As a journalist on a press junket organized to showcase a city, you never know what you’re going to get in terms of fellow journalists. Take my late-September trip to Clearwater, Fla., for the Super Boat International National Championships. Of the four writers the City of Clearwater invited—and wined and dined and generally spoiled rotten—I was the only one there to cover the powerboat races.
That led to some interesting discussions at dinner, because while my travel-and-lifestyle writer comrades knew plenty about all travel and stylish living, they knew nothing about offshore powerboat racing. And why would they? Offshore racing is one of the most obscure motorsports on the planet for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s confusing to watch. But it’s also spectacular. When the boats roar by the beach—glued to the water or launching through the air—they captivate even the most casual observers.
You may never become a serious offshore racing “fan.” But if you find yourself somewhere like on the shores of Clearwater Beach or Key West—or even on the shores of the St. Clair River in Michigan—and an offshore powerboat race breaks out, here are some of the basics that can help you understand and enjoy it, and make you sound like a pro if want to talk about it.
There are two hull types used in offshore racing, V-bottom (also called monohulls) and catamaran. A V-bottom is what comes to most people’s minds when they think of a go-fast boat. A catamaran has two hulls called “sponsons” separated by a “tunnel.” Combined with the sponsons, the tunnel creates air entrapment/compression as the boat moves forward, which in turn creates lift. For that reason, catamarans are generally faster than V-bottoms with the same amount of horsepower. That’s why they usually don’t race in the same class, with a couple of exceptions that are far too confusing for an article meant to reduce confusion.
Catamaran or V-bottom, most offshore raceboats these days have protective canopies, meaning their cockpits are completely enclosed to protect their driver and throttleman in the event of collision, flip, or roll-over. Which raises another question: Why do offshore raceboats typically have one person driving (steering) and another person throttling (controlling the speed and trim/running attitude of the boat)? Simple. Decades ago, offshore racers realized that dividing those duties was more efficient. A few famous racers, most notably Reggie Fountain, who founded Fountain Powerboats, did it all themselves throughout their careers, but two-person operation is the standard today.
There are two basic engine types used in offshore racing, piston (the most common) and turbine (rare). Both are internal combustion engines, but they make their power in very different ways. Piston engines are the kind you find in most cars. Turbine engines are the kind you’ll find on most commercial aircraft. Avoid the rookie mistake of confusing turbine and jet. Turbines are, as noted above, engines. Jets are propulsions systems that create thrust to move things forward.
At present, there are just two turbine-powered boats, both catamarans, in offshore racing. The history of turbine-class racing is such that it’s about as likely to find two on the same course as it is to see Haley’s Comet. So take them for what they are—spectacular aquatic machines capable of speeds of more than 200 mph, depending on the power output of their engines.
As you might have guessed, the racecourse is the marked area or “track”—but don’t call it that if you want to sound cool—on which the boats run their laps. Most offshore racecourses aren’t particularly far “offshore.” In fact, if you called it “near-shore powerboat racing” you wouldn’t be too far off.
This drives offshore racing purists nuts, because in the early days of the sport, men were men and the boats raced so far offshore that no one could see them. Fans of “true” offshore racing will invariably invoke the name of Don Aronow, the founder of the iconic Cigarette brand of go-fast boats, in their rant on how near-courses have ruined the sport . Don’t worry about it—just commit Aronow’s name to memory. It will come in handy later.
Now, for better or worse, offshore powerboat race are run close enough to the shore so that people can actually see them.
Depending on their class, the category in which they race that is determined by hull type and size and total horsepower (while there single-engine offshore raceboats, most have two engines), the boats must complete eight to twelve laps on the course. Generally speaking, slower classes have to complete fewer laps than the faster ones.
You can stick with the basics above and be just fine—you probably won’t embarrass yourself too badly in front of a devoted offshore racing fan, and the racers will take all the attention they can get. But here’s just a little more jargon can that can help make you sound as if you know what you’re talking about
The dry pits are where the boats, trailers, support vehicles, and such are kept when they are not in the water. Promoters also refer to them as race villages, though they are not particularly village-like.
The wet pits are where the boats go in and out of the water before and after racing and testing. This area also is often called the cranes because larger raceboats must be lifted into and retrieved from the water by cranes. (While race organizers won’t let you get too close to the wet pits for insurance reasons, they’re worth checking out if you like watching big machines lift big machine high in the air.)
So now you can go to an offshore powerboat race armed with enough basic information to hold your own with hardcore offshore racing fans. But trust me, they will try to test you. So when the guy next to you at the bar after the race asks you a vague but probing question about what brings to town, you can say:
“Oh, I don’t know, I’m not much of a fan, really, but I think Qatar’s 50-foot Mystic with the T-53 turbines is a stunner. Plus, with Steve Curtis on the throttles you just know it will tear up the course once they get it dialed in next season. I checked it out in the dry pits before they craned it in for testing, and it’s something else. If only they still ran way offshore, like they did back in the Aronow days.”
Then add, “But what I do know? I’m not much of a fan,” and walk away. You’ll leave him gaping.