Remembering Ralph DeSilva
January 5, 2024 - 7:46pm
The DeSilva Wing. This shows the 2 x 12 redwood runners we added.
Remembering Ralph DeSilva
By Ron Hill
Tim Weber has stayed close to Ralph DeSilva for at least the last 20 years. Brother Bill DeSilva has been gone since ’69. Ralph and I had a great talk last November. A few weeks ago, Tim called and left a message that Ralph had passed on December 20th, 2023. He was 101 years old.
My memories of Ralph start in May of 1947. I was three. We were heading to Havasu Landing in my dad’s 1937 Plymouth. We were hauling two outboards on the front of a homemade wooden trailer with a Rockholt boat. Our car overheated, and Ralph and his new bride stopped and gave us some water for the radiator. Ralph had met his wife in France during the war, and he returned to marry her there. They lived in he USA, but she never liked the heat of the desert.
In 1948, my dad decided to take a bold step. He and Rich Hallett had rebottomed his Rockholt with plywood so the boat no longer “skipped” (the boat’s name was “SKIPPY”). Ralph and Bill DeSilva were then starting their own boat business. Their father, John DeSilva, was a well respected boat builder. But Dad decided to take a chance on the “kids,” so Ralph and Bill built him a boat.
Dad took it home and did some testing at Lake Elsinore. He painted the name Forever Amber on it, in silver leaf. He displayed the boat at the LA Boat Show to great reviews.
Dad raced the William Randolph Hearst Newspaper Regatta. He never won, but in 1949, he got close with his DeSilva. He was way out in front with the new boat after two laps. Then a guy left the pits two laps late, creating huge rollers. Dad hit those rollers and blew over backward, knocking two front teeth out. (There were no rules about late starts in those days.)
Dad ordered a new DeSilva C Runabout for my brother Russ, as he was growing fast—at almost 15, he was already 6’3″ tall.
The new boat was painted orange and named “Long Lad”. My brother raced it at Lake Millerton in Fresno and managed a second. Dad had not “kicked” the spark for full advance.
Two or three weeks later we raced at McGrath Lake in Ventura. Again the DeSilvas performed well.
I am pretty sure my brother won C Racing Runabout. He entered the “Free for All”. He powered around other boats and led to the pits, only to do a 360° spin.
Russ Jr. ended up placing third, but he spun five times in one heat. So, Dad fired him and sold the new DeSilva to Ed Kurokawa.
Ed also ordered a new C Runabout from Ralph and Bill. But when Ed got the new DeSilva he was quite upset. It was one of the first, if not the first, boats with square side and a flat deck.
My brother and his future wife picked up the DeSilva up at Ed’s in Selma and went to Lodi for the July 4th race. Russ did well at Lodi and went on to race at Ventura that weekend. But Ed didn’t care how well Russ did; he just didn’t like the boat. I think he sold it to Fred Hauenstein Sr.
In ’58 I started running C Stock Runabouts and the DeSilva brother were my propeller dealers.
In ’64 I built my own C Runabout, and in ’66 Dad and I built a D Runabout that I drove to win the Nationals in Prineville, Oregon.
There were never hard feelings about my driving Morehouse boats or Hill boats. Bill and Ralph were always very nice to me.
I had never raced a DeSilva boat, but I started hanging around DeSilvas’ on the weekends.
In spring 1965, I was buying some Cary propellers from the DeSilvas and saw an upside-down 12-foot runabout covered up in the yard. They said they built it for a guy in Texas, and hated it so much they built him a new one. I asked, “What are you going to do with it?” They basically said, “If you want it, take it.”
I took this boat home. I decided it had too much afterplane, so I cut that off. I set the transom back about 2 inches, widened the bottom 3 inches (1-1/2″ on each side) and moved the steering wheel to the left so I could chine turn it. It was the first single chine boat they ever built.
Bill Boyes Jr., and I were friends and kind of teammates. I had loaned him a “C” motor. I said, “Bill, why not run my 12-footer?” So we raced at the Divisionals in San Diego. It was rougher than hell as always, but I also had one hell of a time beating Bill for the win.
There used to be an Anacin commercial with the saying, “Mother please, I’d rather do it myself.”
So, with a felt pen I named the boat “Mother Please”. I have a picture of the Mother Please with Jimbo McConnell driving it.
Bill bought the boat from me and ended up 5th in C Runabout in 1963.
After Parker 1967, I was hanging around DeSilvas doing my usual, talking a lot but managing to cut the sled up, as Ralph said. They were building a new Wing twin engine boat.
Ralph was talking to Harry Bartolomei. Harry asked Ralph to see if I wanted driver his C, D and F Runabouts and go to Valleyfield for the Expo ’67 Regatta. I said, “Sure.”
Ralph said, “Harry wants to know if you go to the Modesto Kilos next week?” I said, “Sure.”
My dad and mom headed for Modesto. I had only driven one DeSilva in my life and it went 57 MPH. I got into Harry 13’6″ DeSilva with a C Konig and went like 85 MPH. Then Harry pulled the “C” motor off and put the “D” on. I ran it at about 88 MPH. Harry had the fin off for the kilos so I was going sideways in the corner at about 80.
Harry said, “We’ll run the kilos in the morning.” I don’t recall how fast I went but I did break the C and D Runabout kilo record. Later the records were disallowed in APBA as the motors weren’t approved yet, but they were approved as UIM Kilo records.
The next day I saw this 75-H on a Konig gearcase sitting on this 13’6″ Desilva. I almost lost my breath, thinking, “That thing will be fast.”
We started the race. Rich Fuchslin took the lead in a 14-foot DeSilva, and Billy Jack Rucker was behind him in another 14-foot DeSilva. Both ran Lon Stevens’s very fast F motors. My motor was a Quincy. They were blowing me away. Jose Cisneros was riding piggyback; when I’d get in the back he’d lean against the carbs and choke the motor, I’d fly over the steering wheel, then the motor would go again.
About this time I noticed Fuchslin was dead in the water. As I came out of the first turn on the last lap I saw Rucker stopping, with a little roostertail coming off his prop.
I finished the heat and broke the world record. In the second heat, we figured out how to keep Jose off the carbs. We made a pretty good run and upped the record.
The next Saturday, I went to DeSilvas’. They were building a new 13’6″ runabout. They said it was for DePue. I said, “DePue?” They said, “Harry ordered a new boat and wants you running his stuff after Valleyfield, at DePue.”
In the meantime, I had sold Fred Miller one of me “D” Mercury motors and convinced him to buy a DeSilva, as I had no time to teach school and build a boat.
Fred and I also talked about how I had widened the bottom of the “C” DeSilva. I talked to Ralph about building Fred a wide-bottom B Runabout. Ralph agreed, and Fred ordered the boat.
Then, Max McPeek called, wanting a wide-bottom A Runabout.
I worked out a deal to take both Fred’s and Max’s boats to the Marathon Nationals in Bay City.
I ran A, B, C, D, and F Hydro; and A, B,C, and D Runabout at DePue. I managed to win D Runabout, and set the fastest time in A Runabout in Max’s wide-bottom boat. I did get second place. Ralph wan’t too sure about me running the Wide-bottom in Alky.
In the fall of ’67, Evinrude had given my dad a 20 DeSilva for me to run at Havasu. I refused, saying I wanted to drive a Glastron. Jack Leek agreed, but only if I could get someone else to drive the DeSilva. I called Fred Hauenstein, Jr. and he agreed to drive the boat.
Tom Roth had driven a DeSilva sled, like the one I cut up at Havasu. A miscalculation on fuel cost him the race. I won the twin class with my Glastron.
Right after Havasu, November 1967, we started testing the DeSilva Wing. It was a DOG—73 MPH, just terrible. My dad and I cut 2 X 12 redwood planks into triangles and flattened the bottoms of the sponsons and back pads.
By working with Evinrude and Ray Nydahl, and going to Parker every weekend in February, we had the Wing doing 93 the first week of March for the 9 Hour Enduro. Fred Hauenstein and I drove together. I was hanging out at DeSilvas’ and this nice little 12 foot boat showed up. It was Major Bob’s; he’d gone to Vietnam and asked them to sell it.
Ralph and Bill promised to build me a new C-D Stock, and a 13’6″ Alky Runabout.
I said, “Let me run Major Bob’s boat until you get my two new boats built.”
So, the damn thing ran well. I added 12″ on the nose so it was legal “D” boat.
By early June, I needed a boat for my Konig and my C and D Runabout.
My dad and I went to DeSilvas’ and started asking when my boats were going to get built.
We figured they were six months behind. Seebold had cancelled an order for being so late. They repainted his boat and sold it to John Riner Woods.
The following Monday, my dad and I went to DeSilvas’ and started building me a D Runabout. We were a little cruder than the DeSilvas, but were a lot faster.
My dad was sharpening a drill and Ralph started yelling at him, “You’ll ruin the drill!” Dad just kept grinding on the drill and we kept working on my boat. About 30 minutes later, Ralph came walking over to us and said, “Russ, can you sharpen these drills?”
We finished the boat that week, and they taped it off and started painting. My dad said, “We better come back next week and build you the 13’6″ one.”
I left Wednesday for Chicago to run the Milwaukee to Chicago to Milwaukee Marathon. When I left, my new 13”6″ wasn’t finished. But my folks planned to pick me up at the airport and head for Seattle to the Stock Nationals, then on to DePue, then to Trenton for the Marathon Nationals.
When my folks picked me up there was no paint on the 13’6″ boat, but it was a winner. I ran the 19-C for two years and only lost two heats. Then I sold it, still unpainted—just sealed with fiberglass resin.
When we got done traveling I went to DeSilvas’ to see their new Wing that OMC was buying. Jack Leek was there. He looked at the boat and said, “Stop; keep my $1,000 deposit.” He thought it looked like a big box. I saw SPEED. I asked Ralph how much for the boat he said, “$1,000.” I called my dad and said, “Let’s buy this thing.” Jimbo’s dad was at my folks’ house and he said he’d go halve with my dad. They jumped into the car and came to DeSilvas’.
The next Saturday I went and picked up the new Wing.
Rod Zapf was a new TWA pilot who loved racing. He would come by when he was off work, and Dad and Rod worked on that boat for 2-3 months.
I took a page out of Bob Oakner’s SidCraft book and put air traps on the sponsons, and full length aluminum angle air traps on the runners.
Jack Leek wasn’t very excited about giving us a couple of motors for a boat he thought was a DOG.
As it turned out, at the 9 Hour our red boat with black and white checkers, the Checkerboard DeSilva Wing by Russ and Rod Zapf, led by 8 laps. Fred Hauenstein and I were the first outboarders ever to lead the 9 Hour. We could run 108 MPH; OMC’s fastest boat that year hit 92 MPH.
In 1970, Jimbo and Frank Zorkan led the 9 Hour until they broke a battery. The original Wing, on which my dad and I had flattened the bottom, won. It was the first Outboard ever to win the 9 Hour.
In the spring of 1975, Ralph called and said they’d built me a new 12-foot C Stock Runabout.
I went to Wisconsin and tested before going to Dayton. The more I tested, the slower I got.
When I got to Dayton, I asked Dave Procnow if I could borrow his 30-H. I set top time.
But in my boat, after being the fastest in the qualifiers, I was running 6th in C Runabout. I was going so slow, Hank Menzies rearended me in a corner. After the heat he said, “Why were you going so slow?” I said, “That was as fast as I could go.”
I was defending D Runabout Champion and I finished close to last. Turned out there was water in the fuel.
I ran that 12′ DeSilva in ’76 and set top time in the qualifier. To this day I think the clock was wrong. Ernie Dawe won; I finished 7th. I had beaten Ernie all year.
I sold the 12-footer, and gave the DeSilvas what they wanted.
I stopped racing Stock in ’78 and never raced a DeSilva again.
Ralph and Bill DeSilva were really good to to me. They built a Wing for me, but sold it to a guy that wanted if pretty bad. He was killed in it. The DeSilvas never built another Wing. They were glad I hadn’t driven it.
May he race in peace! HE WAS A DAMN GOOD GUY!
Ralph De Silva’s 1993 APBA Honor Squadron nomination:
Ralph De Silva – It is rare for a builder of wood racecraft to have a long career, especially in the smaller Outboard classes. However, De Silvas have been building boats for half a century! Ralph De Silva’s father began the boat shop near Los Angeles, CA, in 1929. Ralph and his brother took over and built excellent boats in almost all APBA categories. At one time their best-known hull, the Alky Runabout, held every PRO record. They have also produced exotic craft, from a two-man, two-engine hydro for the McCulloch race team in the 1960s, to the wing design that won the Parker Nine Hour Enduro Marathon around 1970. They have built every imaginable type of race boat and keep popping up with innovative designs. Few have contributed as much to APBA boat racing as Ralph De Silva and his family.