Issue: February 2006
Spectator Sport

There was a time when tether-boat competitions drew crowds to the nation’s capitol.


     In the early 20th century, saysmodel collector and lifelong tinkerer Reed Martin, men began to have spare time. (Presumably women still didn’t.) That, he says, is why the first half of the century-before television came along-was the golden age of home hobbies. These included building model boats, many of which were sailed on the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Martin, now retired from the Smithsonian Institution, where he was a professional model builder, believes the earliest of these were “pond yachts”-model sailboats built from scratch with counterbalances attached to the rudder so they would sail back and forth. But his special interest is in “tether boats,” which came on the scene in the 1930s. These were gasoline-powered model speedboats tethered to an anchored pole so they could circle at top speed in timed runs. The weekend races at the Reflecting Pool drew picnicking crowds of up to 2,000, he says.

     One of the most prized among the boats in Martin’s collection is Wasp, built by one Elmer L. Luke, whom Martin credits with bringing tether-boat racing to Washington. Wasp is a wooden vessel more than three feet long that won the annual model speedboat racing championship on the Reflecting Pool, clocking speeds above 30 mph.

     By the end of the 1930s, Martin says, tether boats were overshadowed by tether cars, which could go faster. These days model racers compete with remote-controlled vessels, of course-replicas of everything from skipjacks to 12-meter yachts. “Tether boats,” Martin ruefully admits, “are just history.”