Speed secret: Stay out of water Power boats will be flying on Chesapeake

July 25, 1998|By PETER BAKER | PETER BAKER,SUN STAFF

The top guns of the Chesapeake Challenge are the big catamarans of the Open Class, twin-hulled racers that develop nearly 2,000 horsepower and literally fly around the course at speeds exceeding 140 mph.

And the best of the best this season has been Drambuie on Ice, a first-year team from Miami that leads the American Power Boat Association points standings in the Open Class after three races.

Yesterday, while preparing for on-the-water testing of their 45-foot Skater Catamaran, driver Forest Barber and throttleman John Tomlinson discussed what it takes to make a half-million-dollar, 9,800-pound boat fly.

"The key to going really fast is to have as little of the boat in the water as possible to eliminate drag between the hull and the water. When you are going your fastest, you are flying the boat, really," said Barber, 45, the president and CEO of a Fort Worth, Texas, company that manufacturers medical equipment and an admitted thrill seeker. "And it is indeed a balancing act of being in control while still going as fast as possible."

Aboard Drambuie, Barber and Tomlinson share a small, water-tight cockpit, where an array of gauges and switches front the steering station and the throttles, or "sticks."

In theory, Barber said, he steers and navigates while Tomlinson works the throttles and trims, or balances, the boat. But in fact, he said, he and Tomlinson have become a team, each fitted with radio headsets for communication above the roar of the engines and cuing on each other's movements.

"When you are in there together, you get verbal and visual cues by watching each other," said Barber. "Since the first race of the year, we have improved dramatically, and improved communication between us has been a very important factor in that improvement."

Even in small seas, as the racers expect to encounter on the Patapsco River this weekend, communication between the driver and the man on the sticks is crucial.

"The balance of the boat is the key to a catamaran," said Tomlinson, who with partner Mike Thomas owns TNT Custom Rigging of Miami, which outfits and upgrades many of the top racers on the APBA circuit. "Ideally, you want just the propellers hooked up in the water."

Keeping the props hooked is the throttleman's job, backing off the power when the boat becomes airborne and powering up again just before the boat returns to the water.

When the job is done right, the twin 500-cubic inch, fuel-injected engines run cool and boat speed stays high. But when the driver and throttleman are out of sync, speeds drop, systems and drives fail and $60,000 engines burn up.

"Here we'll get a 1 1/2 -foot chop and we'll just scoot over the top of that, I'm pretty sure," said Tomlinson, Open Class national champion in 1996 and winner of the Modified Class and the UIM Class World Championship last year. "And with a 4.5-mile straightaway and this style of course, we'll be able to prop the boat up for a high rate of speed."

From bow to stern, the business of running a big cat at high speed is a series of adjustments -- choosing the proper-sized propellers for the conditions, adding or subtracting water ballast, adjusting the angle of the propellers and trim planes and reading the field.

"As the man on the sticks, I am adjusting trim attitudes constantly, working the ballast tanks, checking engine temperature and oil pressure and mentally preparing for the next move," Tomlinson said. "But for this race, we might get a set in the boat and run with that through the whole race. With the steady 1 1/2 -foot chop, I think we will see speeds in the low to mid 140s."

Wind shifts, tidal currents and lap-to-lap changes in course conditions all must be accounted for, even on a seemingly

simple oval course between Lazaretto Point and Carroll Island.

"Race speeds are dependent on water and course conditions," said Barber, who has flown MIG 29s, raced motorcycles and been a strong competitor in APBA B and Modified classes. "We have had races where we averaged only around 80 miles per hour -- like in Miami, where we averaged 78 miles per hour in 7-foot seas, and Corpus Christi, where we did 80 in rough seas and a stiff crosswind."

From navigational and tactical standpoints, Barber said, the Patapsco might appear to be a walk in the park.

"But it is not as simple as it might appear, because the track changes each time you go around," he said. "You have to decide, depending on your position in the field, whether to carry speed throughout or try to make the course as short as possible [by slowing and tightening up on the turns].

"The fastest and safest way is to carry speed through the turns. But once you are on the course, you have to take the line that works for the set-up of the boat -- the propeller selection, water ballast, trim planes and drive trim, the whole package."

After each race the Drambuie team sends its 960-horsepower engines out for minor rebuilds. After every other race, the engines go in for major overhauls, and the team cycles eight engines through the season.

The team travels with a tractor trailer that houses a workshop and spare parts, a helicopter and a crew of eight, including its own rescue divers.

A 45-foot cat rigged and ready to race, but without support crews, parts, maintenance and repairs, costs $500,000 to $600,000.

"Throw in shore support and all the equipment," Tomlinson said, "and you're up to $1 million easy. It's a big show, no doubt about it."

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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