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Number Boats - two replicas and an original - at the Alexandria Bay docks. Photo: Sam Newman.
Number Boats - two replicas and an original - at the Alexandria Bay docks. Photo: Sam Newman.

St. Lawrence "Number Boats" race again

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A hundred years ago, the Thousand Islands was one of the vacation spots for the nation's elite. Millionaires built palatial summer homes on the St. Lawrence River. And they liked to race their newest boats. From this culture sprang a new idea in motor boat racing - build a bunch of boats exactly the same. So when they're raced, the skills of the driver - and not the design and cost of the boat itself - will determine the winner. David Sommerstein has the story of the Thousand Islands' Number Boats.

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Three Number Boats at speed, Night Rider in the lead. Photo: Sam Newman

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

A long slender launch purrs into the town dock in Alexandria Bay.  In tidy gold lettering is the name, Night Rider.

We’re gonna move this so you can pull in here…

[sound of Night Rider pulling up to dock]

We’re here!

Ted McNally climbs out.  He immediately starts polishing Night Rider’s warm mahogany deck.  He says the original owner gave it as a gift to his parents Andrew and Margaret McNally, of Rand-McNally map and travel fame.

Called up my parents one winter and said I’m going to give you the Night Rider because I know that you’ll take care of it in the way that it’s been accustomed, and if you don’t, I’m going to have her chopped up for firewood.

Andy McNally knew Night Rider was no ordinary boat.

Well, he, in many respects, was a quiet historian.

Night Rider was one of 20 boats designed by noted yacht builder Charles Mower.  They were built in the 1910s to exact same specifications.  It was the first time in North America a so-called “one-design class” was built for racing.

The idea being that it really forced the competition to be between the captains and whether they knew how to manage their engine properly and to handle their boat properly.

Everett Smith is a boat builder in Canton.

These boats, as they were made, they had a big number on the bow in the order in which they were purchased and because that was the first time anybody had seen big numbers painted on a boat like that, people on the River began referring to them as the Number Boats.

Night Rider was number 18.  All the Number Boats were built by Leyare Boat Works in Ogdensburg.

Ogdensburg was a really happening place at that time.  It was at the top of the rapids.  It was where all the railroads came together.  It was a happening city.

[jazz music plays]

It was 1910, the end of the gilded age, just before the first World War.  And the Thousand Islands were a playground for the well-to-do. 

This region barely had roads.  I mean, everything was done by horse-drawn equipment and yet here are these guys building these paradise places up on the islands here.

Gentleman’s racing was en vogue.  But even some of these folks didn’t have the cash for a serious custom boat.  Everett Smith says at $3500 apiece, the Number Boats were an affordable and practical alternative.

If you wanted to be competitive with a gold cup raceboat in 1905 and ’06, you had to shell out 10,000 dollars, and you were gonna have a custom engine and a custom boat and custom propeller, and so the Number Boats were a way for people to race but not have to spend so much money and have a boat that they could use.  The idea was that they would be useful for getting back and forth to the islands.

The Number Boats were actively raced for about a decade.  Then they were used as fishing boats, work boats, island hoppers.  Seven still exist in some condition or another.  Night Rider is the only Number Boat to remain in service these hundred years.

Everett Smith built two replicas, #21 and #22, at his Boat Works in Canton. They’re on display here, too.

A handful of boat lovers wander the dock and gawk.  Moe O’Connor of Rochester says she loves the romantic history of the Thousand Islands, and what she calls “genteel racing” is a part of it.

For the rich people who had the money back then to build the castles and have fun and do little nothings, that romance, y’know.

It’s the century anniversary of Charles Mower’s Number Boat design.  So the day is capped with a gentleman’s race.  And I get a ride with Everett’s son and boat historian himself, Emmett Smith, in one of the replicas, #21.

We’re on the far side of Boldt Castle, on the far side of Heart Island in the St. Lawrence River.  The three number boats are lining up between Boldt Castle and the Boldt Yachthouse.  At the sound of the horn blast from the Kensington boat, we’re gonna take off.  So we’re lined up right now.

Emmett Smith says this is where a race captain would employ a strategy called a “flying start”.

When you know what time you’re supposed to cross the starting line, and so you’re motoring towards the line.  And so a lot of it is positioning to make sure you’re on the line at the right moment.  And of course, if you cross it too soon, you have to go back around.

[horn blow]

The horn blows and we’re off.  We motor ahead of #22 and #18.  Our engine is modern and new, so you’ll just have to imagine the throaty thundery rumble of the originals.

We swing into the open channel of a choppy St. Lawrence.  The chilly spray soaks us.

And this is Night Rider’s moment.  Riding shotgun with Ted McNally is Holly Pastula, the granddaughter of designer, Charles Mower.  It’s the first time she’s ridden in a boat designed by her grandfather. 

I’m glad to see these boats being preserved and built again and for tradition to continue.

Her smile beams as Night Rider slices past us to the finish line.

The original Number Boat has to win, right?

I ask Emmett Smith if we’re making history.  Well, maybe not making it, he says, but history is looking favorably upon us.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein on the St. Lawrence River in Alexandria Bay.

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