How to Learn Fast-Boat Driving Skills, Fast

If you think you know all about driving your performance boat at high speed, but have never had any instruction, you probably have some important things to learn.

19th February 2012.
By Matt Trulio

Most folks who own high-performance powerboats—even for the first time—don’t want to be told how to drive them. First, most of them are guys, and guys don’t like to be to told, well, much of anything when it comes to operating machinery. Most guys consider the skill to drive anything, especially anything fast, something that simply comes with testosterone.

Second, most guys who own high-performance don’t lack for well-developed egos. So after they drop big bucks on a fast boat, pretty much the last thing they want is to have some other guy tell them how to drive it.

Brad Schoenwald (left) takes to the water with a student in a catamaran.

And yet that is exactly what most performance-boat drivers, novices and “experts” alike, sorely need. It’s also exactly what Tres Martin’s Performance Boat School, headquartered in Ocala, Fla., provides — not only in Ocala but in sessions around the country.

A retired multi-time world champion offshore racer, Martin started the school after a discussion with his girlfriend Jacky, in 2003. At the time, Martin was a Cigarette high-performance dealer, and he also operated a service and rigging shop. (No longer a Cigarette dealer, Martin still operates the shop and serves as a hull-design consultant.)

“People were coming into our shop and having trouble getting insurance for their boats,” said Martin. “Back then, after one really bad accident, a lot of the insurance companies had bailed out of the high-performance boat segment. Jacky and I were talking one day and she said, ‘You should open a driving school.’ I said, ‘We can try it, but I think trying to teach a bunch of grown men how to drive their boats isn’t going to be easy.’ But we gave it a shot, and things started to happen quickly after that.”

One of those “things” was that Markel Insurance began to offer 10-percent discounts—and higher—to high-performance boat owners who completed the course, which consists of both classroom and on-water instruction. Another was that Brad Schoenwald, a veteran United States Coast Guard vessel instructor, teamed up with Martin.

While Schoenwald owned a Cigarette, it was Martin who had the bulk of high-performance powerboat driving experience. Yet it was Schoenwald who had the most vessel-driving instruction experience, or “human performance technology” as he calls it. Their skill sets worked well together, and the Tres Martin Performance Boat School became the best-recognized and best-regarded program of its kind in the country.

Tres Martin leads the classroom portion of a course at a Mercury racing facility.

“Brad and I have exactly the same core values,” says Martin. “What I enjoy about Brad when we work together is that we’re always thinking the same thing. We teach the same way, we teach the same curriculum. When Brad is running a course and I’m not there, I am completely confident that he’s doing it well. He takes it very personally, like I do.”

Schoenwald met Martin while he was looking for a Cigarette to buy, which he found from another party. During the search, they became friends. After Schoenwald bought his “dream boat,” Martin suggested that he take his driving course. Schoenwald’s was reaction was, he admits, true to typical form.

“I was like, ‘I’m a U.S. Coast Guard guy, I teach people to drive boats,” Schoenwald recalls, then laughs. “What can this race guy teach me? So I went out and started driving my boat, and at one point it did something odd, something I didn’t expect. I called Tres and he said, ‘I told you that you need to take my boat school,’ and I finally figured out how stupid I was.

“When I look back on my progression through the Coast Guard, at every level up to 110-foot cutters, I had specific training and had to demonstrate a minimum proficiency level to operate each vessel and become certified on it. I should have recognized that straightaway. Everyone needs to understand that they need to have training, especially in the high-performance arena, because of the severity of consequences that come with the speed.”

Martin agrees. “Most people think they have their boats in control—that’s the one that gets me most,” he says. “The newer boats are so much closer to the water that the drivers envision themselves in their cars, but they are traveling much faster than they would in their cars. They feel good. They think they have control. But they have no idea how close they are to being in big trouble.”

In addition to private, one-on-one courses, the school offers group courses for eight to ten students around the country. The course begins in the classroom, starting with  basic instruction on stepped-hull hydrodynamics. Martin and Schoenwald don’t expect to create experts on hull design, but they do expect their students to leave their classroom with an understanding of what is actually happening underneath their boats, which directly affects their handling, tracking, trim, and other aspects of performance.

Tres Martin provides instruction on a U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat.

And, as you’d expect, Martin and Schoenwald devote serious time to the subject of boating under the influence. Their philosophy is simple: zero tolerance. “It’s not enough just to say to the operator, ‘Hey, don’t be under the influence,’” says Schoenwald. “They have to be aware of other individuals under the influence operating boats in the same area.”

From there, it’s out on the water for real-world instruction, and that starts before the boat leaves the dock, with pre-float inspections of everything from the engine compartment to Coast Guard-required safety equipment. “Our primary focus is on prevention rather than response,” says Schoenwald. “From there, we go into the operational part of the course. There are very specific ways we want to the boat to be set up for a turn, go through the turn, and exit the turn. From there we go into collision avoidance.

“The big ‘Ah ha!’ moments for the students are in trimming and turning techniques,” Schoenwald adds.

The cost for the Tres Martin Performance Boat School course varies from $1,500 to $3,500, as dictated by the top speed and type of vessel (120-mph V-bottom, 180-mp turbine-powered catamaran, etc.) the student owns. Between the classroom and on-water, hands-on instructional time, the course takes approximately 12 hours. Schoenwald says that the on-water time tends to vary with the skill level and ability of the student. He is also quick to emphasize that the course is useful for any powerboat owner, not just owners of ultra-exotic go-fast cats and V-bottoms.

“We’ve had lots of guys come in thinking they didn’t need it, and not one of them has walked away without saying, ‘I’m really glad I did this,” says Schoenwald. “They may have doubts when they come in, but no one ever leaves with the same feelings they had when the showed up.”

For more information, visit the Performance Boat School.

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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