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Baby Thunder

May 9, 2016 General Interest
Words Lawrence Schäffler. Images Alan Doak & Bryce Taylor.

A superb replica of a legendary American race boat, this Wellington-based speedster is perhaps also a nod to a colourful era in US history – one punctuated by fast women, gangsters, illegal booze and high-speed boat chases.

Launched late last year, the 32-foot Baby Thunder is magnificent from every angle – her gleaming brightwork and meticulous workmanship are the mark of a gifted craftsman. As one of only a handful of similar replicas worldwide – she’s somewhat unique – and eye-wateringly fast. More about this in a minute.

She was built by Harry Nordberg, a Whangamata-based boatbuilder, for Wellington businessman Bruce Judge, a man with an eye for the unusual and an appreciation of maritime history. Her New Zealand debut at the recent Classic Boat Show at the South Island’s Lake Rotoiti drew plenty of attention and admiration, and earned her the award for the Best New Craft.

But for you to appreciate the ‘point’ of Baby Thunder I need to provide a little historical context.

She’s a replica of a famous American speedster – Baby Bootlegger – a one-off design built in 1924 for a wealthy Wall Street banker named Caleb Bragg. Bragg was a keen racer and helmed her to victory in the 1924 and 1925 American Power Boat Association (APBA) Gold Cup events. He won the latter by a minute and 16 seconds.

The Gold Cup – arguably the oldest active trophy in motor sports – was first awarded in 1904 as the APBA Challenge Cup. Today it is the premier hydroplane boat race in the US.

Baby Bootlegger – designed by one George Crouch – was originally powered by a 1,000-cubic-inch V12 Lycoming engine, though this was later replaced with a 300hp water-cooled Hispano-Suiza V8. The engine was mounted amidships to maintain balance and stability at speed. Gold Cup rules at the time dictated that the engines were restricted to 12 litres, and vessels had to carry four people. Which is why Baby Bootlegger was designed with a dickey seat for two, forward of the engine.

For all the historical detail about Baby Bootlegger and the Gold Cup though, there is scant information about her name. There’s no reference as to why Bragg christened her as he did. Strangely though, the ‘Baby’ appears to have been bestowed on all the subsequently-built replicas – including Baby Thunder – perhaps as a kind of deference to the original vessel.

So there is plenty of theory and speculation about the name – and here’s mine:

I like to think Baby Bootlegger was Bragg’s cheeky reference to that most infamous of American gangsters of the period, Baby Face Nelson. He lorded over a murky underworld spawned by the Prohibition: a world of salons, brothels, gaming dens, gang wars and illegal booze. One of the replicas, in fact, carries his name.

This might sound a little bizarre, but it’s not difficult to join the dots. Consider this: Prohibition came into effect in 1920 in the US, with the 18th Amendment rendering the manufacture, importing and sale of liquor illegal. As might be expected, everything immediately went ‘underground’ and with the huge demand for illegal liquor, supplying it became a lucrative business.

Neighbouring countries such as Canada and Mexico, of course, weren’t ‘dry’, and ships laden with rum from the Caribbean soon began ‘waiting’ just beyond US waters. Small, high-speed boats met the ships – usually under the cover of darkness – to ferry the booze to US shores. The boat crews became known as rum-runners and bootleggers.

Perhaps Bragg liked to think that while Baby Bootlegger would never be involved in running liquor, she certainly would have been fast enough to out-run the cops, as she so ably demonstrated in the Gold Cup events.

Nearly a century later in New Zealand, Baby Bootlegger’s inherent beauty and iconic heritage appealed to Judge’s quirky sense of the unusual and unique, and he opted to build a replica. Copies of the original plans and photos were sourced (on CD) from the US – and he contacted Nordberg.

He’s seen a previous vessel built (in mahogany) by Nordberg and wanted more of the same, only bigger. This was an inspired move.

Nordberg, a German immigrant and a qualified toolmaker, has ‘precision’ wired into his DNA. Which is why the viewed the plans with something approaching dismay.

“At best, they were rudimentary. All the measurements were in American Imperial so I had to convert them to metric. More troubling, the plans were incomplete. There are some 54 frames in the build – some were inaccurate, some missing entirely. I had do a bit of extrapolation and re-create the missing frames, before converting the drawings to CAD files so that the frames could be cut by a CNC router.”

The original Baby Bootlegger’s construction used steam-bent oak frames and double mahogany planking with overlapping seams and exposed brass screws and rivets. Baby Thunder is a cold-moulded hull with three layers of 3mm Okume plywood covered by a 4mm mahogany skin running the length of the vessel.

It’s all held together with West System epoxy glue. Frames and keel are Okume ply, though the chines and stringers are kauri. Twelve coats of clear Epifanes varnish bring out the mahogany’s lustre. The project took 2,200 hours to build – just over a year.

She’s powered by a 7.4-litre big block Chevy V8, overhauled by Whanganui Engine Rebuilders and equipped with Mercruiser trimmings. It produces 530hp and spins a 16-inch four-bladed prop (20in pitch) through a 1:1.5 reduction Velvet Drive gearbox.

Judge says at WOT the speedo registers just over 52 knots. With her streamlined shape and absence of anything like a windshield, 1920s-style racing goggles not only look cool but are imperative.

Drive Train
The most unusual (and difficult) part of building the drive train, says Nordberg, was recreating the system of anchoring the prop shaft to the rudder. “The plans didn’t provide the design, so we worked from old photographs.”

With the engine mounted well forward, the prop shaft is relatively long. Lying at an 8o angle it provides optimum propulsion. It runs through a cutlass bearing in a strut and terminates behind the prop at a pillow bearing mounted on the rudder shaft. “It’s very unusual configuration,” says Nordberg, “but it does make for a rigid structure.” The solid stainless steel rudder, milled from a single piece of the metal – was one of the most expensive parts of the build.

Echoing the technology of the era, the steering system is also somewhat unusual. It employs not only the car-style wheel, but also a 1928 Chevrolet steering box with a long, mechanical ‘bar’ running within the hull to the rudder quadrant.

Detail
This is an iconic boat with a remarkable build quality. But what elevates it to ‘exceptional’ is the historical detailing. Judge wanted to keep it as ‘original’ as possible, and perhaps the best examples of this are the gauges in the dash. They are precise re-creations of the original gauges. Add in the period fittings – bollards, hinges, exhaust vents, cappings – she is one special vessel.

With her unusual shape Baby Thunder required an unusual trailer, and the ever-enterprising Nordberg opted to build it. It’s constructed from box section steel and is fitted with twin, braked axles. The vessel weighs 1200kg, the trailer 620kg, and together they can be towed relatively easily.

Baby Thunder is exclusively a fresh-water boat, says Judge, and won’t ever run in the sea. But she may soon be heading to the US.

“I had her built because she’s beautiful and iconic, but ultimately I hope to establish a kind of boutique boatbuilding operation here in New Zealand, producing more replicas and other timber vessels. I’m confident that displaying her in the US will generate quite a bit of interest.”

Nordberg, meanwhile, has his hands full with a number of vintage restoration and new-build projects. They include 23-foot 1960s Mason Clipper and a 17-foot Fairline Torpedo (fewer than 40 of these boats were built between 1948 and 1951). And then there are plans for that most iconic of Italian designs – a Riva.

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Driving Baby Thunder
The ‘Thunder’ is easy to understand. It’s what come to mind when that big V8 coughs into life. But the real adrenalin starts to flow when you slip behind the helm – well, the steering wheel in this case.

Judge, in a blind leap of faith, surrendered the driving to me. Opening the throttle gives you the beginning of an appreciation for what dragster drivers go through – a massive kick in the small of your back. Those 530 horses provide breathtaking acceleration.

With a hull designed for straightline speed and the long, wide corners of a race-track, Baby Thunder is not a boat to be thrown into a tight, high-speed turn. But it’s easy to imagine screaming toward the finish line, urged on my thousands of screaming fans. An enormous privilege to drive!

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What happened to Baby Bootlegger?
She’s been restored to her former glory – but she so very nearly disappeared forever.

That Baby Bootlegger survives today is thanks to one man – Mark Mason – whose sleuth work over the decades finally found her in a Miami junkyard where she had been sitting under a canvas sheet for 25 years.

The junkyard owner couldn’t bring himself to scrap her because of her beauty and instead left her sitting there. He said he knew someone would come looking for her one day.

Mason restored Baby Bootlegger and re-introduced her to the boating world in 1982, winning awards at Winnipesaukee, Clayton, Muskoka and Lake George. She was even shipped to Paris and Monaco for exhibitions. He now runs the New England Boat and Motor Company, specialising in restoring and replicating vintage racing boats.

Baby Bootlegger’s faded plans were scanned, digitised and recreated by a separate company – Classic Wooden Boat Plans – giving people like Judge the opportunity to build replicas of the legendary vessel.

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