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Tiny boats sink amid hails of BBs

Hobbyists representing Allied and Axis sides wage a remote-control war at the State Road 44 E boat ramp in Inverness this weekend.

[Times photos: Brian Tietz]
John Bruder of Valrico pushes his World War I model warship back to sea after checking some damage to the hull sustained in the battles organized on Big Henderson Lake by Model Warship Combat Inc.

By JORGE SANCHEZ

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 4, 2001


INVERNESS -- A small but enthusiastic crowd attended the naval battles between two fleets of model warships on Big Lake Henderson over the weekend.

Divided along Allied and Axis lines, model warship captains ventured out on a sandbar to perform battle maneuvers with their remote-control ships on Saturday and Sunday. They fired their deck guns to score hits and possibly sink an opponent.

The ships did battle in a small cove a few yards from the captains. Meanwhile, onlookers who came from as far away as Georgia watched the action intently.

The battles were put on by Model Warship Combat Inc. This weekend was the organization's first event in Citrus County.

Three model warships collide Saturday. From a sandbar a few yards away, captains divided into Allied and Axis teams maneuver their ships by remote control and fire BBs in an effort to sink opponents.

The model warships, most of them assembled from kits, are capable of firing about 150 BBs from deck guns mounted fore and aft. The BBs tear through soft spots in the hulls of the ships, which then take on water.

"You've got to be aggressive," Charley Stephens of Cape Coral said Saturday.

Stephens manufactures the kits that most of the other captains were using. They cost between $100 and $400. A ship modeled after the Italian battleship Andrea Doria is popular.

The ships raced out into the cove and formed battle formations, and then a furious BB battle broke out. The captains, using remote controls, not only maneuvered their ships in tight attack circles, but also unleashed volley after volley of BBs on their opponents. They also worked bilge pumps to suck water out of the hulls of their ships as the damage mounted.

The preferred tactic is to angle up on an opponent and, from a distance of 1 foot or less, blast BB holes in or below the waterline.

"It's up close and personal," said Tony Stephens, the organizer of the event. Tony and Charley Stephens are brothers.

Tony Stephens' Andrea Doria model warship had two cannons that were aimed downward, to inflict damage at or near the opponent's water line. Most other captains used the same technique.

The BBs are fired as fast as the captains can push a button on their remote controls. When the battle was fully joined, hundreds of shots were fired every minute, and the spectators on shore could hear the sound of whizzing BBs. The BBs kicked up small splashes when they missed. Some shots landed in the water near the shore, about 15 yards away from the spectators.

For safety, all spectators had to wear goggles. Nobody was hit by a BB.

The boats, however, were shot to pieces. In one battle, the Andrea Doria model owned by Bill Byrnes of Palm Bay took on so much water that it had to make an emergency run to the sand bar, where it sank.

"I'm new at this, and that's why it happened," Byrnes said.

The boats have fiberglass hulls, which are impenetrable to BBs, except for one thing:

"We have cutouts, or windows, along the hull that are just covered by balsa wood, and that's where the BBs can blast through," Tony Stephens said.

The boats are also equipped with bilge pumps, which shoot out rooster tails of water when they are switched on. The cannons are hand-built and use copper tubing and canisters of compressed air. Each ship holds between 150 and 175 rounds of BBs, divided among their deck guns.

Among the spectators were Tom Waters and his wife, Jane Waters, of St. Petersburg. They read about the event and traveled to see the action, which Tom watched with binoculars.

"This is really fun," Tom Waters said. "Our last child graduated from high school, and we're now able to travel around and see things like this. It's very exciting."

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