INTREPID adventure magazine New Zealand

The Shed at Irishman's Creek

The Shed at Irishman's Creek

By Brad Mills

Bill Hamilton was an intrepid New Zealander who literally invented the kiwi-Ana do it yourself attitude. He loved the outdoors, speed, mechanics and among his many feats, his most noted achievement was the development of the modern jet boat. He was the first person in the southern hemisphere to reach 100 miles an hour on land. He even made his own dam out of machinery he built to power his own engineering workshop, where his inventions flowed forth. 

Speeding over inches of water in jet boats is something New Zealand tourism is renowned for, and thanks to Hamilton New Zealanders can boast ownership in the boats fantastic design. Hamilton had a vision that saw the completion of the 'Hamilton Jet' which is still a leading brand of jet propulsion motors today. "I do not claim to have invented marine jet propulsion. The honour belongs to a gentleman named Archimedes, who lived some years ago," said Hamilton. Archimedes might have come up with the theory, but it was the good old kiwi number eight wire attitude that saw the jet boat become a reality over 50 years ago on a shallow fast flowing Canterbury river. 
 Sir Charles William Feilden Hamilton was born in Canterbury on July 26 1899, and as a young child he was interested in how things worked. He grew up on a farm surrounded by rivers like Waitaki, Clutha and Rakaia that came fresh from the Southern Alps. It is said of Bill, that when he was four years old he saw the sea for the first time.  He then trapped some sea water in a jar so he could make the tide work at home.  As a disappointed four year old, when his sea water sat lifeless in his jar, he would envision ways in which he could overcome tribulations, by using his mind to create workable solutions. 

Hamilton set out to tame the environment, and at the tender of 13 he was speeding down his local roads on a home made land yacht scaring his neighbour's horses. Hamilton's school years were spent at Waihi Preparatory School near Temuka, and later at Christ's College in Christchurch. Hamilton's older half brother Cyril was killed in World War one, and at the age of 16 Hamilton left school to work at Ashwick station. At 21, and with a loan from his father he bought a station of his own in South Canterbury called 'Irishman Creek' which he converted into his own workshop. 

On a trip to England at the tender age of 23, he became fascinated with motor cars, and purchased his very own Bentley, and began racing it himself when he returned home. Not only did he bring home a car, he met his English wife Peggy, who came back also. During his racing career, Hamilton won the 50 mile New Zealand Motor Cup, and he also smashed the Australasian speed record by breaking the 100mph mark at only 28. 

At 30, despite his success in racing, which saw him travel the world, the depression hit New Zealand hard, and Hamilton used his work shop to churn out countless engineering exploits, such as scoops for diggers, a water sprinkler, New Zealand's first ski rope tow, an air compressor and an air conditioner to name a few. The humble beginnings of the Irishman Creek workshop soon became a factory, and in the middle of nowhere, it was headed by a self made engineer/race car driver and his team of musterers and farmhands. 

After World war II, he opened a second engineering business in Christchurch, and by the age of 52 he decided to start work on a boat that could be used in the shallow creek beds he grew up next to. Hamilton needed to replace a standard propeller, and figured that by forcing water out the back of a boat it would drive it forward (Newton's third law of motion: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction).  With Hamilton's hands on methods, he created his own style of hydro jet, powered by a Ford 10 engine which he mounted in a 3.5 metre boat. The water was expelled from the bottom of the boat through a pipe, but this bold attempt only saw the boat reach a top speed of 17 kph. He didn't give up, and his enquiring mind then changed the pipe to protrude from the back of the boat above the water line which was now well clear from any river bottom damage. Hamilton's top speed then jumped to almost double, and the rest is now history.

Combining the water propulsion unit with a strong hulled boat straight from his workshop, Hamilton now had his dream boat. Further modifications improved the speed of the boat, as he narrowed the nozzle at the end  of the outlet pipe to increase the velocity of the water coming out of the jet, (Bernoulli's Principle). With help from fellow boat builders in 1956 the "Chinook" became the first commercially viable jet unit on the market. Within four years of his first prototype Hamilton had refined the design to create a boat that could skip over shallow river beds at 80 kph. 
In 1960 the Hamilton jet was beginning to become world famous. Hamilton's son Jon drove a boat called 'Kiwi' up a 160 km section of the Colorado River in the USA which winds its way through the Grand Canyon. Four boats made it up the river in that display, and they were all powered by Hamilton jets. They were the perfect craft for navigating through the intense rapids and shallow sections of the mighty river. 

Once the Hamilton jet had proven itself on the world stage, it was in hot demand all over the world, and it became widely used for gaining easy access to very remote places in the world, rivers that had never seen a powered boat before. Rivers like the Amazon, Ganges, Congo, Mekong, and of course the Shotover, soon all felt the power of a Hamilton jet. 

The original concept of a water propelled jet was in its very early stages, and had been dreamed up centuries before, but Hamilton was a pioneer with determination, intelligence and the vision to make things happen when he set his mind to it. "By using common sense. By keeping an open mind." Having a ..."grand team of chaps," around him he said, was the reason he accomplished so much.