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Halcyon days on the water.
Some notes on my hydroplanes.

by Mike Drinkwater

In November 1954 an article was published in "Model Maker" featuring my tethered hydroplane "Ballerina". The elements making up the design had been developed through a series of models during the preceding years.

Part 1

In 1948 I was running my home built fast electric boat on the park lake during the school holidays. Two young men appeared with a free running hydroplane powered by a Mills 1.3cc turning a 10" airscrew. It had two floats based on the shape of the Schneider Trophy seaplanes.

My friends and I wanted something faster. It would have to be lighter and travel on the surface of the water. I designed a small rectangular boat for an E.D. Bee. The underside of the hull was flat side to side with a step and a 3 degree planing angle. That figure came from the work of the eminent Victorian scientist Froude. Chasing the model around the lake kept us very fit!

The same year I built a kit of the delightful little Frog "Whippet" waterscrew hydroplane for a Frog 160 glow. The following year the E.D. Challenger kit was on the market for the E.D. Competition Special. Although it had the advanced features of a two point bridle and a surface piercing prop, as a working model it was hopeless.

In 1949 I purchased the more powerful Aerol "Hurricane" 2cc for £1 15s. A new boat was designed and built. It was larger than before the original and had lightweight wheels at the front and rear on the port side. It ran clockwise against the wall of the lake, because we knew that the torque of the engine in tractor configuration would tend to turn it in.

However, it was much too fast to handle so it was decided to try it tethered to a central pole. The wheels were removed and replaced by an arm extending from the engine mount, in line with the balance point of the boat. The winter had arrived and the lake was frozen so the model had to be run on the snow. This was no hardship since I didn't have any waders! It accelerated fiercely and looped almost immediately due to the air pressure beneath the front of the hull.

In the spring of 1950 a larger, slimmer model was built with a tunnel hull for the Frog 500 turning a 10"x8" green 'Truflex" propeller. Experience with control line aircraft had shown this to be a remarkably effective combination. To run the boat, the operator stood in the water holding the line, so that he could step back and keep the line tight. This was done to counter the problems I seen at the Altrincham Club. Some members, who were running 15cc and 30cc waterscrew hydroplanes, had endless trouble with their heavy linen tethers dragging in the water at the launch. On the first run the model accelerated rapidly and promptly looped after about half a lap, something I should have anticipated.

To counteract the effect, I built a small model with four sponsons so that the airflow would lift the back as well as the front. It ran clockwise around a pole with an Albon "Javelin" turning a 7"x6" airscrew, at 37m.p.h. A photo of this model appeared in "Model Maker".

In 1951 I drew up two new designs. The first model was very simple and used the powerful Elfin 1.8, whilst the second was a more complex asymmetric design. I was concerned that the first model would loop (although with hindsight I realise it would have been safe) and I opted for the second. This model was also shown in the magazine and was powered by an Elfin 149. The layout was again intended to counteract the weight of the tether, probably not necessary since I was using 42' 6" of button thread. For the first time a three line bridle controlled the directional and lateral stability.

On the same model a rear horizontal aerofoil was fitted, set at a slight positive angle, to prevent looping and hopefully, by raising the back off the water, eliminate a source of instability. The first run was a revelation; the back came up and held absolutely steady and the speed rose to a very unexpected 53mph.

Two years later, after National Service, I went to Stamford Park in Altrincham to see "Faro" running. It was magnificent! A thundering motor powered the model around at 55m.p.h with a great "roostertail"; I was very impressed. I didn't even bother take my own little boat out of the car.

In 1954 it was back to the Frog 500, also mentioned in the "Model Maker" article. Fairly large, it was the first time I used the single front sponson layout. It launched easily and ran well at 75m.p.h, attached by a strong steel line.

Based on the success with this model I designed a second model, this time for an ED Racer. This was "Ballerina" and the drawings and photos were published in the November 1954 issue of "Model Maker".

The Editor, Vic Smeed, asked readers not to be alarmed by the speed of 70mph. It had a compact lightweight structure, a single front planing surface, a lifting aerofoil stabilizer, a reliable bridle system and it ran clockwise. I had selected a 2.5cc motor specifically to moderate speed.

Part 2

In the July’ 55 issue of "Le Modele Reduit de Bateau", in a short article on "Ballerina" the editor suggested that it might be 'une idee de recherche qui n'exclut pas la fantaisie". That was how it came to be generally regarded, as an item of fantasy. I was away at college during these years and no-one else had the experience to run such a model.

Nor was an air-control device yet on the agenda for full size hydroplanes. In 1956 I met Donald Campbell at Metropolitan Vickers in Manchester, where I had worked, to put to him the advantages of a rear aerofoil stabilizer. Early the following year I was sent to see the Professor of Marine Engineering at Newcastle University. He introduced me to a Research Graduate who had worked on John Cobb's "Crusader". They were all very polite, but what I was saying didn't register.

In 1958 I went back to producing a small free running airscrew boat for the youngster who lived next door to my student accommodation. We ran it on the local Paddy Freeman's pond in Newcastle. It was a strong, attractive little model, so I sent the drawings and a studio photograph to Henry J Nichols. He produced it as the "Mercury Hydroplane" kit and exhibited it at the Earls Court Boat Show. The kit sold in the shops for the next twenty years without ever being advertised.


In the early 1960's I made another attempt to popularise tethered airscrew hydroplanes. Again I considered two alternative designs. The first option was to build an asymmetric model with an outrigger on the port side, to counteract engine torque. It would have been the more efficient of the two and in retrospect could well have reached 100m.p.h using my powerful K&B 19.

The alternative which I chose, was the twin float layout, which modellers had been familiar with since the time of float planes. I built "Axilla" and "Lindoh" featured in "Model Boats" magazine. They became popular, but twin floats were a developmental dead end and faded out by the early 1970's.

Photo: Mike Drinkwater 'Lindoh'

In the meantime, these cheap, reliable models were beginning to win "Fastest Time of the Day" at Model Power Boat Association regattas. In 1964 the Council of the MPBA wrote to inform me that from then on airscrew hydroplanes were banned from their competitions.

The ban had to be lifted in 1967 in time for the first World Championships at Amiens in France. Naviga had introduced Class B1 for 2.5cc airscrews and the Eastern European Teams entered B1 with some very advanced and fast models.

Following their lead, in 1968 I made the asymmetric model which clubmates named "Matchstick" (I never liked the name) to set the first British Class F record at 108mph. We ran at Keighley Tarn, high on a hill, in the lee of a dry stone wall.

I entered very few competitions in the 1970's and 80's, but in 1998 I had an unexpected class win with my 'Comet' design at the Amiens International Regatta. It was designed to be an easy to build model with easy handling. I distributed copies of the drawings and sometime later I saw the French Juniors from Poitiers, on a visit to Farnborough, all holding models very similar to 'Comet'. In 1999 'Comet' underwent a redesign and 'Merlin' was introduced; a few kits were made in 2001.

Photo: 'Merlin' Mike Drinkwater

Recently I have built a model for use in club events, powered by one of the quieter side exhaust motors, to try to keep within the noise limit.

©copyrightMike Drinkwater 2008

Delta One

Delta One is a replica of a model built in 1954, one of a series of experimental designs. It was the first to use a single front planing surface, a rear aerofoil and a bridle to keep it upright and on course. This is the basic pattern followed by today's B1 competition hydroplanes.

In December 1954 Model Maker magazine Vic Smeed described the new design as 'the hydroplane to end all hydroplanes'. An alternative view, widely held, was expressed by M.Bayet in the August 1955 'Le Modèle Reduit de Bateaux'. He said it was, 'une idée de recherche qui n'exclut pas la fantaisie' (an idea of research which does not exclude fantasy).

Ten years later the Model Power Boat Association banned airscrews from its regattas as being 'dangerous and not boats'. The ban was lifted after the success of the new Naviga airscrew Class B1 at the Amiens Championships in 1968.

Mixed Memories of Amiens 1967

Why is it we remember the crazy things that happen, rather than the sensible ones? A couple of years ago two French gentlemen approached at a regatta, laughing, to shake my hand. Someone had pointed me out as the builder of the ‘bread roll boat’ all those years before. I once heard a French spectator at the St. Albans regatta speaking to her companion “When I was a little girl, in the park at Amiens, I saw a man with a boat made from bread rolls.” By coincidence I have just received two photos of the same subject from Jacques Perrier.  

Photo right courtesy of Arthur Wall

It seems a good joke, but it didn’t start that way. At those first, celebrated, Naviga Championships at Amiens in 1967, I was able to run my airscrew hydroplane in a competition for the first time. By the end of the week my model was going well, very well, but lack of experience saw it smashed to pieces, beyond repair.

Out of a sense of despair and frustration came the ‘bread roll boat. The hull was made from a wooden placard, the sponsons were ‘ficelles’ from the local bread shop. It looked more like a scarecrow than a hydroplane.

Arriving back at the lakeside, the crowd in the stands surged forward with cries of delight and dozens of cameras. At the running circle the final competition rounds had just finished and willing hands attached the model to a line.

The old Eta diesel was started up, but it didn’t go anywhere. Amid cheers, the bread rolls detached and slowly floated off in line, like a convoy of ducks. At the next circle the Russians were making attempts on the World records. Nobody was paying attention to them.

Many thanks to Mike Drinkwater for sharing this amusing memory.

©copyrightMike Drinkwater 2013