August 23, 2013

Henry J. Kaiser: Industrialist, health care plan pioneer — and boating enthusiast

Henry J. Kaiser at the wheel of Scooter Too, Lake Tahoe, 1955 (photo by long time Kaiser Industries manager Donald “Dusty” Rhoades)

Henry J. Kaiser test driving the Fleur Du Lac on the Potomac River, Washington, D.C., 1948.

Henry J. Kaiser's youth included canoeing on New York’s Lake Placid and serving as tour guide on a sightseeing boat in Daytona Beach, Florida. But he also liked to do things fast, and he always harbored an affection for speedboats.

Later in life, after Henry had achieved success in his construction businesses, he and his son Edgar enjoyed racing boats at Lake Tahoe. One of their first competitive boats was the “step hydroplane” (an early design effort to achieve high-speed stability) Miss Aluminum II, built in 1933. Renamed Fleur Du Lac (G-19) for Henry’s Tahoe estate, in 1948 she went to Washington D.C. to compete in the President's Cup.

Henry also maintained a summer home back at Lake Placid, where he pursued racing with his neighbor and friend band leader Guy Lombardo. In 1949 the Ticonderoga Sentinel noted:

"For the second successive week end, Henry J. Kaiser has visited Lake Placid to check on the progress of his two big speed boats. Guy Lombardo also appeared here Saturday to try out the massive 32-foot Aluminum First, with which he will try to break the world's mile straightaway record in the time trials."

That didn't happen, but in 1971 the Lake Placid Sports Council mounted a plaque honoring their local heroes.

The Kaisers would not achieve racing victory until 1954, when the three-point hydroplane Scooter (U-12) powered by a 1750 horsepower V-12 Allison engine driven by Kaiser Industries welder Jack Regas won the Mapes Trophy unlimited class at Lake Tahoe. She ran second, first, and second and posted the fastest lap at 88.748 miles per hour. Henry immediately retired the boat and built a second, the Scooter Too with a 3,420 cubic inch 24-cylinder Allison engine, producing a staggering estimated 4,000 horsepower — but she never won a race.

Hawaii-Kai III
Hawaii Kai III, circa 1956.

Things turned around in 1956. Edgar Kaiser’s unlimited-class three-point racing hydroplane Hawaii Kai III (U-8, named after Henry J. Kaiser's Waikiki Beach hotel) won the first of six consecutive races, the William A. Rogers Memorial Cup trophy in Washington, D.C.

She was painted Henry’s classic pink and powered by a V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The following year she won the national championship and set the water speed record at the official American Powerboat Association runs in Seattle, Washington — 195.329 miles an hour, a bar that would stand for five years.

Henry J. Kaiser's Catamaran Ale Kai V, postcard, Hawaiian Village, 1967; Lisa Killen discrete collection.

As with most of his goals, Henry J. Kaiser achieved what he sought, and he eventually retired from the racing circuit. His last boating venture was to build six massive touring catamarans in Hawaii, all named after his wife.