January 5, 2024 - 7:43pm
(L-R) Bill DeSilva, Stan McDonald, and Ralph DeSilva. Alan Ishii photo
June 1, 1922 – December 20, 2023 (101-1/2 yrs)
by Jay Walls
On Wednesday December 20, 2023, Ralph DeSilva passed away, just 6 months shy of his 102nd birthday. Ralph and his brother Bill took over the boat building business that their dad (John DeSilva) had started in the late 1920s upon returning from the war. Ralph served in the Air Force while his brother Bill served in the Navy.
DeSilva race boats were the boat to have for many years if you wanted to compete and run up front. Countless competition and straightaway records were set using both DeSilva hydros and runabouts, the first in the “C” service (amateur class) occurring in 1932 for Martin Leach at 37.34 mph.
In 1946 DeSilva brothers designed and built the first cabover hydro. The main competition for the DeSilva boats from the war up until 1960 was the Willis Comet. DeSilva’s flat deck runabout ran from 1950 until 1970, at which time they came out with the first cowled deck runabout they called the KR.
Ralph and Bill moved from California to Atlanta, Georgia in 1981 to position themselves better to sell race boats all over the world. Many of the boat racing legends we all know today made their names using DeSilva boats and taking little pieces of advice along the way from the DeSilva brothers. In 1983 DeSilvas achieved another milestone: having the first runabout to surpass the 100-MPH mark with a record run of 102.004.
Ralph was known as the design and development guy, along with running the business. Bill was the skilled craftsman who could do just about anything with wood. Together the two brothers could turn out boats literally one after the another. Unfortunately, Bill DeSilva passed away at the age of 72 in 1998. So Ralph, who was then 76, carried on building boats for 22 more years, finally deciding to hang up the boat building apron at the age of 98. Ralph then used his skills to make pieces of furniture for the young ones in his family, and did that until he was 100.
I can’t imagine that the boat racing world will stop now that we can’t buy a new DeSilva boat, but you had better believe there is a lot of race boat knowledge—a full lifetime of it—that is now lost to history.
To Ralph DeSilva, a job very well done.
Comments from racers with their permission:
Sherman Caldwell – Great contributions and a true gentleman. Rest in Peace, Ralph.
David Tenney – That is sad news. He and his brother were legends and very good friends with my mother and father.
Steve Greaves – I have 4 DeSilva runabouts including a 10’ AU/BU that I bought new in 1968. It arrived in a box via motor freight. If my recollection is correct, it was $750. It still has the original DeSilva paint and finish. It ran a few years ago at an exhibition event at the site of the original Sammamish Slough race. The motor is a 1956 Champion Hot Rod, that was built with help from Tom Moulder and Cooper Jess. Drew Thompson is driving. I drove the same boat in the last Sammamish Slough race in 1976 with a 25SS Mercury.
Ralph DeSilva beside Karl Williams’s new 1980 DeSilva Runabout. Alan Ishii photo
Ralph DeSilva with V-88 cap from Brinkman Racing. Alan Ishii photo
Bill DeSilva at DePue, with Jack Kugler’s V-100 in background. Alan Ishii photo
The DeSilva shop, Dallas, Ga., with Wes Jones boats on trailer and Karl Williams’s Cadillac. Alan Ishii photo
The DeSilva Shop with name over front door, Dallas, Ga. Alan Ishii photo
This was their father’s shop when the Desilvas moved from Northern California to Los Angeles. This is where it started in Southern California. The shop is on Pico Blvd. Ralph told me that Mandella apprenticed with his dad before starting his own brand. He was famous for flatbottom inboards. He later sold the business to Louis Brummett, who was killed racing. Brummett’s son still operates the business in Pasadena. The shop is now a flower and garden shop. Alan Ishii photo
The DeSilvas’ childhood home in Los Angeles. They walked to Los Angeles High School nearby. It may be the oldest in town. Alan Ishii photo
The gym is the last remaining original structure of Los Angeles High, where Ralph and Bill went to school. Alan Ishii photo