There are two ways in which you might have heard of the late Al Copeland. First, if you’re at all connected to the fast-food business, you’d know him as the founder of Popeye’s Fried Chicken. Second, if you’re a fan of offshore racing, you know him as an offshore racing great. His hey-day—and the sport’s hey-day for that matter—was during the 1970s and 1980s, and Copeland’s success on the racecourse and his generosity and flamboyance off it were legendary.
For sure, Copeland was a larger-than-life figure with larger-than-life ambitions. Among those ambitions was breaking the propeller-driven water-speed record, which according to the American Power Boat Association record book is 220 mph and was set by Dave Villwock in the Miss Budweiser Unlimited hydroplane.
Several years ago, Copeland, his son Al Copeland, Jr., his long-time throttleman Scott Barnhart and an entire team of engineers and boat builders began creating the senior Copeland’s dream machine. Although the senior Copeland died from cancer before the project was completed, the result is a stunning 56-foot long catamaran that is powered by four T-55 turbine engines rated at 3,000 a piece. If you’re doing the math, that means 12,000 hp total.
The 13-foot-wide cat, complete with a breakaway six-seat safety capsule, was unveiled at the Super Boat International Key West Offshore World Championships in mid-November 2009. With Barnhart at the throttles and Al Copeland, Jr. behind the wheel, it is slated to attempt to break the record at the SBI Kilo Runs on July 2 in Sarasota, Fla.
During its maiden test run in January, Phenomenon had no trouble reaching 150 mph, according to Barnhart.
“Other than some propeller damage we sustained, we couldn’t have been happier with the way things went,” says Barnhart. “But obviously, we have a lot more work to do before Sarasota. We’re just waiting on our new propellers.”
Since its debut, Phenomenon has been extensively photographed—at least from the outside. But until Al Copeland, Jr., allowed photographer Tim Sharkey to climb inside this unique creation, no photos of its interior had ever been captured. Those photos are being published for the first time in this story.
“As you can see, Phenomenon has six seats,” says Barnhart. “They were fabricated in house and based off NASCAR seat design. Each seat has a five-point restraint and a HANS device. Each seat has a full-time oxygen system and a David Clarke intercom system. For Al and myself, we also bought full-face helmets with built-in regulators from Security Race Products.”
If you look closely at the photos, you’ll notice a chromoly pole next to each seat. That pole, according to Barnhart, provides supports for the seats and shoulder harnesses, as well as structural support for the canopy, which incorporates three-quarter-inch-thick stretched acrylic in the two forward windows and half-inch Lexan in the side windows.
In the canopy above the center row of seats, there is an entry/escape hatch. There also are two escape hatches in the floor of the cockpit.
Although Phenomenon can be driven from either side because its custom-fabricated Latham Marine throttles (four) and shifters (two) are between the two forward seats, Barnhart says he prefer to throttle from the left.
“For 19 years with big Al (Copeland, Sr.) that’s how I ran,” he explains. “The throttles in this boat are pretty special. They were developed by Latham so you can open N1 and N2 for the turbines with one throttle. So I can completely control all four engines, from beginning to end, with one throttle per engine.”
The boat’s port dash was laid out with its rows of gauges in terms of priority. Because exhaust temperature is critical with turbine engines, the top row of instruments consists of exhaust temperature gauges. Next on the scale of important are internal gearbox temperature gauges—Phenomenon puts power to the water through four ASD 11 drives. And then there are requisite N1 and N2 gauges with dual pointers for the engines in each gauge.
Next to the array of instruments in the port dash, the starboard, driver’s-side dash is spare. In addition to a steering wheel, there are six fuel gauges—one for each fuel tank with a total capacity of 1,900 gallons.
“We burn 1,000 gallons an hour, so we can run for almost two hours,” says Barnhart. “Other than the fuel gauges, there’s just a Garmin 4212 GPS and a rudder indicator on the driver’s side. We didn’t need anything else. Al has more than enough to focus on when he’s driving.”
As you look at the photos in this article, it appears that the forward view from anything other than the front two seats is severely limited. Not so, says Barnhart, who added that each seat has its own angled aluminum footrest.
“This seats are staggered a little bit, so even though the people in the back seats can’t see that much, the people in the center seats can see what’s going on pretty well,” he says. “Actually, the center seats are the best seats in the boat—they have the most legroom.”
Of course, when Copeland and Barnhart take their run at the record, all seats but their own will be empty. Regardless of preparation and planning, the pursuit of high speed on the water remains dangerous.
“We’ve done everything we can to make it as safe as possible,” says Barnhart. “We do still have a lot more testing to do, but we’re looking forward to the actual run.”