The Mighty Zephyr – Iowa’s Ugly Duckling

The Mighty Zephyr Iowa’s Ugly Duckling

Photos and story by Bob Speltz

Reprinted from Antique Boating Magazine, Winter, 1975

First of all, I must explain that the boat I am about to describe is my all-time favorite inboard speedboat. She is far from the sleekest boat ever to speed across an inland lake, but yet, in her own way, she is a real “one of a kind”.

The ZEPHYR, as she was known, was an all mahogany speedboat, 35 feet long, 11 feet 6 inches wide and weighing almost 6 tons! She was built by Jean Ramely at his boat works on Lake Minnetonka, west of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 30s. Her early history is rather clouded, but we do know she spent several years neglected in an old shed at Ramely’s. Mr. “Curley” Lewis, owner of Lewis Boat Lines, Clear Lake, Iowa, took a big old four-wheel trailer to Minneapolis late in the fall of 1941. An employee and good friend, Ranse Lane, went along with him.

Curley acted as though he had come to look over a smaller, unfinished hull Jean had for sale. After looking over the smaller hull and appearing not to be interested in it, he casually asked Mr. Ramely, “How much will you take for that ugly duckling out in the shed?” Jean stopped, scratched his head a minute, and answered, “I don’t know, seems no one wants a boat that big these days.” Well, after some horse-trading, an acceptable price was arrived at and Mr. Ramely said, “When would you like to take delivery?” Curley smiled and said, “In about 10 minutes!” Ranse now knew why they had hauled that big, old trailer up to Lake Minnetonka. This all happened, as I said, in the fall of 1941. It took six days to tow the big boat back home to Clear Lake, Iowa, a distance of some 145 miles. Special Highway Patrol escorts had to be set up along with special permits for vehicles over 8 feet wide. The fellows finally, after five days, made my home town, Albert Lea, Minnesota, and left the boat here over night at a local farm implement dealer. In the morning they made the last leg of their journey with their “new” boat!

Shortly after this, Rance joined the Army but heard via letter from Curley concerning the progress on the ZEPHYR as she was now named. Her original name had been MISS LIBERTY V and she was a three-stepped hull designed as a test for Navy PT boats. All during the winter of 1941 Curley worked in his shop on the ZEPHYR at Bay Side Amusement Park. The original engine was a 420hp V-12 Liberty. That was pulled and a new Capital 750hp V-12 was installed. Ranse happened to be home on leave in the early spring of 1942, just after the ice had gone out of Clear Lake. Curley was dying to try out his new boat, so on a cold windy day, Ranse, Curley, and several other employees got the big ZEPHYR off her trailer and into the water. The two men took off across the lake on the ride of their lives! Ranse told me the boat was dry and had a new engine and literally flew across the water.

From 1942 on, the ZEPHYR operated every tourist season from Memorial Day through Labor Day for the Lewis Boat Lines. Lewis also operated the PRINCESS, CLIPPER, BABY GAR, and other smaller runabouts. Following Curley’s death in 1952, Touristville Boat Co. of Clear Lake, bought all remaining assets of the Lewis Lines including boats, docks, building, etc. Touristville operated the ZEPHYR for about 3 years, finally selling her because of increased operating and maintenance expenses plus the fact that there was no one left who could drive such a big, fast boat.

The ROCKET was sold to Okoboji Amusements and renamed CLIPPER 1. She is still operating in Florida as a slow excursion boat near Cypress Gardens. The CLIPPER, a 22 foot, 3 cockpit Chris was renamed BABY ROCKET and operated until the fall of 1954 when my Dad bought her. After Touristville discontinued running the ZEPHYR, Mr. Darrel Miller of Clear Lake bought her and operated several boats in the passenger business until 1956 when he, too, found it hard to make a living, as costs far exceeded profits. Darrel finally sold his ZEPHYR to two men from Mason City, Iowa who planned to rebuild her into a cabin cruiser. It seems the two soon found out the boat could never be changed to a cruiser so in despair, locals say, they destroyed the old boat by setting fire to her.

Here are a few interesting facts on the ZEPHYR. She could seat 35 people, there were no windshields, and she sported three large roomy cockpits. Because of her great size it took two men a full day just to give her a coat of varnish each spring. All the chrome side and deck rails were made by hand by Curley, Ranse Lane, and Russ Young. All chroming was done in Albert Lea as this was the nearest town where the work could be done. The boat was so large that at night she had to be anchored out. In the event of a storm, she could destroy both herself and the dock to which she was tied. Only the three cockpits were covered at night while the rest of the boat was left exposed to the elements. Originally, the boat had a three-step bottom as mentioned previously, but the first winter, Curley removed one step because she would sometimes fall off plane, drenching passengers and crew with tons of spray. She was stored out-of-doors during the winter months on her old four-wheel trailer and covered with canvas tarps. ZEPHYR reminded me of a “fish out of water” when she was stored because of her narrow transom and wide beam amidships. Top speed was estimated to be about 60 mph. Darrel Miller, final owner of the ZEPHYR, told me he once pulled 24 water skiers while 18 TV and newspaper reporters rode in the boat. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a photo of that!

The various photos included with this report will give you an idea how large a boat the ZEPHYR was. Can any readers supply me with any photos or information of any kind on other Ramely-built speedboats?

I would like to thank the following people for providing most of the interesting material and photos: Mrs. Ranse Lane, Mr. Floyd Oldenberg and Mrs. “Speck” Hady.