It was a woman who made sporting history in Cork Harbour on Sunday, July 12, 1903 racing from the Royal Cork Yacht Club then in Queenstown (now Cobh) to the bandstand at Tivoli at nineteen-and-a-half-miles an hour.
It was described as “an extraordinary speed for a motorboat.”
She was Mrs.Dorothy Levitt who won the Harmsworth Trophy for what is known as “the first-ever motor boat competitive race.”
Cork newspapers reported that “a large number of spectators viewed the first mile from the promenade of the yacht club at Queenstown and several thousand people were at both sides of the river at Cork City to see the finish.”
The race was organised by Irish-born Alfred Charles Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe, as “a contest between nations rather than between boats and individuals.”
Race officials were provided by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and the Royal Cork Yacht Club, with a rule that boats must be “designed and built entirely by residents of the country they represented.”
The most powerful was Mrs.Levitt’s. a 40-foot Napier launch described as “the first proper motorboat designed for high speed with a 12-cylinder 75 h.p. engine.”
“The most powerful engine was likely to win,” says yachting historian Vincent Delany who tells the story his book about ‘”The Motor Yacht Club of Ireland.”
That club was founded in 1907, four years after the Harmsworth race. It marked the beginning of major interest in motor boating around Ireland.
Fifteen years later the Cork Harbour Motor Boat Club had its origins at a meeting in the Crosshaven Hotel on May 27, 1922. The following month it was in operation, with Samuel Haynes appointed Commodore. He had a fishing tackle shop in Cork City at Patrick Street.
A set of rules included a membership entrance fee of one guinea (£1.1 shilling) and an annual subscription of two guineas.
The club had a burgee with a three-bladed propeller on a white background, with the rest of the pennant in blue. Flown on their boats, it made clear that members enjoyed their “motorised floating machines.”
Commodore Haynes provided the first club trophy, the silver Haynes Challenge Cup. The first club races were held on June 24, 1922. The same month a ‘Special Committee’ was appointed to build a club house, for which members estimated a cost of £1,500 (one thousand five hundred pounds). A site was leased on the waterfront, close to the then railway station and the Crosshaven Hotel where the inaugural club meeting had been held.
The design was based on that of the Sunday’s Well Boating and Tennis Club on the Mardyke, in the starting of which club Commodore Haynes had been involved.
Four two-berth cabins where members could stay overnight were included which increased building costs The contract was awarded to William Watson of Weaver’s Point for £2,230 (pounds). Members gave personal bank guarantees in £50 lots to fund the work.
The building hadn’t been completed when discussions began with the Royal Munster Yacht Club about an amalgamation which was agreed.
The first meeting of the new club was held on April 12, 1923 in the Metropole Hotel in Cork. The new club house was opened on July 14, 1923 – twenty years after that first motorboat race in Cork Harbour.
The first race at the new club was held after the opening ceremony, fittingly a motor boat team race between the Royal Munster and the Cork Harbour Rowing Club. It was won by the rowing club.
In 1966 the Royal Cork Yacht Club merged with the Royal Munster and moved to Crosshaven from its former base in Cobh.
I often walk the foreshore at Passage West past which those first motorboat engines thundered in 1903. Life and history have unexpected turns.
It had been intended to stage an International Power Boat Festival in Cork Harbour last weekend, recalling the original motorboat race in 1903 as part of the RCYC’s Cork 300th year celebrations. That was prevented by the Covid 19 pandemic.
Dorothy Levitt, who won the first motorboat race went on from that victory in Cork to set the world’s first water speed record at 19.3 m/ph. (31.1 km/h). She did that in a 40-foot, steel-hulled speedboat fitted with a three-bladed propeller and a 75 h.p. engine. A remarkable sportswoman.