When Redhead Ruled the Waves

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THERE WAS A RECORD-BREAKING REDHEAD IN SIR LEONARD SOUTHWARD’S LIFE BEFORE HE PURCHASED LIZZIE T FORD, THE 1915 MODEL T THAT STARTED HIS EXPENSIVE HOBBY OF COLLECTING VINTAGE CARS.

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The Redhead was the fastest speedboat in Australasia for most of the 1950s, and the first in our region to exceed 100mph. That made her owner/driver, Len Southward, into a hero for boys like me. (His knighthood came in 1986).
Some dads built their sons models of the Redhead, and mine did a great job of turning my trike into her for a decorated bicycle competition at the school gala.

Mum borrowed the red beret that she said would make me into a junior Sir Len. Dad said he always wore one when he raced the Redhead.

I was too young to go for a ride in the real Redhead. However, Wallie Ingram, a voice I remember coming into our house over Radio 2ZB’s Sunday morning sports programmes, did. He said that when the Redhead took on the swells in Evans Bay the sensation was like being hit across the posterior by two boards: one to make contact, the other to make their echo.

My home overlooked Evans Bay, where the Redhead had many of her racing victories. We always had visitors who came just to watch her win – with a tarpaulin to throw over the clothesline and shelter under on wet days.

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The Redhead with her 1450 hp Allison V12 engine always won her races…until she lost the Masport Cup to Clipper in 1954. A misunderstanding over where the race actually finished had cost my hero another victory. Redhead had held the Masport Cup since 1948.

The next year, 1955, the Redhead easily won back New Zealand’s premiere speedboating trophy. And she retained the Australian Griffiths Cup, too. At the time, no Australian boat had come across the Tasman to challenge Redhead for the trophy she had won in 1949. She held the Griffirhs Cup until 1959 and retained the Masport Cup until 1958.
Sir Len always drove the Redhead. He designed her with Alan Trustrum and Major M H Fougere, and Jack Morgan built her in Picton for $800. Originally a stepped-up hydroplane, Redhead was converted to a three-pointer by the addition of two inboard sponsons or riding planes.

Those sponsons helped Redhead travel at an average speed of 101.266 mph across Evans Bay on 22 February 1953. I was one of hundreds who watched and cheered when she became the first boat in Australasia to exceed 100 mph.

It was the third time lucky for Sir Len. Bad weather had thwarted two previous attempts on the ton. And his first run that February morning was unsuccessful, with Redhead recording a speed of 98.227 mph. After the propeller was exchanged for one with a slightly larger diameter and less pitch, Redhead made history in near perfect conditions.

Sir Len gave much of the credit for the successful attempt to the backroom boys who helped him prepare the Redhead. ‘I would say she will do another five miles an hour,” he said, “but I am quite happy to leave it until somebody beats it.’

If the Redhead had raced the World record holder Slo-Mo-Shun that Sunday morning, she would have finished a distant second. The American boat had recorded a speed of more than 178 mph.

However, it would be three years before somebody beat the Redhead’s Australasian water speed record. In 1956 the Australian boat Fleetwing hit 103mph and set a new record. But a week later – on May 8 – Sir Len took it back with a 109.29 mph run off Port England, Auckland. In the September Donald Campbell more than doubled that speed on Coniston Water with a new world water speed record of 225.6 mph in his Bluebird.

The Redhead’s last hurrah was at Picton on Easter Saturday 1959. Sir Len had anticipated a tough challenge from Susan Leigh II in the Griffiths Cup. But with Susan Leigh II sinking off Shelly Beach in the first heat, victory was his after completing the course and racing only one lap of the second heat.

In the Masport Cup the Redhead was pitted against Mystic Miss, which then held the national water speed record of 116.9 mph. The smaller boat sneaked ahead of Redhead at the first buoy, with the larger boat nosing into the lead about a mile up the straight. Seconds later Redhead veered suddenly to the left and stopped, leaving the crowd gasping. An estimated 9000 people were watching the champion sink. A buckled propeller shaft had ripped a gaping hole in the Redhead’s hull.

It was a sad day for me when I heard the news. Although my home no longer overlooked Evans Bay, I had enjoyed keeping up with the Redhead’s victories.

Sir Len spoke philosophically about racing the Redhead again, saying that next year he might just stand by and watch. Redhead never raced again and is exhibited at the Southward Museum, Paraparaumu, as she was lifted out of the water.

*Southward Museum, Otaihanga Road, Paraparaumu open daily from 9am-4.30pm except Christmas Day, Good Friday and Anzac morning.

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