- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Back when I was a fledgling reporter just beginning to get my feet wet as a sports editor for the Enterprise newspaper in 1973, I used to cover the power boat races which in the early 1970s were just beginning to peter out after many successful decades.
I was a young kid barely out of high school and my knowledge of certain sports was fairly limited. I had to learn the basic rules of soccer, lacrosse and high school wrestling during a year of initiation. Boat races, at least, were straightforward. I usually used the opportunity to take “cool” pictures of boats with water spraying out behind them as they passed by. On one such excursion down in Piney Point, I took a sequence of photos of one of the expensive crafts as it took on water and sank in St. George Creek. I published the photos with the headline, “Going, Going, Gone...” which earned me a nasty letter from a racer berating me for publishing the photos.
“You don’t know how many people have told me they would love to have copies of those photographs, including the man who owned the boat,” Richard J. Dodds, curator of maritime history at Calvert Marine Museum, said.
“They searched for that boat for nine days,” Dodds said. “They were dragging for days and then they finally got a couple of divers who were working on the Thomas Johnson Bridge to go down with grappling hooks and they finally got it up. The only thing damaged on the boat was that it had a collapsed fuel tank. That boat is still around. It still lives.”
Dodds and CMM Maritime History Registrar Robert Hurry are compiling information for an exhibit on power boat racing in Southern Maryland at the museum.
“It’s been our good fortune that the coverage of boat races was as extensive as it was,” Dodds said. “They were sponsored as yacht club races early on. Some of them were televised by a fellow named Harry Buckley, who did commentary for the races. His widow lives in Wildwood and his son is trying to help us uncover actual recordings from the races.”
Rocky Willis, “The Voice of Southern Maryland” for the AM radio station in the 1950s and ‘60s, covered races in the 1974-75 season, Dodds said.
Dodds and Hurry have been working on the project for a year and a half.
“We’re working toward having an exhibit next year,” Dodds said. “We’re hoping to do a publication, too. There are plans to hold a reunion of drivers and those who were involved with the races. Guys I’ve talked to are real interested in that.”
Dodds said they have managed to get an overview of outboard racing from the Southern Maryland Boat Club.
“We’ve had pretty good luck,” Dodds admitted. “We’ve interviewed hundreds of people and have gotten some memorabilia including trophies, uniforms, programs ... all good things for an exhibit.”
Hurry said that in doing the research for the project, he’s found quite a few newspapers in St. Mary’s County over the years that didn’t make it.
“Actually some of the best coverage was from Bernie Cullins who covered sports in St. Mary’s County from the mid-to-late 1950s,” Hurry said. “Then he went to work for a newspaper called the St. Mary’s Journal for three years. He had real good coverage of races that were held in the Seventh District. Then Bernie started the Pilot, which covered sports in the county from 1960 until the paper ceased publication in 1983. He covered it [boat races] pretty well.”
Hurry credited Cullins’ son in law David Nelson for helping to provide old copies of the Pilot to help with their research.
Dodds threw out other names of those who covered the races: Butch Morgan, Pat Thompson, Doug Pettit along with broadcasters “Wild Bill” Roth, “Rockin’” Ray Norton and Harry Davis, who called boat races locally. Some locals may remember Rockin’ Ray, who broadcast on WMDM-FM during the afternoon drive. Norton had an off-air stutter but lost his inhibition when he got behind the microphone. He went to prison for driving the getaway car for a bank robbery in the Lexington Park in the 1970s.
Hurry said that among the items they have found for the exhibit is a photo of Lee James and Rocky Willis from 1975-76, which was among the last races held in St. Mary’s.
“There was another newspaper called the Guardian which came out in 1974,” Hurry said. “They actually provided a lot of detail about the races. It has helped us to have all of this coverage from different sources. Some years, we don’t have as much.”
Boat races started as part of the Solomons Island Yacht Club races in 1939. There were some occasional races on the Potomac River, but it wasn’t until after World War II that the sport really took off.
“The 1950s and ‘60s were really the heyday,” Dodds said. “In the 1970s, the American Power Boat Association was formed. But racing started dying off in the 1970s. Ironically, the oil embargo of 1973-74 played a role in its demise.”
Some races were held in Cobb Island and Benedict in Charles County, at Solomons in Calvert, but most were run in St. Mary’s.
Dodds said they have procured a number of home movies of races and are actively looking for anyone who may have home movies, recorded broadcasts or photographs of power boat races.
He added that they were fortunate to discover E&T Boats “right across the river in Town Creek,” who were the only local power boat builders. The business was run by Bill Edwards and Beale Tilton.
“Beale lives in Florida,” Dodds said. “He has been very helpful to us. Bill has as well. A few of their boats from the late 1960s to early ‘70s have been rebuilt. They’re still around.”
A reunion of racers is scheduled for June at the museum.
“We hope to have the exhibit up by that time,” he added.
Former St. Mary’s racer Rayner Blair “has been very helpful” in the gathering of information, memorabilia and putting together the reunion, he said.
Dodds added that during the height of power boat races, an African-American group called the “Speedmasters” used to race in then-culturally challenged Southern Maryland.
“They liked to come down to Southern Maryland and race,” Dodds said. “Their memories were pretty good. There were some uncomfortable moments at Abell’s Wharf near Leonardtown, but for the most part they said they were treated really well.”