Several years ago, I got a call from renowned offshore racing throttleman Jerry Gilbreath. Gilbreath, who was throttling a 39-foot Marine Technology, Inc., catamaran Reliable Carriers with the boat’s owner, Tom Abrams, in the Super Cat class, wanted to teach me how to drive the boat. In turn, he proposed that I write a story for Powerboat magazine about the experience. I pitched it to Brett Becker, my editor at the time, who agreed to the assignment. I think he knew I would have brooded and grumbled endlessly—two skills I’ve developed well over the years—if he’d said no.
Reliable Carriers was a great boat and Gilbreath was an amazing teacher, but the truth is with a helmet on my head, a full-canopy over it, six-point restraints pinning me to my bucket seat and nothing but flat water in Sarasota (Fla.) Bay and even in the Gulf of Mexico, the experience actually wasn’t nearly as exhilarating as I’d expected. Don’t get me wrong, it was a privilege and it was fun. But it wasn’t the rush I thought it would be.
So when my good friend Bob Christie, the owner of Speed Racer, a well-known 44-foot MTI catamaran with twin 1,000-hp Potter Performance Engines called me and said, “Hey, how about you drive Speed and I throttle for the Miami Boat Show Poker Run,” I was happy to accept. But I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal.
Turns out I was right. It wasn’t a big deal, because it didn’t happen. The 44-footer, which was being converted from a BPM-drive boat to a Mercury Racing No. 6 drive boat and having its five-seat cockpit replaced with a six-seat version at MTI, wasn’t finished in time for the run. No worries, Christie assured me, we’ll do it a month later at another run in Florida.
But that run came and went, and Speed Racer still wasn’t quite ready.
No worries, Christie assured me, we’ll do it at the Atlantic City Poker Run.
Somewhere over the midwest on the flight from San Francisco to New Jersey, I started to twitch in my seat. And sweat. The next day I would drive Speed Racer in unfamiliar waters. I would drive one of the most well-known performance boats in the world, a boat that is owned by one of my best friends and worth a lot more than, well, me.
At least there wouldn’t be anyone else watching and critiquing my driving, other than Christie, his wife, Madeline, and three other guests.
And of course the rest of the folks in the 43-boat poker run fleet.
And of course I was the “writer dude from California,” the guy who wrote for Powerboat magazine for more than sixteen years and currently writes every day for speedonthewater.com and every month for Boats.com.
So it’s not like anyone was watching or there was any pressure. Nah.
Here’s the thing: As soon as we pulled away from the docks with Christie handling the throttles and me steering, it all melted away. Right away, I noticed how responsive the cat was to steering input at idle speeds, which Christie controlled via the cat’s two-speed transmissions and even, when necessary in tight quarters, running on one engine.
In a rudder boat, which Speed Racer was until its conversion to No. 6 drives, what I did with the wheel wouldn’t have made a lick of difference at low speeds. And docking it, which was the first thing we had to do to attend the drivers’ meeting at the Lobster Shanty in Toms River, N.J., would have been a nightmare.
But the real joy of driving Speed Racer began at about 60 mph and continued up to 120 mph. (The boat can do more, but traffic on the waterway and tight channels precluded it.) I simply didn’t expect it to be so responsive to everything I did, and had I not learned—from Jerry Gilbreath as it happens—that less is more when you’re steering a catamaran, I’m sure I would have oversteered.
OK, I did oversteer badly once, but Christie is a gentleman and pretended he didn’t notice.
Eventually we got into a rhythm. Between Christie calling out directions and my learning to glance more frequently at the Garmin 5212 GPS unit, we worked together through the tight channel markers and narrow flats—we’re talking zero room for error—that led to Atlantic City.
The most remarkable aspect of driving Speed Racer? How well it turns, and not just for a boat of its size. Several of the channel markers required us to make 90-degree turns, and they were so easy that I began to learn how to exit them without any need for course correction. In fact, I was so silky smooth that Madeline Christie, Joe Nasso and a guy named Don fell asleep in their bucket seats.
So what if they “always do that,” as Christie told me later?
Speed Racer was an absolute blast to drive through a sweeping turn at 95 mph. In fact the only time the catamaran was less than pleasant to drive was at 30 to 40 mph behind a sea of boats that created a jumble of conflicting wakes. In that stuff, the cat’s sponsons dragged and caught and generally made it tough to hold anything close to a straight line.
On the return leg the following afternoon, I learned something about the value of power in a catamaran when a big V-bottom pulled up alongside us. Christie said something about wanting to stay clear of that boat, and took us up to 90 mph. The V-bottom sped up with us. Christie took the cat to 100 mph. The V-bottom tried to speed up with us. Christie took the cat to 120 mph. The V-bottom disappeared behind us.
We stopped for lunch on the way home. As we were tying up to the docks, an excited kid approached me and began asking questions about the boat. That happens a lot with Speed Racer. I pointed to Christie and told him to ask the owner.
“He’s a really nice guy and he likes to answer questions about his boat,” I said.
Only after the kid was gone did I think to add, “But I just drove it. Hey kid, I just drove Speed Racer!”
Editor’s Note: All photos courtesy/copyright Tim Sharkey/Sharkey Images