Classic boat owners love to know the stories of their boats. Who owned it before? Where was it kept? What adventures did it have before they owned it?
The most dedicated owners are constantly digging for more information. But sometimes that digging can actually muddy the waters.
Rainbow IX was a famous boat in its day – built in 1922 and initially named Packard Chris-Craft II, it won the prestigious Gold Cup Sweepstakes. It was owned by a couple of different legends in the sport, renamed, and is now celebrated as a beautiful family launch.
But as he was preparing to celebrate the boat’s 100th anniversary, owner Murray Walker learned that his boat may have been built in 1923 instead of 1922. And it’s possible it should have been named Packard Chris-Craft III, not II.
Those kinds of details will keep boat historians digging and debating for years. Of course, none of it affects the status of this boat, which is a great example of cutting-edge design from the early 1920s.
Boat racing was an enormously popular sport in those days, with the biggest races drawing crowds of 250,000 people. Hull design had been transformed, and marine engines were faster and lighter than ever before, meaning that boats could travel at speeds that had been unimaginable just a few years earlier.
Packard Chris-Craft II was built with one purpose in mind: to win races. The Gold Cup was the most prestigious race in North America, and Gar Wood had a lock on it, winning it five years in a row. Colonel Jesse Vincent was determined to break that winning streak. He was the primary engineer and engine designer for Packard and had a principal role in designing the famous wartime Liberty aircraft engine.
Col. Vincent adapted designs and innovations used in the aircraft engines to race boats, challenging Gar Wood in 1922 in Packard Chris-Craft I. Three years later, he succeeded: Packard Chris-Craft II won the 1925 Sweepstakes before a crowd of nearly a quarter of a million people.
After the race, the boat was sold to Canadian Harry Greening, a racing legend in his own right. He was also a great innovator, famous (some would say infamous) for challenging the rules of boat design.
His son-in-law Allen Flye explained that “Harry combined the best ideas from various boats and builders and experimented with them on his own boats.”
In the 1920s, the concept of boats riding on the surface of the water rather than plowing through it, was just evolving. Also, at this time, racing boats produced huge “rooster tails” from the spray of the prop. Allen explained that “it was believed that by placing the prop on the surface of the water, so that half of it was in and half out of the water, the prop would have less resistance at high rpm.”
Greening owned a series of race boats named Rainbow. His Rainbow III, considered one of the most beautiful racers in history, set a world endurance record on Lake Rosseau by travelling 1,024 miles in 24 hours. His Rainbow IV won the 1924 Gold Cup race, but its use of a surface prop and crosswise laps on the hull proved to be too radical and unfaithful to the spirit of the rules of the day to keep her trophy. Her main rival, Baby Bootlegger, was declared the winner, and has won hearts through the generations ever since for her sleek design.
These boats were built to race and win. When a faster design came along, their owners often responded by building a newer, faster boat of their own.
Last year’s models, though? They were still stunning vessels with plenty of life left in them.
In her original racing form, Packard Chris-Craft II was a purpose-built boat with canvas decks, all in white with her name lettered on the hull. As Rainbow IX, she was transformed into an ultimate gentleman’s sport runabout.
With her decks now covered in mahogany and seemingly endless putty lines, she can still get your heart pumping, but with modern power and no checkered flag to worry about. For Murray Walker, she is a timeless, sexy craft. “Every time I look at her, I think, ‘wow! That was 1922 and what a fantastic design.’ With her upswept bow and tumblehome toward the transom. She is timeless. A work of art.”
Some of these craft, like Rainbow III, are still powered by their original or period correct engines. After all, the sound of a Packard racing engine firing up is a symphony of power and mechanical wizardry. The 1927, 27-foot Gold Cup Ditchburn, Silver King, a familiar sight at Muskoka boat shows, is powered by a period Hispano-Suiza engine that generates over 300 HP.
Rainbow IX has been repowered, but she never lets you forget that she was a championship race boat. Every ride is a thrill and adventure, with visions of her race days in mind. With four four-barrel carburetors and two massive exhaust pipes, comfortable conversation takes second place to the music of the V-12. At 3000 rpm, the engine is barely out of idle as the boat skips along at 40 mph. Murray believes her top speed to be somewhere around 75 mph.
Sitting almost over the stern, the small cockpit is a struggle for a tall person to wiggle into, but the deck of mahogany and putty runs forever into the distance, touching the sky when taking off.
These days, Murray’s daughter Meghan Walker often takes the helm as she and her three children enjoy the thrill of her speed. It’s a new era, and a new generation of boaters is relishing the thrill of wooden boating.
Meghan grew up surrounded by some wonderful and striking wooden boats. Eaglet II, Curlew, Traveller, and a replica of Miss Canada III are just some of the boats that were part of that experience. It was a childhood that instilled a deep respect for the care and craftsmanship that went into these boats.
As she learned more about them, their historical significance became even more relevant. “Having grown up with wooden boats, I can’t imagine not having access to wooden boats. There is something raw and natural about the experience,” she says.
Now she’s sharing that knowledge and love with her children, Nyah, Raelen, and Bayla. They, too, love the speed and in time will come to appreciate the heritage and the thrill of driving.
The future of wooden boating depends on the continued interest of the next generation. Meghan believes that sharing the experience behind the wheel is critical to gaining this interest. “There is something totally fun and freeing about driving Rainbow IX,” she says. “Surprisingly she is an easy boat to drive, despite her power.”
On one level, wooden boats are historic artifacts. They can also be central to the family summer experience, a shared experience that brings kin together. Meghan notes that boats like Traveller were particularly special for the family. “It was about the fun we could have with friends as well as spending time with my dad. We would put appetizers together and go out for an evening cruise with friends.”
For others, summer isn’t complete without a visit to a boat show. The drivers smile broadly volunteers help them at the landing. Raceboats and long-deck launches never fail to draw a crowd, but Dispros, Sea Fleas and other smaller boats remind us that size doesn’t mean everything when it comes to having fun.
The whole experience is an essential summer memory that renews each year.
Rainbow IX and some of the other boats mentioned in this article can be seen at the Antique and Classic Boat Society’s annual boat show, being held for the first time in two years. It takes place July 9 at Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst.
ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM DU VERNET