Bat Boat Returns

An innovative high performance powerboat is back on the poker run scene, with state-of-the-art Ilmor V-10 power.

8th November 2011.
By Matt Trulio

In the showy world of high-performance powerboats, getting noticed—regardless of how amazing your ride might be—isn’t easy. After all, the go-fast boat world places a premium on looks, attitude, and swagger. More often than not, the boats involved are a reflection of their owners. Let’s be honest, you don’t buy—to use an example—a four-seat, 40-foot catamaran that tops 150 mph and is painted with every color under the sun in order to fade into the crowd.

Now owned by Chuck Sprague, the original 28-foot Mannerfelt “bat boat” was introduced in the United States in 1994. (All photos courtesy/copyright Tim Sharkey.)

That could be part of the reason Volvo Penta elected to showcase its high-performance DPX drive on a Mannerfelt stepped V-bottom, dubbed the “bat boat” by the media for its aerodynamic wings. Named for its Swedish designer Ocke Mannerfelt, the unique 28-footer was the prototype for the twin-propeller, counter-rotating DPX unit that was introduced in 1994—and it was hard to miss.

But the visually striking boat was more than that. The narrow-nosed, winged creation truly ran like a bat out of hell. It was fast enough to earn a five-year ban from American Power Boat Association offshore racing (the politics of that sport are another long and, frankly, tired story for another time) and innovative enough to make the cover of every major high-performance boating magazine.

Three years later, the original Mannerfelt 28-footer that provided such a fine showcase for the DPX drive was shelved. And while a 24-foot version of the boat was being manufactured for a rental racing program by Reindl, the original was essentially gathering dust in a Volvo Penta warehouse.

At least it was until Volvo Penta’s Ed Szilagy called his friend Chuck Sprague and told him about it. At the time, Sprague was the team manager for Penske Racing, the most successful Indy Car racing team in the history of the sport. No stranger to fast things, Sprague was the mechanic for the team from 1980 to 1985, and a crew chief from 1985 to 1988 before becoming team manager in 1989—and he was looking for something speedy and out of the ordinary. The Mannerfelt 28 filled the bill, so Sprague bought it and took it to famed engine builder Bobby Moore to be re-powered and re-rigged.

“We hit it off right away,” says Sprague. “We had a lot in common with our racing backgrounds. Bobby said it was one of the best-built hulls he’d ever seen, and that made sense, given that the hull was originally built for racing. It came with a stock 454 engine, and it ran 75 mph with that. At the time, Volvo Penta was doing its high-performance engine line with Flagship Marine, so I went with a 530-hp engine from Flagship, which was the predecessor to the Volvo Penta high-performance engine line.

“Bobby also put me in touch with Chris Dilling at Grafik EFX to spruce up the boat’s graphics,” he added.

The most distinctive design feature of the boat is pair of aft “wings.” Shown in this photo during a poker run in 2010 are the boat’s owners (from left) Dianne and Chuck Sprague and their friend, Melissa Civitano.

With the new engine, which included a DPX-R drive, the Mannerfelt 28 topped 86 mph on its first run. Sprague and his wife, Dianne—who named the boat “Try Me!”—ran it for “three or four years in that configuration” before moving up to a 630-hp engine from Flagship. With that kind of power, the boat topped out at 92 mph.

Without question, the 28-footer was a speedster. It was not, however, loaded with enough creature comforts for a weekend on the water. The Spragues found that kind of boat in a Formula 382 FASTech with 600-hp engines from Innovation Marine, which they purchased in 2000.

“The bat boat became our ‘second boat,’” said Sprague.

At the end of the 2003 boating season, Sprague decided to replace the 28-footer’s existing 630-hp engine and re-rig the engine compartment.

“We got it all apart, and then the thing sat for almost six years,” said Sprague. “We were boating every weekend in the Formula. Finally, a friend of mine said, ‘We’ve got to get this thing together.’ So we gutted it all the way down to the bare bilge.”

Sprague and his friend worked weekends on the Mannerfelt at the Penske shop (being team manager has its advantages) in Reading, Pa. By the end of the winter of 2008, the boat was ready for a power change. That change happened in 2009 when Ilmor Marine, another Penske company, released its 725-hp V-10 Gen V engine with its own Ilmor Indy drive.

The notion of having a fully integrated drive train with a warranty appealed to Sprague.

“We did the installation more or less on a computer before we started, so we knew the engine and drive would fit the boat,” Sprague explained. “My friend, Dave Sikorsky, helped me quite a bit with beefing up the transom for the drive.”

A 725-hp V-10 Ilmor engine with an Ilmor Indy drive currently powers the boat.

With a borrowed propeller from Craig Hall, another of Sprague’s performance-boating buddies, the Ilmor-powered 28-footer ran 100 mph the first time it hit the water, which happened to be three days before the 2010 Smith Mountain Lake (Va.) Poker Run.

Since its repower debut at the Smith Mountain Lake event, Sprague’s 28-foot Mannerfelt has been in half a dozen poker runs including the 2011 NJPPC Roar at the Shore Poker run last August. In fact, while the Formula 382 remains the Spragues’ ride of choice for weekend and multi-day trips (he calls it his “everyday” boat), the 28-footer is their first choice for poker runs.

Why? Simple—it’s an aquatic hot rod, and even in a crowd of 2,000-plus-hp, 40-plus-foot custom catamarans and V-bottoms, it stands out.

“The big thing is the pitch control from 70 mph on up,” said Sprague. “It runs level all the time. It just doesn’t move. It’s not great in washing-machine water, but in everything else it just skips across the top.”

At present, Vector Powerboats of Kelowna, British Columbia, is building two Mannerfelt-design based offerings, a 28-footer and a full cabin 40-footer. The latter model is equipped with retractable wings for easier docking. The biggest knock on bat boats is that their wings, combined with limited visibility from the cockpit, can make them tricky to dock, which can be a significant issue since they don’t have rubrails.

“Rex Jardine [the owner of Vector] is building really nice, high-end versions,” said Sprague. “They’re beautiful.”

As is the original, thanks to its owner’s dedication to one of the most unique models in recent powerboat history.

Matt Trulio


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About the author:

Matt Trulio

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Matt Trulio is the co-publisher and editor in chief of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site with a weekly newsletter and a new bi-monthly digital magazine that covers the high-performance powerboating world. The former editor-in-chief of Sportboat magazine and editor at large of Powerboat magazine, Trulio has covered the go-fast powerboat world since 1995. Since joining boats.com in 2000, he has written more than 200 features and blogs.
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