No matter where you stand in lifelong islander Larry Fuller’s shop, you’re always looking at her: the gleaming, streamlined replica 1955 Miss Thriftway hydroplane, propped up on a flatbed trailer like it was on a launchpad, photographs of the vessel spanning the last decade hung on the walls.
When The Beachcomber visited last week, Fuller pointed to a large print that he said was made by one of his former schoolmates, photographer Bill Osborne. As Fuller piloted the boat at 120 miles per hour, Osborne stood behind him to take the photo of the nose as it cut through the blurring water.
“He didn’t have much room. Actually, when we got back to the pits, his shins were both bloody and bruised, banging on the seat behind me. It was fun,” said Fuller.
The hydroplane will make an appearance at 7 a.m. at the Sportsmen’s Club Pancake Breakfast on Saturday in the Vashon Market IGA parking lot. At the breakfast, Fuller will distribute wood-carved miniature hydroplanes made in his shop for children to decorate with Magic Markers and tow around by a string. For a vessel that practically hovers at top speeds, when it comes to kids’ creativity, the sky is the limit.
The boat will enter the Strawberry Festival parade again this year, with islander Leslie Drahos riding along up top to commemorate Drahos’ retirement from the Vashon Thriftway grocery store earlier this year.
Racing veteran Bill Muncey claimed his first American Power Boat Association Gold Cup victory in 1956 piloting the original Miss Thriftway hydroplane, competing in 12 other races — winning just three — before the hull was destroyed in a 1957 crash.
It took Fuller and his crew five years to build the Miss Thriftway replica, familiar to many islanders, before they finished the project in 2007. A team of 10, involved in each level of construction, built the World War II P-38 Lightning fighter jet Allison aircraft engine that can propel the vessel to speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour, though Fuller said they never push it that hard.
“I’d have the guys up here Friday nights, and we’d work on the engine, and then Saturdays we’d go to another shop where we started building the boat, and then we’d work all day Saturday or until we were out of c-clamps,” Fuller said.
They built three frames with improper measurements — one, he said, was 3/32” too narrow on the inside — forcing the team to start all over. They had full-sized, original plans for the build provided by Ron Jones Sr., the son of Ted Jones, who designed the first boat in 1954.
“If you make it just like the plan, it’s going to be right,” said Fuller. “If you make one little mistake, then you have a problem.”
At the time, Fuller had his hands full. He was hired to help build the replica 1957 Miss Wahoo, owned by Bill Boeing Jr., which had its maiden voyage in 2009. Mira Slovak was the driver. Fuller pointed to his photo on the wall.
“We’ve met so many friends,” he said.
Slovak, who died in 2014, daringly escaped communist Czechoslovakia in 1953 by hijacking the commercial plane he was piloting and flying low to the ground to evade detection on radar, according to an obituary in The New York Times. He landed in Frankfurt, Germany, later gained asylum in the United States and was a crop duster in Washington State before he was introduced to Boeing and became a hydroplane racer.
Fuller has spent a lifetime himself in and around hydroplanes, building and piloting them, less for the drama and glory of racing than the fun of a ride.
“You get to meet a lot of really nice people. We have a lot of fun because it’s not serious,” he said. “They called them thunderbolts, and the reason they did was that when you had six or seven out there running together, yeah, there’s a little noise. Get a little vibration off the hills and stuff. I kind of pinch myself every once in a while.”
Fuller said that maintaining Miss Thriftway is a lot of work, but that for him and boat co-owners Steve Payne and Rob Wheeler, it’s a measure of their pride. Within a day of an event, the boat’s motor — prone to leaking oil due to age — is taken out of the chassis, while the rest of the boat is scrubbed and scrutinized.
“We pull it, clean it, check bolts; we get the shaft X-rayed, the propeller X-rayed, the rudder X-rayed, because if any of that stuff breaks, then you can really do a lot of damage to your boat. We take a lot of care of ours,” he said.
The team won’t dismantle Miss Thriftway’s engine completely unless they know there’s a problem. Fuller recalled one occasion when a piston rod broke — it didn’t hurt the engine but did hurt the piston, though he said it could have been a lot worse.
“We start this thing just like you would an airplane. We have a primer switch; we have a lever that once you get it running on prime, you pull that into auto-rich, then you’re ready to go,” Fuller said.
During the winter, Fuller polishes the entire aluminum bottom of the boat, a tedious process that takes about a week to complete.
“It’s all laying on your back, working overhead. Then you have to wipe it all off. But it sure is pretty when it gets picked up off the trailer,” he said.
There are 24 coats of varnish on Miss Thriftway, the wood sanded between each layer and buffed out. “It’s gotten a few flaws over the years, but it’s held together pretty good,” he added. “We get a lot of oohs and ahs. You’ve got to kind of watch people sometimes when they’re walking along.”
The boat commands attention, a fact that Fuller said has gotten the better of distracted onlookers and admirers.
“I’ve actually been sitting in the passenger seat of the truck and watched a guy staring walk right into a telephone pole.”
The boat, with motor and fuel included, weighs around 4,500 pounds. The motor, complete with gearbox, weighs in around 2,000 pounds and appears immaculate. Ahead of Miss Thriftway’s next trial on the water, that will change.
“By the time we get back, there will be bugs all over it,” said Fuller.
Later this month, Miss Thriftway will participate in the Tri-City Water Follies from July 27 to 29 on the Columbia River. Fuller said that the boat is usually in top form there, with just the front of her hull and the propeller in the water, a 3-mile course of long straightaways. At the end of the summer, Miss Thriftway will be at the Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers Gold Cup from Aug. 24 to 26 on the Detroit River.
The two retractable doors to Fuller’s shop look like they belong in an airplane hangar. Miss Thriftway faces them and the hundreds of signatures inscribed there, though exactly how many there are, Fuller doesn’t know.
“Before you leave, you will sign the wall. Everybody that comes into our shop does,” he told his guest, adding that if he had started asking people to sign the wall back in 2007 after the boat was finished, there would be more autographs than space could fit. “Every once in a while I just kind of stand here and look. And every once in a while I’ll find names. Then I’ll go, ‘Well, who in the hell is that?’ But we’ve had a lot of people through here.”
Fuller will leave the island next year so that he and his wife can travel more and spend more time with their 8-year-old grandson.
“That door is coming off and going with me. Wherever I go, I’ll have a shop, and it will go on the wall,” he said.
On the official Facebook page for the Miss Thriftway hydroplane, fans can purchase memorabilia to support the team’s travel expenses. Fuller said they also sell rides at some of their stops, allowing passengers to take the helm of the controls, though that isn’t for everyone. He stresses that guest pilots must watch him closely so they know “how much wheel you need to give it” to navigate the hydroplane around tight corners.
“My hand will be there to help you if need be, but I’ll be on the throttle. You’re driving. Some of them want to do that, and some of them just want me to drive the boat. If I give them a thumbs up and they give me a thumbs up, we’re going faster,” he said. “That’s the main reason we built the boat: so other people could enjoy it. We get as much a thrill out of that.”