Wings & Water: Excessive Speed

  • Michael Schulze

Just after the start of a Powerboat P1 race off the coast of Travemunde, Germany, in June, Sergio Carpentieri rammed his boat, Carpenter, into the back of another boat, Fainplast, which had stalled. Carpenter went airborne, and as it soared over the other craft, its propeller slashed through Fainplast’s transom, nearly decapitating that boat’s pilot and throttle man. Carpenter rolled to the right and then slammed into the water upside down. By the time rescuers reached Carpentieri, he was dead.

The accident underscores the dangers of powerboat competition, even when it is conducted in the European tradition of gentlemen’s racing. For more than a century, wealthy European men have met on summer weekends to challenge each other on the water. In the sport’s earliest years, racers would pilot open-cockpit boats at 25 mph or so, a safe proposition even in rough seas. But these days, gentlemen of Britain and the Continent are racing boats that routinely exceed 100 mph—and still have open cockpits. By contrast, most U.S. high-performance raceboats have closed cockpits that can break free from the rest of the boat in a crash, generally protecting the occupants.

Racers say that driving a boat at 100 mph is much like driving a car at 200 mph—on a road that is full of potholes and has a constantly changing surface. When an open-cockpit racer encounters trouble at such a speed, the consequences can be disastrous.

On a Sunday morning in late August, a Powerboat P1 race is about to take place off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. In the small town of Cowes, in the dry pit—the area where workers unload boats from trucks and lower them by crane into the sea—the speed issue dominates every discussion. People are talking about the previous P1 race at Cowes, on Friday afternoon, which ended badly because of a problem with the rules regulating boat speeds. That problem, everyone agrees, must be addressed before today’s race begins.

The P1 circuit consists of two kinds of racers: the SuperSport class, comprising production powerboats, and the Evolution class, featuring boats built or modified for these contests. For the first time this year, the Evolution class includes two American contenders: King of Shaves, owned by Fountain Worldwide, the distributor of Fountain powerboats, and Lucas Oil Outerlimits, a craft cosponsored by Outerlimits Offshore Powerboats, the engine maker Mercury Marine, and Lucas Oil. Both of these boats are among the fastest that ever have entered P1, and the competition between the U.S. teams is intense.

The competitors already have met this summer in Malta, Naples, and, most recently, Germany, in the race where Carpentieri was killed. This meeting in Cowes will be followed by one in Zeebrugge, Belgium, and a final one in Portimao, Portugal. Each event consists of two races: an endurance contest and a sprint. In Cowes, the endurance run, which followed a 58-mile route around the Isle of Wight, took place Friday. Now, on Sunday afternoon, in the Solent, a thin strait between Cowes and Southampton on the mainland, 16 powerboats in the Evolution and SuperSport classes cluster together, awaiting the start of the sprint.

The day is windless and hot. At Cowes, an estimated 200,000 people, many peering through binoculars, have gathered on a long stony beach. The racers will trace an ellipse from Cowes toward the western part of the island and back again; the Evolution boats will make 12 laps, while the SuperSport boats will make 11. All of the boats will race concurrently, remaining quite close to shore throughout and only about 30 feet away from the crowd at the nearest point.

Besides King of Shaves and Lucas Oil Outerlimits, entries to watch in the nine-boat Evolution class include Wettpunkt.com, a sturdy, dependable craft from Austria, and the swift OSG from Italy. The seven-boat SuperSport class has been dominated by Extremeboat, piloted by Jackie Hunt, one of only two female racers in P1. Hunt, who lives near London, has many fans in this largely British crowd.

Mike Fiore, the 38-year-old owner and president of Outerlimits, is helming Lucas Oil Outerlimits. Longtime racer Joe Sgro, who piloted the boat on Friday, handles the throttle. (Throttling—controlling both a boat’s engine and its trim, or sideways movement—is so complicated that a pilot often requires another person to handle this function.) King of Shaves is piloted by the veteran British driver James Sheppard, who is accompanied by throttler Craig Wilson, the president of Fountain Worldwide.

In a sprint, the start is critical. As the pace boat that holds the flagman leads the racers toward the starting line, the drivers strive to occupy a position just behind it. If they move ahead of the pace boat, they will be disqualified. If they start too far back, they might never catch up during the race.

As the pace boat advances, Fiore and Sheppard have an additional concern. Over the past three events, the U.S. teams have been learning some of the tricks of the circuit, including the devious practice of driving close to another boat, turning suddenly, and swamping the competitor’s cockpit with water, blinding the occupants and possibly shorting out equipment. The maneuver is illegal, but that did not stop the Wettpunkt.com team from inundating Lucas Oil Outerlimits at the start of Friday’s race. The Austrian team later apologized for the mistake, but the U.S. drivers are discovering that mistakes of this sort occur with astonishing regularity.

The green flag drops. The engines shriek, spectators clap their hands to their ears, and the racers disappear in sheets of spray. 
 
For Nigel Hook, another member of the Outerlimits team, this race has personal significance. A small, wiry man with blond hair, a ready smile, and sideburns that recall 1950s rockabilly, the 51-year-old Hook is a powerboat champion many times over and something of a racing legend. He once was ejected from his craft during a contest in California and then swam back to the boat to try to continue racing. (The boat sank.)

Hook, who manned the throttle during Friday’s race, lives in Del Mar, Calif., where he runs a software integration company. But he is an Englishman, born and raised in Staffordshire, who caught the racing bug in Cowes when he was 10 years old. On Friday morning, before the first race, he settles back in a restaurant seat and remembers his first racing experience.

“It was 1966,” he says. “My uncle, Roger Hook, was building boats and racing. He took me to see the Cowes-Torquay [a race across the Solent to the town of Torquay on the mainland], and from that day I wanted to race here. In 1974, when I was 18, I raced with my uncle about 100 miles to the west, but this is my first time in Cowes.”

Hook is joining a long tradition this weekend. Motorboat racing in the Solent dates to 1902, sailboat racing to 1826. Cowes Week, which takes place the first week of August each year, is one of the world’s biggest sailboat racing events, attracting more than 1,000 vessels.

Motorboats were invented in the late 1800s, shortly after the advent of the internal combustion engine. The first powerboat racers were racecar drivers who took their skills to the water in steel, steam-powered craft. Diesel- and gasoline-driven boats soon replaced those vessels. In 1961, the British publishing magnate Sir Max Aitken established the 180-mile Cowes-Torquay event, the one that so fascinated the young Nigel Hook. Tommy Sopwith, son of the famed aviator Sir T.O.M. Sopwith (inventor of the Sopwith Camel), won the first Cowes-Torquay in a 25-foot, gas-powered boat called Thunderbolt.
 
P1 racing emerged in 2003, largely because of the efforts of Nathan Knight, a lawyer and lobbyist from Atlanta. Knight was working to salvage the World Endurance Championship, a foundering circuit for twin-engine, monohull, open-cockpit boats, when he formulated a new model for European offshore powerboat racing. He launched the P1 series with financial backing from Asif Rangoonwala, a jovial, sharp-as-nails Pakistani who has made his fortune in food distribution.

Sitting at a table in the dry pit Friday morning, Knight describes his approach to operating what P1 management calls “the Grand Prix of the Sea.” A handsome, sandy-haired man, he looks much younger than his 44 years—and more relaxed than seems possible, given the logistical challenges of an event like this. “The problem with powerboat racing,” he says, “is that it’s largely run by people who want to have fun. I have nothing against fun, but unless you do the hard work of building an infrastructure for a race and promoting it, you’re not going to attract the sponsors you need to make it viable. With P1, we decided to create a professionally run event that manufacturers could use to promote their production craft.” He adds that the series currently attracts a mix of sponsored boats (such as Lucas Oil Outerlimits) and privately owned ones (such as Extremeboat).

Since most production boats have diesel engines, Knight explains, P1 admits diesel vessels. And because gas-driven boats tend to be fastest, they are welcome as well. Diesel boats, typically heavy and strong, make good endurance racers, while gas-powered ones excel at short sprints. Thus P1 events have the two races.

Now Knight moves to an issue that, this weekend at least, will prove troubling. “We also try to even the playing field with regard to speed,” he says. “We do this with power-to-weight ratios: Evolution boats can weigh 3.5 kilos per unit of horsepower, while SuperSport boats can weigh 4.5 kilos per unit. We’ve found that this keeps the boats in the 80-to-90–mph range, which is safe for open-top boats.”

These calculations take into account the wind and its effect on the offshore racing surface. “P1 races typically take place in rough water,” Knight muses, gazing uncertainly at the flat sea.

Fountain Powerboats, based in Washington, N.C., and Outerlimits, of Bristol, R.I., make some of the world’s fastest boats. Fountain, founded in 1979 by the charismatic, energetic, occasionally abrasive Reggie Fountain, has won national and world championships in every V-bottom category of offshore racing, often with Fountain himself at the helm. Mike Fiore, who learned the business from his father, Paul, the founder of Hustler Powerboats, launched Outerlimits in 1993. Paul Fiore now works with Mike at Outerlimits, and he is traveling with his son in the P1 series this summer.

Powerboat racing may be a global phenomenon, but its participants constitute a small group in which everyone knows everyone else. When he was a tough kid from Long Island, Mike Fiore used to race against an equally tough kid from Brooklyn named Joe Sgro, who went on to compete for several years in a boat sponsored by Reggie Fountain. Recently, Sgro switched to Outerlimits, and when he and Fountain encounter each other in the dry pit, the tension is palpable. Fountain has dominated powerboat racing for many years, and Fiore hopes to give him a thrashing in the P1 series, an ambition that Sgro clearly shares.

At first glance, the rivalry between the two companies seems misplaced. Fountain annually manufactures more than 300 production craft, some priced as low as $70,000. Outerlimits makes only about 30 custom powerboats per year, at prices starting at $750,000. But although the two companies cater to somewhat different types of customers, they share an obsession with speed. King of Shaves is based on the Fountain 42 Lightning, which normally reaches about 90 mph. King of Shaves, however, has been souped up with a pair of naturally aspirated, fuel-injected Dodge Viper V-10 sports car engines that give it tremendous acceleration. (It has been clocked at 108 mph in a straightaway.) Lucas Oil Outerlimits is fitted with twin Mercury EU 662 V-8s, the kind of engine you would find in a one-ton truck, but with a supercharger attached. The V-10s and V-8s push their boats to roughly equal speeds, but the Outerlimits craft has other attributes: It is made of lightweight carbon fiber, not heavy fiberglass as King of Shaves is; its hull has five steps—stairlike design elements that reduce water resistance (King of Shaves has two); and its slim design enables it to turn more efficiently than wider boats can. Most racers agree that, in theory at least, Lucas Oil Outerlimits should win this series.

But powerboat racing entails more than just speed. King of Shaves is the heavier boat, so it generally will handle better in rough water. And dependability is critical: Mechanical failures can cripple a boat’s chances on a race circuit, no matter how well it performs otherwise. This summer, the Outerlimits team has experienced some discouraging breakdowns: a busted water pump during the first race in Malta, and stalled engines during the second race in Germany. King of Shaves, meanwhile, has operated without a hitch, enabling it to build a secure lead in the series as it enters the Cowes event. Reggie Fountain is making no attempt to conceal his pleasure in this fact.

Indeed, at the beginning of Sunday’s race, Fountain is roaring into a microphone, conveying his joy to Sheppard and Wilson in the cockpit of King of Shaves as they quickly establish a substantial advantage over Lucas Oil Outerlimits. The 16 raceboats produce a deafening roar, and King of Shaves is loudest of all as it emerges from corners and rockets to the next buoy with jaw-dropping speed.

Through the first six laps, Lucas Oil Outerlimits trails King of Shaves by about four boat lengths. Mike Fiore is handling the corners well, but he cannot gain any ground on the straightaways. As he is well aware, he has almost no chance of winning this series if the situation does not change.

The Fountain and Outerlimits boats are operating at full capacity in Sunday’s race, but this was not the case at the end of Friday’s endurance run, which Knight, P1’s CEO, subsequently acknowledged marked a low point in the sport. In that race, several boats deliberately stopped a few yards short of the finish line. They did so to avoid violating the rules.

Respectful of the dangers of open-cockpit racing, P1 sets a speed limit of an average of 87 mph for Evolution and SuperSport boats. “The limit has always been buried in the rules,” Knight explained after the race, “mainly because we almost always race in rough water. It simply has never been an issue with us before.” On Friday, however, the Solent was calm, allowing several of the racers to exceed the speed limit for the first time.

Joe Sgro drove Lucas Oil Outerlimits in Friday’s race, while Nigel Hook throttled. Sgro, a compact, straight-talking Brooklynite, has been racing since the early 1980s and has won many championships. He is a ferocious competitor, and the manner in which he won the race ran counter to his every instinct.

The race began with seven laps in the Solent and then proceeded to the other side of the island, which was blanketed in fog. “By the time we got there, we were out in front with King of Shaves,” Sgro said Saturday morning, “but it was clear we’d break the speed limit if we kept up that pace. So both boats throttled back. It was frustrating to see other boats go by. We shouted at them to slow down, but no one listened.”

Excited by passing the American boats, the other drivers sped around the island and approached the checkered flag—by which time Sgro’s warning was sinking in. Before they crossed the line with finishing times that would have disqualified them, those boats stopped dead in the water. On the shore, among the spectators, mutters of disbelief soon became hoots and catcalls. Meanwhile, King of Shaves and Lucas Oil Outerlimits neared the motionless boats, their pilots calibrating their approach to place them just under the speed limit. And then, about a quarter mile from the finish, Nigel Hook and Craig Wilson opened their throttles.

The race, then effectively a short dash, produced a photo finish. The judges, after deliberating an entire day, concluded that King of Shaves had rounded the island in one hour, six minutes, and 21.52 seconds, compared to one hour, six minutes, and 20.65 seconds for Lucas Oil Outerlimits. The judges disqualified the boats that had halted early because they had ignored a cardinal rule of racing: You never voluntarily stop a boat during a race. After all, a man had died while ramming a stalled boat a few weeks earlier.

The Fountain team protested, but the judges held firm. Outerlimits took the day Friday, but the victory was bittersweet. Winning a race that left a crowd groaning produced little satisfaction. Following Friday’s contest, Knight convened an emergency meeting with the P1 managers. How, he asked, were they going to fix this problem? Should they increase the speed limits? Abolish them entirely?

They decided to instruct the racers to drive slowly during the first lap and include that lap in their overall time, allowing them to drive at top speed for the rest of the contest. Although it already had been determined that, for the safety of the racers, open-cockpit boats should not be driven at top speed, the managers concluded that this plan at least would allow the boats to deliver an exciting race Sunday. They could readdress the issue of speed and open cockpits at a later date.

The Outerlimits and Fountain teams welcomed the managers’ decision. After Friday’s farce, they wanted only to race without constraints.

The two boats are running at full throttle Sunday, when, during the sixth lap, they both draw even with Jackie Hunt’s Extremeboat, and all three boats enter the western turn at the same time.

Hunt is not well known in the United States, but she is a celebrity here in Great Britain. P1 fans have fallen in love with this petite blonde with a sunny disposition who becomes a maniac when she is behind the wheel of a raceboat.
 
Hunt entered the Powerboat P1 circuit last year, in the SuperSport class, and won the championship, the first woman to do so. Hunt handles her own throttle, while her husband, Mike Shelton, serves as navigator during the endurance contests and watches the boat’s position during the sprints. (For safety reasons, at least two people must ride in each boat.) She says she probably will have to relinquish control of the throttle if she graduates to the Evolution class—assuming she does not give up P1 racing altogether. For although Hunt may be the most famous powerboat racer in the United Kingdom, she does not have a sponsor. Like many of the drivers, she has a day job—in her case, selling software. “I’ve used up all my vacation days and spent almost all my savings to race this summer,” she said on Friday. “I’m desperate.”

She is short on cash, but not chutzpah. After Friday’s race, Miles Jennings, the driver for Wettpunkt.com, claimed that women made inferior racers. “Jackie is good,” he said. “But I think she’s got a few male hormones. She’s not a typical woman. I’d like to see her in Evolution: That’s the big boys’ league.”

“Give me a boat in Evolution,” Hunt later replied, “and I’ll show that blond boy who’s a real racer.”

In Sunday’s race, she has been out front since the start. All she needs to do, she knows, is avoid a disaster. But during the sixth lap, as Hunt approaches the western turn, disaster suddenly looms large in her thoughts, as King of Shaves and Lucas Oil Outerlimits are only a few feet away, fighting to pass her.

Sheppard tries to cut to the inside of Extremeboat, but Fiore has seized that spot. So he pulls to the outside, making a wide turn around Hunt and careening back in. King of Shaves bumps the Outerlimits craft’s aft end, scraping off paint. But Fiore holds the boat steady, and as the two American boats exit the turn and leave the slower Extremeboat behind, Lucas Oil Outerlimits pulls out ahead.

Over the next lap or two, the Outerlimits boat increases its lead to about five boat lengths and maintains that advantage. Neither boat suffers a breakdown, and when the checkered flag falls, Lucas Oil Outerlimits has defeated King of Shaves by about 12 seconds. The Italian boat OSG takes third place, and in the SuperSport category, Hunt wins easily, having led throughout the race.

Nearly everyone is satisfied with today’s results. Those in the crowd are happy, because they have seen an exciting race. The drivers who did not place seem reasonably content: No one had mechanical problems, and everyone performed well. The Fountain team members accept their second-place finish gracefully, well aware that they remain ahead in the overall P1 standings. And Fiore and his crew are delighted to be back in the game.

But the issue of open cockpits and regulated speed shadows the proceedings. Certainly the speeds of the boats will continue to increase, and ultimately the P1 managers will have to address whether they can continue to allow open cockpits. As a group, P1 drivers support a move to closed cockpits. “When a boat sprays you, you feel like you’re being hit by rocks,” says Fountain Worldwide’s Craig Wilson, the throttle man for King of Shaves. “There’s no place for the water to go, and the pressure is tremendous. You can’t see anything. And if you flip—well, that’s like hitting asphalt.”

Still, Knight wishes to maintain the P1 series as a gentleman’s event, which seems a worthy goal. As he points out, many other race series have become tedious exercises in which the man with the most expensive boat wins, again and again. Cowes in particular, with its 100-year history of sportsmen gathering on summer weekends for friendly contests in the Solent, reminds one of the virtues of restraint.

King of Shaves and Lucas Oil Outerlimits continued to battle fiercely during the summer of 2007. In early September, off Zeebrugge, the Fountain team won the endurance race after a fuel-line problem stopped the Outerlimits boat in the final lap, but Outerlimits prevailed in the sprint. In the series’ final contest, in Portimao, Lucas Oil Outerlimits was again sidelined by a breakdown in the first race, and bad weather forced officials to cancel the second. In the final tally for the season, King of Shaves took first place, while Lucas Oil Outerlimits, mainly because of its mechanical problems, took third, behind OSG.

Fountain Powerboats, 252.975.2000, www.fountainpower.com
Outerlimits Offshore Powerboats, 401.253.7300, www.outerlimitspowerboats.com Powerboat P1, +44.20.7101.7600, www.powerboatp1.com

Photo by Scott Williamson/ www.photodesignstudios.com; Automobile courtesy Boulevard Motorcar Company
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