The Challenger Story

In 1903 Sir Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe, the English newspaper magnate) presented a cup, the Harmsworth Trophy, to be awarded to the winners of an annual international competition to find the fastest motor powered boat built entirely in one country.

In the 1904 competition, held in England, there were originally five British built entrants, three French and one American. The American entry was Challenger, built by the New York carmaking firm of Smith and Mabley. Challenger was 40 feet long and powered by two 75 horse-power petrol (gasoline) automobile engines and had reached a measured speed of 26 mph in America.

The American boat's early trials were dogged by misfortune. It hit a submerged log in an early qualifying run which severely damaged the bow. It then caught fire on New York's East River during a subsequent trial and her crew of three, including the boat's builder Carlton R. Mabley, had to be rescued from the water by a ferryboat. She was nevertheless shipped to England in time for the race.

On the day of the competition, July 30th, watched by the Royal Family and a large crowd, three boats lined up for the first 8 mile heat along the coast of the Isle of Wight, one British (Napier II), one French (Bayard) and Challenger. The French boat fouled her propeller at the start and Challenger established an early lead as the British entry also faltered. But the situation reversed when Challenger's forward engine developed an electrical fault allowing Napier II to to win the heat in a time of some 25 minutes to qualify for the final.

In the final a British boat beat the French finalist but the prize was awarded to the French. The British boat in the final had been beaten in an earlier heat and was only standing in for Napier II who by then had damaged her keel and couldn't race.