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How fast is too fast?

Today's pleasure boats can outrun race boats. But if skill levels don't match speed levels, disaster can occur.

Published January 30, 2004

Flying across the water at 100 mph, the white stucco buildings on South Beach looked like a picket fence.

"Just don't make any sudden movements with the wheel," throttleman Johnny Tomlinson warned through the headset of my race helmet. "Just keep it steady."

The Super Cat Drambuie on Ice, a 40-foot catamaran capable of speeds close to 130 mph, had just won the American Power Boat Association Offshore division's season opener in Daytona Beach.

Tomlinson, who many consider to be the best throttleman in the history of offshore powerboat racing, had invited me to go for a test drive.

A few months earlier, I had gone through the "dunk test" that all offshore racers are required to undergo at least once a year. Strapped in a five-point harness, I was dropped upside down in a swimming pool so I would know what it was like when a race boat overturns.

The enclosed canopy that protects a driver and throttleman from impact also can prove quiet deadly when filled with water. So the safety personnel who monitor offshore racing make sure participants are trained not to panic in an emergency. Drivers and throttlemen must have the presence of mind to find their air supply while hanging upside down in cold water after a 100 mph mishap.

Yet despite all these safeguards ... the helmets, the canopies, the seat belts ... people still die racing offshore powerboats. It is an assumed risk, and offshore veterans know that it comes with the territory.

Driving with Tomlinson, I felt safe, but still a little scared. If you flip going that fast the water is as hard as concrete.

But I knew Tomlinson was a consummate professional. In offshore racing, the throttleman is the quarterback, controlling not only the speed, but the "trim" of the boat, or its position in the water.

The driver's skill becomes more important when you introduce other boats, such as on a crowded race course.

"There is no doubt about it ... driving a race boat at 100 mph is a two-man job," Michael Allweiss, the former APBA Offshore chairman, said. "You would have to be an extremely skilled individual to perform all those functions by yourself."

Allweiss, like others in the performance boating community, thinks there are lessons to be learned from Sunday's boating accident near the Gandy Bridge in St. Petersburg.

Chris Parker, a founder of the Bonefish Grill restaurant chain, remains missing after his 36-foot Spectre catamaran flipped after hitting speeds in excess of 100 mph in Tampa Bay.

The Spectre, a Clearwater-built race boat that has won both national and world championships as well as set "kilo" speed records, was equipped with twin 650 horsepower engines.

"That boat exceeds the performance parameters of our Super Cat Light class," Allweiss said. "But it has none of the safety equipment."

Several years ago in Key West, I made the mistake of going too fast in an open-cockpit boat. The catamaran was equipped with twin helicopter engines (yes, helicopter) and the owner said it could hit speeds of close to 130 mph. He took me for a brief run in the harbor, and nearly cut in half a vee-bottom race boat that had been out testing for the next day's race.

It was the first and last time that I would ever go that fast in a boat without a helmet, safety harness, air supply, protective canopy and a competent driver and or/throttleman.

But I am in the minority. Every year, hundreds if not thousands of boaters in high-performance craft take to our nation's waterways and travel at speeds that at one time were only seen on a race course.

Today, anybody can buy a 100 mph boat. There is no special training, license or experienced required.

All you need is cash.

[Last modified January 30, 2004, 01:32:11]


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