Pushing Limits - Recreating Muskoka's Boat Racing Legacy
Article and Photography by Tim Du Vernet
There is a primal urge in all of us for speed. The excitement, the risks and the danger – the sense of accomplishment that comes from pushing limits.
Harry Greening and the legacy of boat racing in Muskoka are all about pushing limits. Greening was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame for his “unprecedented series of wins and world records, gaining international honours, esteem and respect as well as his pioneering achievements.” His influence extended well beyond his 25 active years of competition from 1904 to 1929. Greening was a Hamiltonian who summered in Muskoka and conducted many of his endurance achievements on Lake Rosseau.
It is one thing to just go fast and another to be the fastest and first across a finish line. The history of race boating in Muskoka is a remarkable achievement, especially given the relatively remote location and short boating season, compared to other regions of the continent.
Murray Walker feels this history is significant enough to be worth celebrating in a major form, such as a dedicated museum. He calls it a story of “threes” – The Rainbow series driven by Harry Greening, the Miss Canada series driven by the Wilsons and the Miss Supertest series story of Jim Thompson, designer, with Bob Hayward at the wheel. Speed on the water in many forms runs very deep in Canadian historic DNA and Muskoka heritage, so it would be a natural fit to create such a centre to recognize it.
The combination of technological innovation, a dedicated team behind the engine, the hull and logistics and especially the focused drive of one individual to bring it all together to push the limits of the rules, have always been key ingredients in racing. In his series Motor Boat Racing in Canada, Greening shares much about his philosophy and the stories behind some of his adventures in challenging the rest of the world on the water.
As he describes it, Greening’s journey with power began with the attempt to motorize a canoe around 1908, so he could avoid portaging a canoe three miles between Lake Joseph and Rosseau. Greening’s quest for speed continued at the Hamilton Yacht Club where he competed with his Gadfly series of boats and achieved substantial success, at one point winning every race he entered.
Serious racing began in 1920 with the Fisher Trophy challenge. The boats entered were expected to be high speed family runabouts. Rainbow I was entered and won. She was described as possibly the best boat of her kind built to that point in time.
The journey to greater and greater speed for Greening was a constant evolution and experimenting with existing ideas. Greening applied his designs in new or slightly different ways as well as staying just at the edge of what he believed the racing rules would permit.
Discoveries in one area of nautical design could be carried over to others. Concepts such as “surface wheels,” the surface propeller, outboard rudder, full out stepped hull and modified versions of stepping were among some of the more significant technologies with which he experimented. Greening had the means, the opportunity and the ability to combine it all into new and challenging forms. Some of these developments are commonplace in motor boating today.
Speed and horsepower in Rainbow I were further improved with a balanced driveshaft. Rainbow II experimented with the surface wheels and redirecting water flow for greater efficiency. While there may be no physical landmarks surviving in Muskoka to remind us of his drive, the boats Greening had built are his legacy. They continue to live in the re-creation of Rainbow 1 and Rainbow IV through the stewardship of Rolf Gerling. It is one thing to read about these boats and another to see the technology in action.
Of course, Greening wasn’t the only competitor who experimented with ways to go faster. Gar Wood was the sports first superstar, winning five Gold Cup races in a row, with stepped hulls and multiple aircraft engines that were modified for nautical use. With nearly unlimited resources, he was unbeatable and rules were imposed to make the racing more accessible and competitive. By the 1920s, hydroplane hulls were a well-known solution for reducing drag. Motor Boating Magazine published plans for a 21 foot “Canon Ball” in its May issue of 1925.
Despite the ruling regarding stepped hulls, this didn’t stop Greening from coming as close to the edge of the rules as possible and venturing out in ways yet to be considered. In fact, Greening states that his focus turned toward creating a hull that would use the concept of the stepped hull, without it being a stepped hull.
Rainbow IV is the best demonstration of attention to the wording of the rule. Greening had experimented with the outboard rudder in Rainbow III and Rainbow II was a study in hydro-dynamics, borrowing concepts of water flow from others.
Among Gold Cup followers, the race of 1924 is a well-told story. While the rules specifically prohibited a “stepped” hull, there was nothing about the use of laps. Normally, the planks in a lapstrake hull run from bow to stern, overlapping such as in a rowboat or early Duke Playmate, generally in line with the direction of the flow of the water. To run the laps across the flow of the water would potentially create many small points of lift, without using a single step. Further, Rainbow IV used a surface prop and outboard rudder.
When race day came in 1924, Greening’s Rainbow IV won against the incredibly streamlined, Crouch-designed Baby Bootlegger. Curiously, the lines of Baby Bootlegger have been recreated and borrowed endlessly in various forms, but not until Rolf Gerling commissioned the Muskoka recreation of Rainbow IV had boat racing enthusiasts been able to understand just how radical this creation was. Even today, she looks unlike anything on the water.
With spray shooting hundreds of feet from the prop and the nearly dory-like look of the hull, she was clearly a radical challenger. Greening believed that his challenges to the rules resulted in constant changes to the rules, “that seemed to work between the rules, without hitting an important snag.” Greening gambled on playing one option against another.
While the rules prohibited the step, they didn’t exclude lapstrake construction. Greening reportedly reviewed the meaning of lapstrake extensively to exclude confusion with a stepped hull.
In 1940, Greening noted, “Although we won the Gold Cup hands down, we didn’t get to keep it.” A protest was lodged before the race and the race was run, with the result subject to the APBA decision. Rainbow IV won using the points system, while Caleb Bragg’s Baby Bootlegger came second. The result of the protest was that the laps were steps and the hull was not in the form of a runabout. First place was awarded to Baby Bootlegger.
To make the loss even more concerning is the possibility that Rainbow IV was inspected during construction by an APBA official and her design met official criteria. Greening never competed in the Gold Cup again. The contention was that while Greening had followed the “rules” as outlined, he hadn’t followed the spirit of the rules.
After it was thought to have been a win for Rainbow IV, a period account in "The Rudder” states: “His success this year was a most popular one and every real sportsman applauded the plucky Canadian for the never-say-die spirit which has kept him in the game year after year in spite of many setbacks which would have discouraged a less determined character.” The real winner of the Gold Cup of 1924 was George Crouch, the designer of the three top place finishers.
Rainbow IV would prove her merit in another way, the long-distance endurance race. She set a world record on Lake Rosseau. An eyewitness of the period states, “The last I saw of Rainbow IV on that day, Herbert Ditchburn, her builder was at the wheel and the little boat was touching only the high spots as she reeled off miles almost while we were thinking about it. At the end of the 24 hours, Rainbow IV had established a new world’s record of 1,218 miles and Greening was again vindicated.”
Greening would break his own record again, with Rainbow VII. Rainbow VII may be considered the most successful of all Greening’s creations. Winning the Championship of North America in 1928, against Gar Wood, while carrying at least seven passengers.
The effect of Harry Greening and the Rainbow series may have extended beyond the world of boat racing. By commissioning Muskoka boatbuilder Ditchburn to create many of his craft and to perform trials and endurance quests on Lake Rosseau, the region not only got to experience world class speed but to absorb its influence in many forms.
Such examples possibly include the Ditchburn Viking series of launches featuring a stepped hull, the outboard rudder used in many of the sport runabouts and the monkey rails that were a period trait of many a performance boat. The superintendent of the Ditchburn plant, Bert Hawker was an able builder and designer. It is also possible that the stepped hull concept in the Vikings originated from his drawing board.
This period in motor racing followed the Great War when many surplus aircraft engines became available for conversion to other use. Gar Wood made extensive use of these engines including the popular Liberty and Packard engines. Rainbow III is powered by a period Packard engine. Their sound is very distinctive, like that of an old airplane firing up. Rainbow IV, according to Motor Boating (1925), used a Liberty Engine (Gar Wood Marine Model T-25) that developed 400 HP at 1850 RPM. She had capacity for just over 40 gallons of fuel. She burned 685 gallons of regular fuel for the world record. During the 24-hour world record test between October 2nd and 3rd, co-operating with Commodore Greening were the entire facilities of the plant of Herbert Ditchburn of Gravenhurst. James Galloway, General Manager of Gar Wood Inc., was included in the list of mechanics for the test.
Plans for just about any historic boat are not difficult to find. The challenge comes in recreating the complete package. Historic photos can provide the clues to surface details and hardware produced from the Ditchburn factory, but balancing the dynamics of hull, power and steerage take the trained eye of a nautical engineer. The end result of the recreation of Rainbow IV is a very satisfying craft that presents much of the essence of the original. A rare, but period 400 HP, 12-cylinder Gar Wood Liberty is the icing on a magnificent mahogany, oak, cedar and chrome cake.