KENT NARROWS -- Hydroplanes, throwing tall rooster tails of spray over a calm Hog Bay, reached speeds of more than 120 mph yesterday in the first of two days of high-speed racing.
These boats with the powerful engines that fly like planes over the surface with little more than a rudder in the water, created a dramatic sight for several thousand racing fans who gathered to watch on the Kent Island Yacht Club lawn.
Wheeler Baker of Kent Island, a six-time national high-point champion, created the biggest thrill of the afternoon when his 2.5-liter modified hydro, Aquamet, ran neck-and-neck with Every Penny, driven by Annapolis racer Chris Oliver. After three of the four laps around the course, Every Penny suddenly went dead in the water, and Baker went on to win.
Oliver said he knew he had a mechanical problem before the start of the qualifying race earlier in the afternoon.
"At the 5-minute gun, water was up over the seat and sloshing around," said Oliver, who managed to keep the lead in the race before breaking down. It was the first time Every Penny had been raced since October of last year, Oliver said.
Another Marylander, Bobby Brown of Parsonsburg, won the 5-liter hydroplane class, which features the fastest boats over the same race course. Brown also won in a smaller hydroplane, the 2.5-liter Cobra, Lil Lightnin.
Unlike most boats that ride in the water, hydroplanes are designed to trap air under the hull and "hang six to 12 inches off the water," said Baker.
"Some boats have adjustable wings on the hull at the front of the boats. You just fly it like an airplane. If it climbs too high, you have to bring it back down or the boat could flip," Baker said.
The hydroplanes, which only turn left, have skid fins hanging off the left stanchion that "grabs the water and stops you from sliding on a turn," Baker said.
The hydros may have the latest technology, but it was the Jersey Speed Skiffs, modern versions of Prohibition-era rum-runners, that created the most spectacular racing sights.
Many of the skiffs, built like 1930s runabouts, bounced around the course at 70 mph, turning their bottom sides halfway out of the water on the turns.
Superstocks, high-powered, conventional boats that top 120 mph, were also raced.
Despite an occasional southerly breeze that rippled the waters of Hog Bay, none of the 36 hydroplanes, Jersey Speed Skiffs and Superstock boats, which can be flipped easily on waves, encountered problems with the weather.
However, earlier in the day, poor visibility and the threat of severe thunderstorms forced the cancellation of races between offshore boats, commonly called "muscle" or "cigarette" boats, on the Chester River. The offshore boat races are scheduled to run today at 10 a.m.
The hydroplanes, Jersey Speed Skiffs and Superstock boats, will compete again today from 1 to 5 p.m. off the Kent Island Yacht Club on the Eastern Shore.