Requiem for a Thunderboat

History used to be mainly oral. For most of our early centuries, history was passed from generation to generation by memorizing what older people said, along with songs and stories, and then telling it all over again to future generations. Then came writing, and then printing and we didn’t have to remember as much. And then, of course, with the photograph we didn’t have to be as descriptive because, after all, there was the picture. Now more and more we tend to think of life as recordable. If we miss something said on the radio, we know that somewhere in the station files this hour was preserved. And we see so much news footage that it seems impossible that various events could exist not on film or video or in photographs, but only in the minds of people who were there.

But that is way far from true. The camera is usually there for scenes which are predictable, and is only very occasionally present when something truly significant happens, like the Hindenburg Dirigible disaster. Where were the cameras at the sinking of the Titanic, or the Lusitania? Football and baseball games have a predictability to each situation, and a camera can be waiting to catch the scene, but most of our little wars now happen at night, or in unexpected ambushes which defy camera setups. Obviously ceremonies and speeches are often live situations, but most are not too interesting even the first time. That nearly means that if a live subject is caught on film or video, there is by definition a dull predictability about it. Most of the truly arresting pictures were spontaneous occurrences, and most of them are still NOT captured except by fortunate accident.

Body cameras on policemen and surveillance cameras in parking lots are beginning to catch a lot of pertinent action, and in sports the use of instant replay has been sparingly used to resolve controversy. One invention I was touting gave an instantly accessible eight-second rendition of every football play from four different camera angles. It was a referee’s dream, I had supposed, only to be told by the National Football League that the referees didn’t want that much information.

There is occasionally a sight so uncaught and amazing that it becomes a lifetime memory, if you survive it. Seattle was an early sponsor of major hydroplane races, the kind where they go 200 miles per hour and shoot up roostertails behind as they skim and bounce along the surface of water. It was all part of Seafair, a citywide festival with numerous parades celebrating sections of the city. It was, and is, the one-week occasion for archery contests and old car shows and drum-and-bugle-core presentations in torchlight parades. Events were listed in the papers. Everyone had their favorite event, but in the 1950’s the city’s favorite of favorites was the Gold Cup Hydroplane race. Four hundred thousand people lined the shores of Lake Washington, an Indianapolis of water sports in the Pacific Northwest.

This was Seattle, remember, as it existed in the 50s before Microsoft and Amazon, a city dominated by Boeing workers and Teamsters who controlled work at one of the busiest ports in America. It had of course been the home of timber barons and the departure point for Alaska…and the promise of Klondike riches. Lesser known was the heavy influence of communist union organizers, and as a destination for the legendary folk-singer, Woody Guthrie.

A lot of us kids thought of the Gold Cup Unlimited Hydro Race as an exclusive Seattle event, but it was not. There were a few years then – and many years since – when Detroit racing boats took the Gold Cup back there, back East. When it happened, we considered it stolen, and definitely a temporary affair. The boats were bedecked with ads by their major sponsors. Think Miss Pepsi and Miss Detroit. However, our local pride was in those boats sponsored by local concerns like Miss Bardahl (a Seattle auto oils manufacturer,) and the Slo-Mo-Shun boats. Seattle’s Miss Thriftway had the legendary Bill Muncey as its driver. The boats packed in huge aircraft engines behind the driver, and the roar carried through much of the city all week, as the big boats qualified, often with record times over the 2 ½ mile course and speeds in excess of 200 mph..

At the other end of the social scale, our family had a very small boat with a cabin. In 1958 my stepfather managed to buy a space on the log boom that surrounded the unlimited Hydro races. Right up very close we could see the huge, noisy unlimited-class hydroplanes roar through first turn of 20 laps. People snapped photos and had movie cameras going, as the massive boats growled and bounced along the top of the water, throwing up massive rooster tails behind them.

Earlier in the day the Blue Angels had flown in formation overhead, for a world-class air show. When they came low over the course at 500 miles per hour, every boat below rocked and every house on shore shook, and many wine glasses fell off their shelves. Seattle was an airplane town, remember, and the Blue Angels reminded us of the Air Superiority we would have on the battlefield. Three years earlier, in 1955, Boeing was just prototyping the 707 jetliner and in a test-pilot burst of bravado its pilot, Tex Johnson, executed an impromptu barrel roll with the huge airplane right above the crowd of hundreds of thousands on the Seattle shores. But all of this was captured by Boeing footage from a trailing plane. When Johnson was brought on the carpet before the CEO of Boeing and asked to account for himself, he said he was just “selling airplanes.” And they did sell a few 707s as it turned out.

To repeat: All of these spectacular events were on film. All are a history of the human race. What came next was not. It is in my head, and in the head of everyone who was electrified by it but, to my knowledge, not a photo or a piece of film exists of when Miss Thriftway slammed into a Coast Guard patrol boat at way over 100 mph.

So you will have to go by my account, or that of any one else who was there in 1958.        

The day was warm and gorgeous, with 14,000 ft Mt. Rainier towering above all of us at sea level on Lake Washington. Beers and barbeques on the boats had been going for hours and this was the first of three finals heats. Seven unlimited hydroplanes, all powered by the massively noisy aircraft engines, came thundering out from under the Lake Washington bridge to hit the starting line. We were on the end curve of the first turn. We could see Miss Thriftway’s driver, the legendary Bill Muncey, skillfully take his perfectly-timed speed at the starting line and convert it to rising momentum that gained him the inside position on the first turn. Often the boat that could take that position from the start went on to win the Gold Cup.

We were all standing up watching, excited, as the boats swung around that first turn in parallel concentric arcs, beautiful and bewitching in the danger of   boats, their wide front sponsons tripping like light-footed dancers across the small chop of waves,  each boat longer than a truck — going about as fast as humans ever go on the water. The man in the boat next to us had his film camera whirring. I may have had a beer in my teenaged hand. People were cheering as the boats swung in unison and you could hear that shouting through the tumult and churned up waters. Muncey seemed to be veering a little wide, nosing other boats wide as well, all this at well over 100mph…and then Miss Thriftway broke free of its curve and went absolutely straight toward the small boats on the log boom. Its throttle seemed jammed open and its rudder had broken away as the huge hydro cut off the other racers and sped straight toward the edge of the first curve totally out of control and ready to kill 50 people… if it would go on to plow through the surrounding small boats.

And then…it didn’t kill 50 people. It hit only one boat, a small Coast Guard cutter sitting on the edge of the first turn, sitting in the water and then lifted – all its great tonnage – up out of the water as Miss Thriftway knifed into its side. Did Muncey stay with the boat and guide it that way to save all those spectators? We don’t know. We may never know, but when Miss Thriftway’s runaway bow knifed into the metal side, it lifted the whole boat up out of the water. I swear the impact lifted that heavy Coast Guard boat right out of the water and I swear to this day I saw daylight under the both of them. When the big hydroplane had broken away from the pack, coming almost right toward us, the man next to us with his movie camera said, “Holy…” and let his finger off the button, almost dropping the camera in rigid shock.

The two boats, one cloven into the side of the other, settled back down into the water and the Coast Guard boat began to take on water rapidly. One of the sailors below, wormed out the hole in the side before it sank. Refuse and boat parts from the Miss Thriftway were everywhere and we thought surely the driver, Muncey, was dead. Police boats arriving quickly sent divers quickly down to look for him, as the Coast Guard vessel filled with water and its prow began its downward descent. In only a couple of minutes the stern kicked up and it slipped into the deep, but most of the crew had been up top watching and were thrown into the water. One crewman we found later had broken his leg. Bill Muncey was somehow thrown free and was floating over in some waves, with many bones broken inside and out. He was unconscious from the impact with the water.

On the final heat, another boat swerved wide toward our log boom and people from 10 or 12 boats dived off the back of theirs but there was no runaway this time. Every one who had frozen in place and stopped taking pictures as disaster neared in the first heat was now ready for anything, diving off or shooting pictures as the boats bounced through the whole first turn without incident.

YouTube has the 10 Most Spectacular Hydroplane Crashes Ever on collected old newsreels. Over 300,000 Internet viewers have watched these. But unfortunately they have seen nothing. The most important one, in 1958, the most thrilling, most terrible, and most devastating hydroplane crash in that sport’s history, was witnessed live by 100s of thousands on the shores. And because not one good picture was taken, it doesn’t even exist in history. It will only exist…as long as we spectators exist. In some ways that is an oddly comfortable feeling, that the most significant things of all may still be fleeting, and not preservable in stone or film or digits, but only in the souls of those of us who on that day actually felt history.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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