Speed Queen

Harry McEvoy driving Cettien, Sydney Harbour, early 1930s. NLA image.

The waters of Kogarah Bay resounded to the roar of speedboat engines in May 1934.  The hydrofoil speedboat Cettien was poised to make an attempt on the Australasian water speed record.  Cettien was owned by the colourful businessman Harry McEvoy, a boot manufacturer who had made a fortune as the owner of the Fostar’s shoe stores.  McEvoy was a thrill-seeker who raced motorcycles on speedway tracks, drove fast cars, and flew his own plane.  He was a vice-commodore of the St George Motor Boat Club.   He had married Henrietta, a daughter of the famous Sydney businessman Quong Tart, and the family lived in some splendour at Gallop House, a mansion at Ashfield.  Their daughter, fourteen year old Tien McEvoy was every bit as good a driver as her father.  She had beaten him in a motorcycle speedway race when aged just eight, and she had her own speedboat which she regularly pushed to its limits; she was also a talented downhill and slalom skier. 

What those watching on the shore were unaware of when Cettien tuned up for the attempt on the ‘flying mile’ record, was that it was not Harry at the controls of the powerful speedboat, but his daughter.  The craft roared down the course, a cry went up – a new record!  The speedboat travelled at 67.9 miles per hour, eclipsing the old record of 62.5 miles per hour.  The news that the new record-holder was a schoolgirl (‘a thin slip of a girl’) made headlines.  To prove that it was no fluke, Tien came back the following year, aged fifteen, and broke the record again, travelling at 68.57 mph.  Interviewed afterwards, Tien stated that she felt 70 mph had been possible, but her foot had come off the throttle at a vital moment.  Later that year, Harry took the boat out with a mechanic, Sam Bruce, alongside.  Racing on the George’s River course, near Tom Ugly’s Point, the boat suddenly flipped twenty feet into the air, having hit some submerged object.  It crashed back down, leaving the two men clinging to the hull.  Both Liberty engines were wrecked, but the men were rescued and treated for minor injuries.

The following year, recovering from a broken collarbone sustained in a riding accident, Tien did not compete, and her father’s money went into buying racehorses instead.  In 1939, the McEvoys flew their own plane to Europe for a sightseeing tour.  Her two older brothers both survived wartime imprisonment by the Japanese, returning to Australia in time to pay a last goodbye to their father, who died in 1945.  Tien married a Dutch lieutenant, Jacques Thesingh, in 1943, but they separated a couple of years later.  A profile of her in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1950 described her as: “accomplished pilot, speedboat driver, horsewoman, skier, dog-breeder, expert photographer and conjuror.”  Possibly the only individual to have had those particular accomplishments!  Genealogy sources state that she died in 1984 at Penrith.

The photo, in the National Library of Australia’s collection, shows Harry McEvoy at the wheel of Cettien on the waters of Sydney Harbour circa 1933.

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