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Powerboats still a big Muskoka attraction

Heldena II is said to be the oldest race boat in Canada

Patrice Anderson

To mark the dog days of summer, this week we take a look at an event that highlighted past Canadian glory in powerboat racing.

From the end of the First World War until the late 1960s, powerboat racing was a favourite hobby of the rich and famous and a huge spectator sport. I have seen photos of the mobs of people who crowded the shore at the CNE grounds in 1919 to watch the mighty 12-cylinder boats roar past at incredible speeds of 50 mph. Powerboat racing was front-page news in Canada for decades because Canadians had so much success racing against their American rivals.

A couple of weeks ago at the Gravenhurst, Ont., waterfront, an event took place that shows Canadians still connect to the noise and speed and gasoline fumes of these once state-of-the-art racing boats. "Race Boat Glory, Muskoka Legends Live On" is the theme this summer at the Muskoka Boat & Heritage Centre in Gravenhurst. It's part of a registered charity that owns and operates the Royal Mail Ship Segwun, Wenonah II and Wanda III and operates the museum. Its feature attraction this summer is Miss Canada III, a former world champion race boat.

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No actual racing took place at the event organized by the Antique and Classic Boat Society, but the noisy, high-speed, demonstration runs of several giant powerboats with their war-surplus aircraft engines brought more than 5,000 ticket-buying people to crowd the shore.

Powerboat racing hit its peak just after both World Wars. No surprise; there were suddenly high-power, surplus aircraft engines available to be dropped into racing boats for rich people and Muskoka had highly skilled boat builders. Plastic boats hadn't been invented at that time so understanding how wood could be designed, engineered and built into high -peed craft was something Muskoka boat builders had mastered.

One of the boats that roared past the crowd was Heldena II, which is said to be the oldest race boat in Canada. It is powered by a massive 12-cylinder Liberty aircraft engine, the one that the American military put into service across their aircraft in the First World War.

The first victory for Heldena II was in 1919 driven by the owner Fred Miller. Miller was a product of his age; a University of Toronto engineering grad who joined his father's company to build the Bloor Street Viaduct, the Eastern entrance to Toronto Harbour and other major projects. Rich, powerful magnates needed an outlet for their energy (beyond golf) and Miller chose powerboat racing. He died in 1922 at the height of his racing and engineering influence. Heldena II, at that point the most successful Gold Cup racing boat in Canada, was destined for the scrapyard. However, someone at the Toronto Harbour Police decided it would make a good "life-saving motor boat." It was in service until the late 1950s and then left to rot in a field for 30 years.

Toronto businessman Rick McGraw recognized the beauty and historical significance of the boat and launched a multi-year restoration project. An estimated 7,000 hours were spent getting every detail exactly right, including the 12-cylinder Liberty aircraft engine. I mentioned to McGraw that people rarely admit how much money they spend on such a project, but asked the amount any way. "I forget," he replied.

Heldena II was not the only star attraction at the Gravenhurst event. It was the 33rd year of the show put on by the Antique and Classic Boat Society, Toronto Chapter. Billed as "the greatest race boat show in Canadian history," it was a very inclusive display and demonstration of race boats spanning 100 years. The show featured everything from beautiful antique wooden racers to Sea Fleas to famous unlimited hydroplanes, including Miss Supertest III and Miss Canadiana.

The size of the crowd shows there's still an enthusiastic following for these famous racers of the past. It's rare to see them running at high speed, but it is certainly possible to get up close to famous boats at the Muskoka Boat & Heritage Centre. It's a perfect destination for a summer road trip.

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