Unlimited, but tiny, hydroplane boat races come to SE Portland

Even though they are 1/10th scale models, see these hand-made watercraft zip around the Westmoreland Casting Pond at speeds up to 50 mph at this new Portland Rose Festival event …

These model racers, running on the Westmoreland Casting Pond, travel actual speeds of up to 50 mph.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
While it wasn’t the hoped-for return of the famed Milk Carton Boat Races – a watercraft competition of a different sort did return to inner SE Portland at the renovated Westmoreland Casting Pond on May 24, as part of the Portland Rose Festival.

“We’re racing 1/10th scale models of unlimited hydroplanes today,” explains Nelson Holmberg, the event’s Race Director for their club, Electric Radio Controlled Unlimiteds.

The drivers of the scale model boats pilot their craft standing on scaffolding on the west side of the pond.

“We love the Westmoreland Casting Pond,” Holmberg says. “It’s one of those places that is, in a sense, made for model boat racing. It’s shallow enough that the water stays calm; it’s perfectly shaped and sized.  It’s proving to be user-friendly for both the competitors and spectators.”

Proud to be a Rose Festival event
Although he grew up in, and still lives in, Vancouver, Holmberg tells us the Portland Rose Festival as always been “near and dear” to him. “It’s just great, bringing down members from our club – largely based in the Seattle area – to participate in a Rose Festival event located here at this facility – man, I just love it!”

While we speak, we hear Holmberg’s voice professionally and calmly counting down to the start of the next race. “That voice is recorded on our computerized timing system; it assures that every racer is given an equal opportunity to start the race in the correct position.”

SE Portland resident David Reiser prepares his scale racer, a replica of the 1958 “Breathless II” unlimited hydroplane for the next race.

Men with toy boats
While many members are from the Puget Sound area, we learn the club has about 20 active members in the greater Portland area.

Working under a canopy we meet long time inner SE Portland resident David Reiser, working on his boat – a replica of the 1958 “Breathless II” unlimited hydroplane. “In boat racing circles, it’s quite famous,” Reiser says. “It ran for three years under this name. I saw a photo of it, got ahold of the original plans, and built it.”

The race boats kick up their signature “rooster-tail” as they make the turn on the north end of the course.

As he inspects the boat, he points out that his model is crafted from wood, like the original. He points out how he’s painted the deck to simulate the 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood used to build the original boat. We learn these scale-model speedboats cost about $2,000 to build and equip – the battery packs alone run up to $150 each. “It allows me the experience the thrills and speed of racing, without risk of injury and the expense of full-size craft.”

Having been involved with the hobby since the early 1990s, Reiser tells us the best thing about it is associating with friends who also like model boating. “It’s grown men playing with toy boats. I also enjoy the technical and engineering challenges of building and driving them.”

Considered an originator of this hobby and sport, Roger Newton shows us his winning racer, a scale model of “Miss Bardahl”.

Scale boat racing originator
People at the event told us to meet Roger Newton from Renton, Washington – acclaimed as one of the originators of model boat racing.

“I started racing scale boats back in 1968,” says Newton, “I’ve been doing it ever since.” He’s working on his model of “Miss Bardahl” at the meet. “It’s one of the most famous boats in racing history.”

Battery powered scale electric powered boats are relatively new, Newton informs us. “The electrics go pretty fast, probably close to 50 mph – it would equate to 150 mph if it were full scale.”

Newton comments that, while he enjoys running the battery-powered boats, he still likes the 1/8th scale “nitro” craft that run on a combination of white gas and nitro-methane fuel. “They do make a lot of noise; I’m pretty sure the neighbors wouldn’t be appreciative.”

About the Westmoreland Casting Pond, Newton comments, “Like it? I love it! I wish I had this in my backyard! It’s a good size, good location, and it’s got … water!”

Scale model race boats enthusiasts say this hobby gives them all of the thrills of the sport – without associated cost or danger.

Get racing here
If you’d like to know more about scale model boat racing, check out the clubs web site by CLICKING HERE.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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