The howl of a roaring engine, eyes squinting
through the haze of sour rubber smoke and
nostrils flaring at the excess hydrocarbon
burn; the attendant updraft of the pulse and
accelerated breathing —

Offshore Power Boats Pulsate!

Factory 2 boat sprints past just offshore.

The occasional NASCAR race dilating the pupils as they run three wide or the deceptively slow look of an F1 racer as it corners at 90 mph. Eyes rolling back into their sockets at the pleasure of lead footing it next to another matched moron, the danger, fear and excitement at eluding detection combining for that rare personal high. As these all intrigue me so should the display of a dozen choppers buzzing at 12 o'clock while below a battle of wits, engineering and the ever changing ocean all clash in a churning, foamy scream of fiberglass and fortitude. Yeah. Sound good? Join me; get your ass to an APBA Offshore race and strap in for a righteous good time.

All vessels are weighed before APBA Offshore competition.

I find myself in a position to observe such a competition in my current hometown of Marathon, Florida. As a newcomer I have little idea of what to expect but I finagle a VIP pass for the 2003 American Power Boat Association Offshore race and started sniffing around the various locations to learn as much as I can about this sport which is rapidly growing into a popular spectator event.

I get into all of the pits and watch just about every aspect of the racers' preparation for the competition and then attend three of the four races which are held over two days. From watching APBA officials check the tonnage of the 7000 lb., 40 foot Super Cats craned into the air to the rapt moment of watching them zip by me 75 yards off the beach, I gawk and gape open-mouthed the entire time. The obvious high technology and engineering is most impressive and the good time being had by all is contagious as hell. My passes allow me to walk through the dry pits and chat up the crews while getting close to the awesome watercraft. Crews array their boats in the Marathon Airport, setting awnings alongside their vehicles and vessels and are extremely accessible to the general public. It is possible for one to walk down the line of the multitude of classifications, ask just about any question you please and to get quite close to the boats so as to check out their gleaming instrumentation and precision engines.

There are four major areas in town that give themselves up to accommodate the race. A large area alongside the airport is set aside for the dry pits, a staging area for the boats and their transport vehicles to park and set up camp. There is a landing in town that is used for weighing and splashing many of the boats (the one spot not open to the general public for safety reasons).

The lines of these boats are
pretty sleek and sharp.

The Faro Blanco, a local resort and my favorite watering hole due to the proximity of its bar to its Olympic-class pool, donates their marina for use for the wet pits and Winner's Circle. Here the crews would make last minute adjustments and gather before the race, a temporary holding area before proceeding to the final and most important spot in town: the track itself. The local Best Western serves as registration HQ and the Ramada is party central both prior to and after the races. All locations combine to transform my entire town into an arena of water and velocity.

Marathon is uniquely suited to host a race of this type due to the proximity of a potential course to an excellent viewing area. On the western side of our lovely island is the Seven Mile Bridge which you may remember from the movie True Lies. Recall the scene where Jaime Lee Curtis is struggling chestily with Tia Carrere in a careening limo only to be pulled out of the sunroof by spy/hubby Arnold Schwarznegger. The surrounding 10 minutes of film is an excellent showcase of the Seven Mile Bridge and the ground to be occupied by spectators. The parking lot where Arnie takes off in the Harrier jump jet is the exact spot that the VIP stands are located; the area directly alongside the water is for general admission viewing and all of the water north of the western third of the island and alongside the bridge is the race course. Unfortunately the spectating public is not allowed onto the bridge this year (nor I, even with VIP passes) but I can assure you that the powers that be in my fair city are in fervent consultation with the DOT to make this bridge accessible to the fans in the years to come.

The organizers, aside from allowing spectators into just about every aspect of the competition, also set up a couple of parties. These soirées, held before and after the races and open to the general public for a small fee, are well attended by the staff of the events, the racers, their crews and the hierarchy of the APBA Offshore.

I doubt that many NASCAR competitions allow you the ability to tip a frothy one with your preferred driver or throttle man before or after the race. You can dance to the music, eat roast pig and guzzle beverages served by the local constabulary alongside your hero. The party the night before the race draws quite a number of locals and is an excellent chance for them to get close to their favorites. It's a great opportunity to meet and greet some of the saltier of these modern charioteers and listen to some truly crazed stories. I haven't the room to go into them here, I suggest you attend such an APBA event and check these guys out yourself. If you think some kid on a skateboard riding the handrails of a stairwell is extreme, try talking to a dude who rolled a boat at 140 mph, was ejected from it and then crawled back into it to keep racing out the day! These gentlemen are nuts.

The wet pits are abuzz before
the race begins.

The day of the race the tension in the wet pits located below the lighthouse of the Faro Blanco Resort is palpable. Small, bombproof GPS units in watertight, numbered yellow boxes are handed out to crews and zip stripped to the boats. The crews in their matching uniforms are scuttling to and fro taking care of last minute details. Radios crackle in the background as race officials settle last minute details with Offshore president Lee Mills. Speed TV cameramen and various photojournalists mill alongside VIP fans as the boats rumbled in and out of the wet pit slips.

The cockpits resemble aircraft
in their instrumentation.

Amid all the hubbub of last minute preparation one man, Sam Elshazly, calmly puts a razor edge on a vicious looking dive knife. He is the only person who fervently hopes he won't have to do his thing this day. The lean mustachioed man with the calm, serious demeanor of a commando about to be dropped into a hot LZ is the race Rescue Diver. His position will be in the doorway of the one of the ubiquitous choppers zooming directly over the fastest boats on the course. He is waiting and ready to be in the water in an instant should something go wrong, should some boat be battered across the speed hardened and unforgiving water of the race course. Although damn near everyone in the area is a gas powered excitement junkie no one wants to see anyone hurt.

There are helicopters and runabouts cruising the race grounds solely to make sure that no turtles, manatees or local bozos in dinghies are near the race course. Safety inspections, equipment checks, multiple briefings, Coast Guard, rescue divers, rescue boats, physicals and dunks tests are all present or have been performed to make sure that everyone is at the last party drinking to a successful race and not to a lost comrade. As the first machines rumble their way from the wet pits out to open water I beat feet to my car and the parking lot next to the bridge to find a good seat at the races.

In the days I am covering this race I don't learn enough about the various classifications to speak with any authority about them but here's a brief overview. There are a dozen different classes in the four races held in Marathon over two days. They range from One Design, monohulled vessels

The Super Cats reached speeds
upwards of 150 mph.

called "bat boats" due to their winged canopy doors, all the way up to the Super Cats: 40 foot, powerhouse catamarans that reach speeds of over 150 mph. There are the Factory 1 and 2 classes that are straight off the production floors and have matched engines that compete in runs similar to IROC races familiar to Winston Cup fans. Outlaw classes, Super Vee, Super Vee Light and Super Cat light round out a wide variety of speedboats. Some classes have two people in the cockpit and others have three. To be honest with you, in my first experience watching these events, I have a little difficulty keeping everyone separated in my head. It hardly matters though, once the flags are down it is high-powered excitement watching them skitter around the course. The radio broadcasters do an excellent job of cluing the fans into which boats to watch and who is dogfighting with whom; we know what we're looking at when they come screaming past us.

Each race starts with a parade lap of all the vessels competing in that particular event. There are multiple classes of boats that compete in each with staggered starts that keep them separated, at least initially. I have to say that that first pass brought back memories I have of being a kid with my fingers interlaced through chain link watching stock cars run a quarter mile dirt track. I was hooked the first time I sat outside turn four and watched the dirt clods fly as those guys came tearing around the corners blowing blue, burnt oil into my nostrils The only thing missing here is the sound of burning rubber but it is replaced by the high tech, TIE fighter scream of these guys whizzing past. It feels the same way as that childhood experience, watching open mouthed and giggling a little nervously as they put their butts on the line for their own standing and our entertainment. The roar and obvious power of these boats is mesmerizing.

Team Donzi was easily the best
dressed high performance racing team.

From the cheap seats I watch from less than a hundred yards away as they scream past kicking up rooster tails and putting a serious chop on the water that the hulls rushing in behind them will cut through like it was nothing. A good analogy is the pod race in Star Wars: Episode One where young Vader jets around the desert haphazardly trying to keep at least one of his unruly pods near the horizon. Substitute water for sand and those pods with a catamaran and you have a fair approximation of what it looks and sounds like. The engines put out a shriek like someone ripping the fabric of reality asunder as they fly through the masticated mist of ocean that the propellers in front of them leave in their wake. The only part of the vessels that seems to actually be in contact with the ocean is the last couple inches. The sterns and props keeping that proximity to the water are the only things keeping these things from being designated aircraft.

There are people from every walk of life watching raptly from both the shore and the VIP stands atop the hill. Down alongside the water younger kids hold on to dad's hand and watch wide-eyed as mom catches some rays. Young, bikinied females, looking too young to drink, sell $2.00 cups of Bud to bare-chested, local bikers and even more bikini clad fans. Slabs of pizza can be had for $3.00 or you can pull out what you have in your own cooler if you are lucky enough to have slipped it in past bomb conscious security. If the blue collar scene isn't to your liking you can pop the extra cash and get yourself into the VIP tents and enjoy prime rib, shrimp or mahi followed up by cool chunks of melon washed down with white wine or ice cold Stoli martinis. You can sit in the tents between races and listen to the glitterati boast of their European vacation or bemoan the ailing market but all class distinctions disappear when the flags fall. Everyone's attention is equally captured by the bashing fiberglass hulls of those mad, maximum overdriving men of the sea.

A local young lovely hands out the
checkered flag. Crew of the victorious
Bat Boat hold their trophy aloft.

I could consult my results lists and pretend I care who won, put up the pretense of being some kind of sport writer, but the bottom line is I don't have the foggiest notion. To me the game is the thing. It is simply watching these guys do their thing, to hear the collective gasp of the crowd when someone spins out or the groan of fans when a yellow flag gives a competitor a leg back up against their guy. It is certain that in the future I'll be following this team or that, that I will get sucked into this sport just like that kid 30 years ago who now watches a NASCAR race whenever the opportunity presents itself. For now, though, just give me the roar of the motors, the smell of the exhaust, the sense of slightly restrained speed and a Bud from that barely legal looking, bikini clad bartender.

— By Michael Dessner, Florida Keys Correspondent.

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