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The Extreme Dangers of Unlimited Hydroplane Boat Racing

Hydroplanes are completely different beasts from other race boats, both in the physical design as well as the general philosophy. Their simple objective: go fast. And fly.

Think about pontoon boats. Or maybe you’ve pulled your kids in a tube behind a deck boat or ski boat. These all operate in essentially the same way: they use the boat’s weight for buoyancy and cut directly through the waves.

Standard boats travel through the water. Hydroplanes fly over it.

The physical design of a hydroplane is based upon aerodynamics that traps air to actually lift them out of the water. When the boat is at full speed, only the propeller and an inch or two of the bottom of the boat sits in the water. The less water resistance, the faster the boat goes.

In philosophy, hydroplanes identify much more with planes than boats. It was as if they just couldn’t be content with mere water; they yearned to touch the sky. If this seems unlikely- think: speeds of today’s unlimiteds frequently hit over 200 miles an hour on a straightaway. Floating over top the water at 200 mph has a way of making the impossible, possible.

There’s all sorts of different classes of racing hydroplanes, which frankly- is somewhat convoluted and confusing to me. There’s lots of different initials and symbols, and it seems to be essentially based on the length and width of the boat, type or size of the engine, and of course- speed.

But what I do know for sure is that these boats- these hydroplanes- are enormously popular in the frenzied world of racing. There’s all sorts of obscure blog posts and long-winded threads in deep corners of the Internet devoted to analyzing every nuisance of every race, and every detail of every boat. One fan on the blog of the Hydroplane and Race Boat Museum proclaims:

“The sight of an Unlimited hydroplane at full throttle and with a roostertail of spray trailing behind it is the most awesome spectacle in all of motor sports.”

These boats were initially conceived of in the 1920’s and further developed through the 50’s. The basic design consists of a narrow hull with a wide semi-circle “noose” encasing the front. They had the look of scary, little coffins with half a UFO strapped to the front.

Today’s hydroplane design remains relatively unchanged from those 1950’s models. But instead of that semi-circle in the front, they now have two forks, one on each side.

But somewhere along the line, some schmuck decided to use a piston-engine from WWII fighter planes. They were then the engine of choice from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. The roar of these internal combustion airplane engines was so deafening, so booming that it earned them the nickname, “thunder boats.”

The downside? Aside from being absolutely fucking nuts, those engines burned a shit ton of methanol fuel and were overall- extremely heavy, undependable and prone to breaking down. Go figure. Using an engine from WWII has its disadvantages.

Enter schmuck number 2 who then figures out that he can use a turbine engine from a chinook helicopter flown in Vietnam. More dependable. Less fuel. Lighter. But still: racing a little tiny boat with this monstrous, fuck-all of an engine.

Imagine that conversation, “What’s the biggest possible engine we can put in a boat? Oh, a chinook helicopter? Yeah, let’s use that.”

Fucking insane.

Furthermore, drivers during this era had no protection. None. They drove in open cockpits with parachutes on their backs, and no safety belts. It was thought that if shit hits the fan, the driver would have a better chance of escaping if he was not enclosed or strapped in.

To say that the sport was dangerous is like saying 101 proof whiskey is mild. Drivers then- and still to this day- most dread the “blowover,” in which the nose rises on the wind and they effectively take flight just like an airplane, flipping end over end.

In 1989, after a string of tragic accidents, it was finally decided that hey- maybe we should give these guys some protection. Enclosed canopies became mandatory. A canopy, theoretically, can withstand a gunshot from point-blank range, and take the pounding of a sledge hammer with zero bitching. This is actually very important criteria, as the canopy is designed to prevent a driver from being crushed to death by the force of the water impact during a high-speed crash. A fate that befell many a hydroplane driver prior to this addition.

Below the canopy, the driver is tucked away in a roll cage and a seat that’s custom-molded to his body. A five-point safety harness keeps him firmly strapped in.

A special suit circulates water to prevent him from being boiled to death from the heat off the jet turbines. Over that, a fire-proof jumpsuit. Over that, a floatation vest.

Further safety modifications: a trap door is built into the boat’s bottom for quick escape if it rests upside down. And the driver has to be certified to use scuba gear, and has an air mask similar to a pilot’s, allowing him to breathe if he is trapped underwater.

But none of these safety features existed when my Uncles were racing hydroplanes.

And that’s why my Uncle was killed racing one.


Read about his tragic accident here.

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