Boating: Speed Demon

When you’re skimming across the water at 90 mph in the best of conditions, the line that separates you from mayhem is ultrafine. Add some 5-foot waves, and the line all but vanishes.

I learned this firsthand recently while driving Drambuie On Ice, the 40-foot Skater speedboat that won the latest American Power Boat Association (APBA) Super Cat championship. At 90 mph, throttleman John Tomlinson let out the trim, which lifted the bow out of the water and raised the speed to 95. The boat leaped into the air, and a gust of wind shoved the bow sideways. We landed partially on the boat’s side, at a right angle to our original direction. I thought we were about to flip—that we had crossed the line.

"Was that as close as I thought it was?" I stammered.

"It was close enough," said Tomlinson. "I was trying to find out just how fast we could go and still keep the boat in control. I started letting out the trim a little at a time and when we hit 95, I let it out too much."

As the throttleman, Tomlinson’s job is to achieve maximum speed and level flight when the boat leaves the water. Cross the line of control, and you will lose speed, because the bow will soar into the air and the boat will slam down on the water.

Once Tomlinson regained control, we charged across the Atlantic off the Miami coast, the boat’s twin hulls grazing the water. As the driver, my job was simple: Hold the wheel straight, turn only when necessary, and never turn when the boat was airborne.

I had driven similar speedboats and raced in smaller offshore classes before, but even novice drivers can race and cruise in 40-foot Skaters. Douglas Marine in Douglas, Mich., builds the boat, which is powered by two 760-hp engines and can reach 130 mph in calm water. A race-ready boat costs $500,000, and hiring a throttleman like Tomlinson costs about $10,000 per race.

Drambuie On Ice may be a championship-winning boat, but the only difference between it and a stock Skater 40 Race/Pleasure Classic is the design of the cockpit. Drambuie On Ice has an enclosed, roll bar–reinforced cockpit, and it includes a full canopy, similar to those on F-16 fighter jets, that protects the driver and throttleman.

The pleasure version of the Skater 40 can seat five or six passengers in two front seats and an aft bench. A partial canopy shields you from the wind and spray while allowing you to enjoy the sun. Douglas Marine can customize each Skater’s cockpit, and it can add a cabin if you have no intentions of racing.

Regardless of the boat’s configuration, a ride at triple-digit competition speeds is a must. As you skim the surface, fly into the air, and land with a thud, you will brave the sport’s perils and experience the extremity of thrills it delivers. "On the first lap, you’re getting pounded around at 100 mph and you think, ‘Oh man, I’ve gotta run 15 or 20 more laps,’ " says Tomlinson. "But by the end of the race, you’ve gotten comfortable in the boat, and you think, ‘I could go out and run another race.’ "

Douglas Marine, 616.857.4308, www.skaterpowerboats.com

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