Ready . . . Set . . .WHOA!

By Erik Schelzig
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 11, 2001

As the early morning mist lifted off North Carolina's placid Pasquotank river, brothers Dave and Gary Augustine strapped me into a full body, Kevlar-weave rip suit and life jacket. I lowered myself into the snug cockpit, still fiddling with a latch on my high-visibility orange helmet. Dave rattled off instructions on how to handle this small outboard powerboat, most of which I didn't understand, landlubber that I am. It was not much bigger than a surfboard; but its 350cc engine pushes it through the water more like a dragster.

"And remember, don't try to turn right," Dave said, pull-starting the motor. The vessel lurched forward before I could ask him why.

As the boat picked up speed, l shifted my weight forward to help bring the boat up onto a plane. Kneeling in the foot-wide driver's area, I gripped the steering wheel with my right hand and pulled the throttle lever with my left. Here goes. I pointed the boat downriver and squeezed the throttle. The craft gathered speed so furiously I could barely utter three or four select curse words before I had to cut the gas and turn around, a few hundred yards from where I'd started.

These particular outboard-motored boats, known as kneel-down hydros, can almost literally fly. If you know what you're doing, little other than the propeller hits the water on the straightaways. At full steam on a calm river, the sensation is kind of like running in socks on a freshly waxed kitchen floor, with only an illusion of control, and the sense that you couldn't stop if you wanted to. As the hull skids above the water, a rooster-tail of water rises high behind the boat as a testament to this gravity-defying act.

If you don't know what you're doing, however, things can get pretty ugly: If you try to turn right at speed, you are likely to be violently flipped out of your boat, as they are designed only for the full-speed left-hand turns on their counterclockwise courses. If you do flip into the racing water, the Kevlar rip suit is there to protect your flesh from the screaming propeller of a competitor's boat. I was surprised -- and a bit frightened -- at how casually the Augustines invited a lubber like me into the cockpit.

The amateur powerboat races held each spring and fall near the one-stoplight town of Camden, N.C. -- a couple of miles north of Elizabeth City -- bookend the summer powerboat season. Regional outboard and inboard races will take place in coming weeks in Maryland (Denton, Cambridge, Kent Narrows, Baltimore), Virginia (Hampton) and New Jersey (Millville, West Milford). (See box for details.)

My wife and I had pulled into our Elizabeth City motel one midnight last year for our first view of small-boat racing. We had a hard time finding a parking spot between the pickup trucks with boat trailers, which the chain-smoking receptionist in the lobby blamed on a bass fishing tournament going on that day. She called me "Hon" and checked us in.

In the morning, I was waved into a makeshift parking lot near the river where ours was just about the only sedan among pickups, SUVs and trailers, with license plates from as far away as Texas, Alabama and Massachusetts. At waterside, it was a festive, family scene. Around the "pits" (really just improvised boat stands on the river bank), children and dogs chased each other in and out of hiding places and a local Boy Scout troop had set up a concession stand selling coffee and hot chocolate to the morning crowd. It would have seemed like any other tranquil riverside weekend, except that the socializing was intermittently shattered by the squeal of revving engines as the teams fine-tuned their race boats.

Most had come expressly for the races, but this area attracts all manner of waterside tourists. Nearby is the Great Dismal Canal, which runs through the swamp of the same name and connects these waters to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. It is the oldest continuously operated canal in the United States and forms part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. During the races, the Coast Guard blocks off traffic on the river, allowing boats to pass the race only between race segments.

After the Augustines allowed me my tiny test run around the buoy-marked one-mile oval, the real heats got underway. As I waited for my knees to stop shaking, the hard-core outboard boat race enthusiasts on the shore started paying attention to the action on the water.

Given the signal to assemble for the start, a dozen boats shot out of the pits like a swarm of bees, circling around the course and assembling toward the start of the straightaway. Racers try to time their flying starts across the line at full speed just as the oversize clock counts down to zero. Passing the line too early results in disqualification; passing it too late gives the advantage to your competitor. Top speeds for the various categories range from 45 mph in the Junior class for ages 9 to 14, to more than 100 mph in the modified engine and fuels categories. Following the furious start, the boats crammed around the first turn, with little other than little orange helmets poking out between the rooster tails of water rising around the boats.

Racers earn points based on the order they finish, and the winners of a given class of outboard are designated based on the aggregate point total from two heats. Individual weekend race results add up to national point standings.

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