Once were warriorsOnce were warriors

by Paul Hopkins*

A long time ago, when men were men and boats were built of timber, there was a group of brave warriors who fought frightening, unpredictable aquatic monsters powered by even more unpredictable pre-World War Two aircraft engines.
These brave warriors drove the fabled stepped hydroplanes that thrilled the crowds that flocked to see them do battle on Kogarah Bay, Gunnamatta Bay and Rose Bay in the 1930s.
Until recently photographs of these remarkable machines could be viewed in the lower bar of St George Motor Boat Club at St Kilda Point, Kogarah Bay. There were action shots of the mighty Cettien (reborn after the war as Sunray), Fleetwings, Endeavour, Pennzol, Eagle, Century Tyre and a large framed hand coloured action pic of one of the club’s original boats, a 17-footer named Newsletter owned by my brother, Arthur.
A Wolsey-Viper aero engine that had to be pre-heated to get it started powered the Newsletter and oil pressure had to be pumped up by hand. This rough and ready stepped hydroplane, that showed signs of previous engine fires, reached speeds of around 60 miles per hour ­– yet wasn’t the fastest monster in the 1936 fleet.
Mr H.C. McEvoy’s turtle decked, shoe-shaped Cettien was the pace setter; I think she was powered by a Packard-Curtis aero engine – or was it an Allison? When re-powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin in the late 1940s she went even faster.
Once were warriorsStepped hydroplanes were so named because they had a full width planing step up on the bottom about a third of the way aft with flatfish sections back to the stern. Many engines were installed back to front, the propeller shaft driving through a gearbox mounted forward adjacent to a foredeck hatchway giving access to gearbox, prop shaft, take off shaft and forward rudder.
Yes, many stepped hydroplanes had two rudders – a small one forward of the step and a larger one offset at the stern. It had to be offset because many prop shafts protruded past the transom, driving large surface piercing type propellers.
The thrill for the crowds was when an imprudent driver accelerated too soon after a tight turn – the huge lumbering aero engine would spew flames and smoke in a roar of defiance as it twisted the hull around its large trailing propeller. The roar would cease with a gurgling groan as the speedboat turned turtle, showing onlookers what a stepped hydroplane’s bottom looked like.
Sometimes the steering gear to the forward rudder would break and the startled crew would be thrown into the water.
In those days, boat trailers were rare, so crews sometimes drove their boats to race venues, via the Tasman Sea and home again after the racing. Today, this would be unthinkable; stepped hydroplanes just weren’t designed to go to sea. But they did.
I was only six of seven the memorable day my eldest brother Arthur (who had lost half of his left arm in an industrial accident) and his mechanic Scotty Callan, drove Newsletter from our hire boat shed alongside Dover Park, near Carss Park, Kogarah Bay, to Cronulla’s Gunnamatta Bay to represent St George MBC in an RMYC event.
My mother (Milfred) and father (Tom) were becoming anxious as night closed in and there was no sign of the returning Newsletter. Then a distant roar was heard, and around the Sans Souci point came the missing speedboat. Flames from the boat’s open exhausts pinpointed her position – minutes later she beached on Chinaman’s Beach, to the north of our boatshed’s long jetty and, because the tide was dropping, my brother Arthur walked the boat out to deeper water and dropped its anchor.
Then he started walking into deeper water. My parents called to him and he turned and made for the shore. As he stumbled into things we realised he couldn’t see – he wasn’t blind drunk – he was blind.
Helped ashore and put to bed in obvious pain, he still objected loudly when Dad called the doctor.
His sight came back a few days later. How did he lose his sight? How did he drive the Newsletter home?
The Wolsey Viper was a cranky engine at the best of times and while returning at sea from Cronulla, a large wave flooded the engine. Scotty primed the carburettor and Arthur pumped up the oil pressure, and cranked the engine desperately and finally the engine fired with a belch of flames and smoke. But Arthur was caught by the engine’s sudden burst of life with his face over the open exhausts. The heat, flames and smoke blinded him.
Scotty Callan kept the sick engine going and directed Arthur where to steer. So, a one-armed blind man drove this cranky, unpredictable monster back up the coast, in through the heads, across Botany Bay, into Kogarah Bay and made a pinpoint landing on Chinaman’s Beach under Scotty’s verbal instructions; then Arthur insisting on anchoring the boat unaided.
Sure, he was a determined, stubborn bugger; that’s why he was a boxing champion before he lost his arm and why he taught himself to beach cast one-handed two weeks after he had his forearm ripped off.
There’s no doubt it, the blokes who crewed these dangerous pre-war stepped hydroplanes were truly real men in wooden boats; a touch insane maybe, but bloody brave and adventurous with a spirit that made Australia great. I dips me lid to the memory of them all.

Footnote – My brother Arthur died in Nowra aged 86 several years ago. I’m the only sibling left from the large Hopkins family that settled at Tom Ugly’s Point in 1917. The last time we spoke to Ces Quilkey, Commodore of the St George Motor Boat Club, the lower bar pictures of the stepped hydroplanes were in storage within the club premises. My father T.G. (Tom) Hopkins and my brother Arthur were foundation members of this club way back in the 1920s. My mother, Milfred, brothers Neville and Allan and sister Betty and I all raced speedboats at the club on Kogarah Bay.


*Paul Hopkins was editor of Seacraft magazine for about 20 years with shorter stints as editor of Modern Boating, Sea Spray and Powerboat & Yachting.