Miami - Flying across the water at 100 mph, the white stucco buildings on South Beach looked like a picket fence.
“Just don't make any sudden movements with the wheel,” warned my throttleman, Johnny Tomlinson. “Just keep it steady.”
Our 40-foot, twin-engine catamaran was capable of speeds faster than 130 mph. But Tomlinson, a Miami native considered by many to be one of the best “stick men” in offshore powerboat racing history, was barely leaning on the controls.
The veteran had invited me to go for a test drive so I could get a feel for what it is like inside an offshore race boat. In offshore racing, the throttleman is like the quarterback on a football team, controlling not only the speed but the "trim" of the boat, or its position in the water.
On this test run, my job is to just keep the boat on course. But a driver’s skill really comes into play when you introduce other boats, such as on a crowded race course.
After a few minutes at three-quarters speed, I motion for Tomlinson to back off. I am now fully convinced that driving a race boat at 100 mph is a two-man job and that I would much rather watch that action from a chaise lounge on the beach.
Some might say that Florida could call itself the Performance Boat Capital of the World. Florida hosts more offshore powerboat races and poker runs than any other state or country for that matter.
Performance, muscle or “go fast” boats originated in Miami, and the state is still home of many of the top boat builders in the world.
Blue-water or open-ocean powerboat racing began in South Florida in the early 1950s with the legendary, there-and-back-again, races to Bimini and other islands in the Bahamas.
In the 1960s and 1970s, North Miami’s 188 Street was home to several of the industry’s top manufacturers including Cigarette, Donzi and Apache.
In 1980s, movie stars such as Chuck Norris, Kurt Russell and Don Johnson were active on the racing circuit, bringing Florida and this growing motor sport international acclaim.
In cities such as Sarasota and Key West, it was not unusual to see crowds that number in the tens of thousands to turn out for these battles of man and machine.
For decades, offshore powerboat racing was the realm of weekend warriors. But then in the late 1990s, the American Power Boat Association Offshore took what had formerly been a club sport, and introduced rule changes to bring it in line with professional motor sports such as NASCAR.
The streamlined classes and tight specifications made the sport more competitive. The close, “deck-to-deck,” racing proved a tremendous hit with die-hard race fans who often welcomed a new champion, week-to-week.
Spectators lined the beaches in Fort Lauderdale, Daytona, Fort Myers and Destin to the “super” cats and vee-bottoms maneuver around multi-turn courses that often saw a new leader lap to lap.
The boats, now grouped by size and horsepower, often finish just seconds apart in a race that could be nearly 200 miles long.
The introduction of new, turbine-powered boats capable of speeds that were not even dreamed of 20 years ago has upped the stakes. Miss Geico, powered by twin, Army-surplus helicopter engines, is rumored to be capable of a top speed of 200 mph. Word around the “wet pits” is that the Florida-based world-champion will be looking to set a new record before the season is over.
If you go
The biggest race of the year, both in the number of boats and fans, is in Sarasota, home to one of the largest performance boat communities in the world. The Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix runs June 29 - July 7, 2013, http://www.suncoastoffshore.org.
The action continues May 17-19, 2013 ( exact dates not yet determined) at the Fourth Annual Bright House Space Coast Super Boat Grand Prix, Cocoa Beach, http://superboat.com.
The Clearwater Superboat Offshore Championship, Clearwater returns again this year from Sept. 27-29, 2013, after making its debut in 2009, http://superboat.com.
The season wraps up Nov. 3 - 10, 2013 with the 33rd Annual Key West World Championship, one of the most popular races on the offshore circuit, http://superboat.com.