Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Outboard Racing on Lake George

three men and a vintage boat

A 1950s race boat returns to its home waters

To understand the history of outboard racing in Hague on northern Lake George, we need to go back to the early days of the Lake George Regatta Association (LGRA), an organization founded in Hague in 1880 and originally called the Hague Rowing Club. The name was a misnomer as they also hosted diving, swimming, and canoeing competitions, along with inboard regattas, attracting competitors mainly from Hague and Bolton.

My grandfather competed regularly in his inboard race boats as did his older son, my Uncle Bob. They both did well, but were no match for Count Casimir Mankowski, who won the Gold Cup in 1913 at Alexandria Bay in his boat Ankle Deep, earning the right for the LGRA to host the 1914 race on Lake George. In 1933, George Reis won the Gold Cup with his boat El Lagarto, returning the race to Lake George, where he also won the Cup in 1934 and 1935.

My dad, Jack Henry, was too young to race the powerful, expensive inboards during those early years. But with a father and older brother who spent their summers tuning, repairing, and racing boats, it was pretty much predestined that he would also develop a passion for boats and speed. But with the advent of the Depression, the LGRA disbanded, and Dad never got to race.

At the end of World War II, he returned to Hague with his new bride. Although his family had been strictly summer residents, he was determined to live on Lake George year-round. He bought a marina in Ticonderoga, became the Mercury dealer, and took up the relatively new sport of stock utility outboard racing. The American Power Boat Association (APBA) had begun sanctioning stock utility outboard regattas in 1948, and interest in these boats boomed.

Dad competed around the northeast, including in the Albany-New York City regatta on the Hudson River. His first stock utility racer was a Speedliner, which he aptly named Miss Timarine, to promote his marina. He trailered his boat to races around the northeast on summer weekends. After seeing again and again how well Raveau boats performed, particularly in the grueling Albany-New York City race, he gave up his Speedliner in favor of a Raveau, boats handcrafted by the Frenchman Marcel Raveau. Miss Timarine had not fared well in the 1949 race on the Hudson. Just south of Poughkeepsie, the boat’s hull cracked, and despite Dad’s valiant efforts to repair it underway with a piece of wood from the river and later with a flattened tin can fastened over the crack, “it became obvious that the only thing between Timarine and submarine was a few minutes,” as one reporter wrote.

In the early 1950s, a group of local guys in Hague – likely spurred on by Dad, cabin fever during the long winter evenings and perhaps a few beers – started talking about rekindling the LGRA and holding races in Hague again. This time, however, they would race outboards that they could all afford. It didn’t take long for the group to convince the Chamber of Commerce that a regatta would attract visitors, and they should thus be a sponsor. It helped that most in this group of early enthusiasts owned hotels, shops, and other small businesses in town and were Chamber members.  A few of the guys bought stock utility race boats and started learning how to drive them. Others volunteered to help with publicity, finances, sponsorships, and the many other tasks involved in organizing a regatta.

In 1954, the ‘Racing Committee of the Hague Chamber of Commerce’ held its first races on a closed one-mile course, running five laps. By the next year, the APBA had agreed to sanction the race, and the LGRA had been reconstituted as the sponsor. Carlings Brewery also later signed on as a sponsor. The annual races quickly became a huge success, with up to 150 boats registered in some years and newspaper reports of between 10,000 and 20,000 spectators. In 1955, Dad sold his original Raveau to the town’s postmaster and IGA store owner, Charlier Fitzgerald, who named it Havin’ Fitz. Dad bought another Raveau, which he named Gingerly.

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He raced Gingerly, with its Mercury Mark 55 40-horsepower motor, until 1962, when my brother Johnny turned 14 and was old enough to take over the helm. Johnny already had two years of experience under his belt, having raced our smaller A-U class Raveau starting in 1960. When he graduated to Gingerly, he turned the A-U over to me, and I began gearing up for my first big race. I can only imagine how our parents must have felt about having their 14-year-old and 13-year-old competing in this grueling 90-mile marathon. Dad was likely bursting with pride, while Mom was probably terrified. And though I never would have admitted it back then, so was I. As luck would have it, my boat developed a crack in the hull on race weekend, and I had to withdraw. Looking back on it today, I regret missing that chance to compete. But back then I was secretly very happy to watch from the sidelines. As interest in the marathons waned and sponsorship money dried up over the years, the Northern Lake George Regatta became a thing of the past. Its last year was 1964.

Fast forward to the mid-1980s, when my younger brother Ed, who had raced both of our Raveaus in the 60s, trailered Gingerly and her motor out to his home in Wyoming, with plans to restore it. Life got in the way, and Gingerly hung from the rafters in Ed’s barn for nearly four decades. In 2022, he trailered Gingerly back to Lake George to be professionally restored. He knew he’d never get around to doing it, our cousin John Beekley was interested. John and his wife Karen had already restored our family’s boathouse in Hague, built in 1929, and we all agreed this would be a far more fitting home for Gingerly than a barn in Wyoming.

When Ed arrived in Hague with Gingerly in June of 2022, having driven more than 2,200 miles, we invited nearly 100 friends and family to celebrate her return. The party buzzed with people recounting their memories of Gingerly’s glory days in the 1950s and early 60s and the thrill of those race weekends. We were kids in those years, and the races were a highlight of our summer. It was a time when all those drivers from around the country showed up in town with their speedy – and yes, noisy – little boats, and excitement ran high. None of us had forgotten those days.

YouTube video

Over the course of the next year, the team at Mountain Motors & Restoration in Hague returned Gingerly to her former pristine condition. What started as a relatively routine restoration job for them quickly evolved into a labor of love as they grew to understand just how special this boat is to so many people in our town. She’s a piece not only of our family’s history, but also of our town’s history.

In June of 2023, we held a launch party for about 100 of our closest friends and family, including my sons – who had only ever heard tales of Gingerly, but never seen her in action. The excitement mounted in the days leading up to the party. Would the motor start so Ed could do a fly-by?

The guests arrived, and the ceremony on the beach began, in front of a veiled Gingerly. There were speeches and even a blessing by another cousin, an Episcopalian priest, for “all the big little boys and their fast toys, and for Gingerly as she begins her new adventures. Grant her sunny skies, smooth waters, and safe, speedy drivers. May she bring terrified delight to all the many lovers of speed.”

With that, Gingerly was unveiled and moved from the beach to the water. Ed donned a life jacket, waded into the lake, and climbed in. As the guests looked on, shouting words of encouragement, Ed pulled the rope. Nothing. He pulled again. Still no spark. After numerous attempts, the boat was carried back up onto the beach. The crowd murmured in disappointment and turned back to their conversations and cocktails. But Ed wasn’t willing to give up. He performed tests and made a few adjustments, and Gingerly was carried back into the lake. The guests’ attention turned back to the boat. Ed climbed in and gave a short pull, and then another. And another. Anticipation was at fever pitch. Shouts of encouragement came from the crowd: “You’ve got this!” “Pull it!” “You gotta want it!” “What would Jack do?” Finally, the motor sparked. The crowd cheered, but still no start. On the eleventh pull, there was a puff of exhaust and a roar – from the motor and then from the crowd. Gingerly zoomed out onto the lake, creating as much excitement as she had all those decades ago – perhaps even more.

Visit Gingerly’s website (www.utopianstate.com/gingerly), where you can watch videos, see photos and learn more about the history of the 90-mile outboard marathons in Hague (1954-64).

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Ginger Henry Kuenzel, a fourth-generation Hague resident, is a journalist, editor and author. She lived and worked in Munich, Germany, for 20 years and later in Boston and New York, before returning to the Adirondacks full-time. Ginger served on the Hague Town Board and is currently on the board of the Lake George Association. Her book Downtown is a collection of hilarious tales from a fictional Adirondack town. She also co-authored Lake George Reflections, island history and lore, as well as Stewards of the Water, profiles of past and present stewards of Lake George.

17 Responses

  1. Judson Witham says:

    PennYann ….. As a kid I had the very same Craft on Harris Bay at the Swamp, My Parents Marina. Mother and Dad built East Shores Harbour from Scratch. I painted Mine Blue and named “it” BAT BOAT. I operated “it” at least a Thousand Times around the Happy Family Islands. I can still remember the Dry Boat from all the Copper Clad bottom paint and many coats of Blue Marine Paint I put on that little Skiff. Mine had an Evinrude … Tons of Fun.

    The Swamp Marina was the Birth Place of many a Historical Vessel …. Garwoods, AristoCrafts, RevellCraft, Fabian, Golief, Donzi, Richardson, all the Trogans and even Sturdy ….. I can still smell all the scents of the Swamp.

  2. Scott Croft says:

    What a wonderful story and I’m glad Adirondack Almanac carried it.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read about it and comment on it. I’m also appreciative of the Adirondack Almanack for carrying the story. Be sure to stay tuned to the Gingerly website (www.utopianstate.com/gingerly) for updates. :>)

  3. Joe Kozlina says:

    I understand the excitement of speed and boating. I realize it is a great past time. I just cant help but look at the state of our planet and the health of our Adirondack lakes and feel that speed boat racing is a good thing moving forward. I know having to end certain activities in order to do our part in reducing the pollution we have dumped on our earth and in our waterways is troubling to most. I just dont see how promoting a competition or race, burning thru many gallons of carbon producing fuel, could be good for the younger generations right to clean air and water. Not to mention the life in the lake having to deal with the smoke, oil and noise of it all. I think it is a great PAST TIME. Now it is time to take action instead of just talking about cleaning up the Adirondacks.

    • Hi Joe, Thank you for your comments. I agree that we need to do all in our power to protect out planet. Lake George is one of the most well-protected lakes of its size in the world. We have our own state agency (Lake George Park Commission) and also the country’s oldest lake-protection organization (Lake George Association). I am on the board of the LGA, and can assure you that we are making great strides in protecting Lake George from stormwater runoff, wastewater, invasive species and overdevelopment. There is always more to be done, of course. Also, I want to point out that we are not holding races on Lake George with Gingerly or other boats of its kind. Gingerly’s restoration is a labor of love and designed to preserve our town’s and our family’s history. The days of having huge motorized regattas on Lake George are now just memories for the history books.

  4. Cliff Irvin says:

    Wow, so many memories watching this style of OB racing. I remember watching Ky Fox racing with Jean Cruise driving on Lake Meridian Kent, Washington late 50’s early 60’s. Fun fun. Thank you for the story

  5. louis curth says:

    Your recollections reminded me of the hydroplane competitions that took place in the 1950s on Loon Lake near Blythewood Island. Those sleek looking hydroplanes were marvels of speed and design to my teenage friend Brian and me.

    Sadly for us, we had to content ourselves with occasional excursions on the lake in a leaky, wooden lapstrake boat, that we left unlocked in the bushes beside Rt. 9 across from the aging Loon Lake Colony (no worry about anybody stealing that heavy, old scow). Our teenage lust for speed was limited to the maximum we could squeeze out of a 7.5 HP Scott-Atwater outboard motor. Nevertheless, it was fun to let our imaginations soar.

    Loon Lake, like many other Adirondack waters, was in great transition back in those days. The heydays of the cabin colonies were waning, while modern roadside motels were growing in popularity. Meanwhile, more and more Adirondack shorelines were being subdivided into smaller and smaller lakefront lots, and pitched by realtors to affluent families who dreamed of having a summer cottage in the country. Over time, the dream of having a lakefront cottage in the Adirondacks seems to have played out in a variety of different ways – both good and bad.

    Many more years would pass before the facts about how much pollution was entering our Adirondack waters, from popular and increasingly powerful two-cycle outboard motors, would become widely known.

    • ADKNative says:

      Thank Louis! I talk about those races to a lot to people who have no recollection/knowledge about them. I was born in 1959 and remember them, so they must have run a few years after the 50s. Good times with my Dad! ❤️

      • Ginger Henry Kuenzel says:

        Yes, the raves on Loon Lake ran longer than those on Lake George. Which ended in 1964. My brother took Gingerly to race on Loon Lake. There wad and maybe still is a Tri-lakes boat club, which probably had info about races on Loon Lake. You could check with the Horicon and/or Chestertown historian.

  6. wash wild says:

    This lovely personal history complements the tales told by Russell Bellico, Frank Leonbruno, Elsa Kny Steinback and many others. My favorite days on the lake are when I head down to the end of Shelving Rock Road with a few books and beverages in my pack. A short walk leads to the shore and an old guy’s triathlon of read, swim and nap.
    I’m with Joe K. in wishing all the zoom-zoom motorized stuff be relegated to history. Like the chases and battles in ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, some things are best experienced as distant memories. Sometimes, when I’m sitting by the water I fantasize about a time when people in Victorian garb quietly row out to an island picnic and the only sound is the gentle lapping of waves against rock.
    Lake George, indeed the Adirondacks as a whole, is a stage shared by both the caring and the inconsiderate. At times it is an edge of your seat drama. I hope people get to enjoy this slice of heaven for generations to come, but gently by paddle, sail and swim with no octane involved.
    Speaking of swimming, note that all this week a series of events at Wiawaka celebrates the inspiring women who have braved the length of the lake with nothing but a strong stroke and a stronger will. Great stories told at a beautiful venue.

    • Hi and thank you for your beautiful message. I couldn’t agree with you more. I do not own a motorized boat (just a canoe, kayaks and SUPs), though I certainly understand the folks who want to get out onto our beautiful lake in a boat and go further than I can manage with no octane. Gingerly remains in our family, in good hands with my cousin, who is just as protective of the lake as I am. See my response to Joe about my role in lake protection. By the way, I am actually speaking tonight at Wiawaka as part of the SWIM week. I co-wrote Lake George Reflections with Frank Leonbruno, and treasure my memories of the times I spent with him. He also introduced me to Elsa Steinbeck, and I had the pleasure of getting to know her slightly and also interviewing her for a piece for The Chronicle. I also know Russ Bellico quite well. I live in Hague as does he. These are all wonderful role models.
      Your description of fantasizing about the Victorian times was lovely. I also often try to picture that, and have written a children’s book about life on Lake George in those days. I am currently writing a book about racing on Lake George — in the early and mid-20th century. But I am definitely not advocating for those races to return to Lake George. I am just trying to recount and preserve the history.
      Maybe I’ll see you tonight at Wiawaka.

  7. louis curth says:

    Thank you ADKNative for validating this recollection from my long ago youth spent (or perhaps misspent) in and around northern Warren/southern Essex counties.

    And thank you Ginger for this and also your other fine stories that add color to the Adirondack history that we all cherish.

  8. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “Lake George is one of the most well-protected lakes of its size in the world.”

    But it’s not like it used to be! I have a friend who recently shared with me excursions with his family, when he was in high school, to Putnam Station in the early 1960s, which he recalled was on the upper end of Lake George, but which the map shows to be on the lower end of Lake Champlain. He recalls a dirt road off of Rt. 22 leading to ‘little’ camps, and there was a place called “The Casino” at this location, a bar he supposes, and there were camps just offshore, and at each camp was a pipe coming out of the lake which lead to the camps from which they drank the water. You can’t do that nowadays!

    • Ginger Henry Kuenzel says:

      Yes, and that’s why we now, as of this year, have a new law that all septic systems around the lake will need to be inspected every five years. They’ve already started the inspections and are finding that many are failing and need to be repaired or replaced. The nutrients in the wastewater are feeding algae growth. Putnam is on the shores of both Lake George and Lake Champlain. The Casino you mention is the old Gull Bay Casino on Lake George.

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