal Basin? Doesn't sound very safe, does it? Those pedal boats are fast enough for Answer Man, thank you very much.
Although there were powerboat races in the Tidal Basin, they probably aren't what this reader is remembering. The Tidal Basin contests were in the 1930s, in modestly powered craft usually piloted by teenage boys.
The real action was on the Potomac. In their heyday, the speedboat races drew upward of 100,000 spectators, who lined the river to watch daring drivers race in something called, appropriately enough, the President's Cup Regatta.
The inaugural race was in September 1926. President Calvin Coolidge awarded the President's Cup to L. Gordon Hamersley of the Columbia Yacht Club, who drove the Cigarette IV at speeds reaching 55 mph. Drivers competed in various classes, depending on the size of the boat and the power of the engine. The fastest competed in the unlimited hydroplane class.
The President's Cup was contested annually, except during the war years. Whether there was an appearance by an actual president depended on the interest level of the White House's occupant. FDR was reportedly a fan. Truman handed over the trophy occasionally.
The unlimited hydroplane-class boats got increasingly faster, especially after World War II when surplus fighter plane engines came on the market. Many boats ran with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines of the sort that powered Spitfires.
By 1958, boats were reaching speeds of 106 mph over an oval, 21/2-mile course laid out in the Potomac's Georgetown Channel, off Hains Point. The pits were in the Navy Yard.
As is always the case when humans strap themselves in machines and go fast, there were accidents. There was a fatality in 1931 when the boat Miss Philadelphia flipped over, killing driver William Freitag. The Associated Press reported: "Fellow-boatmen said Freitag was a driver of great experience, though he could not swim."
It probably wouldn't have mattered if he could. The impact was fatal.
The most tragic day of the President's Cup was June 19, 1966. In an early heat, the propeller of a boat named Miss Bardahl sheared off as the craft rounded the second turn, near National Airport. The boat pitched up, slammed down and then broke in two in front of the judges' stand, killing driver Ron Musson.
There was talk of canceling the rest of the regatta, but the drivers had voted earlier to continue racing, even if there was a fatality. In the final heat, a boat called Notre Dame, driven by Rex Manchester, became airborne. It landed on Miss Budweiser, driven by Don Wilson. Both men were killed. Rex had been in the lead, so he was declared the winner.
"For as long as men race boats, people will continue to speak in whispers about Black Sunday," wrote powerboat-racing historian Fred Farley.
The accident didn't end the President's Cup. It must have been a sight to behold.
"The Allison and Rolls-Royce engines made this thundering sound," said Fred in an interview. "You could hear them from a mile radius. They had roostertails a football field in length. They were and still are spectacular things to watch."
Except not in Washington. The regatta continued until 1980, though the crowd-pleasing unlimited hydroplanes stopped competing in 1977, when Bill Muncey reached nearly 116 mph in a boat called Atlas Van Lines.
Fred said he never did hear an official reason, but he thinks the organizers ran out of money. "Every now and then there's talk of maybe going back there, but it's never come around," he said.
But is the river wide enough for boats that these days can now reach speeds of 200 mph? "It's wide enough," said Fred. "They race on smaller bodies of water."
The President's Cup Regatta might not exist anymore, but the President's Cup does. Hand engraved -- with scenes of the Potomac River, speedboats, the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, White House, the Capitol and the presidential seal -- it resides in Eastpointe, Mich., at the American Power Boat Association.
"It's beautiful," said Gloria Urbin, the association's executive administrator. "It's right here in our office, on display."
Burn, Baby, Burn
Several readers responded to last week's speculation on why Washington Post newsprint doesn't always burn the same way by suggesting that perhaps it's just too darn wet.
Wrote Anne Beamer of Arlington: "We have the same kind of charcoal chimney fire-starter, and we decided to keep old newspapers down in the basement for convenience. But then we couldn't get the newspaper to light, either.
"I think it's because of our intensely humid summers. The newspaper soaks up moisture from the air, and then it won't burn. When we used newspaper kept in the air-conditioned (drier) part of the house, it lit and burned just fine."
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