For the first time in the 48-year history of the 24 Heures Motonautiques Rouen, a prestigious powerboat racing event that is part of the World Long Distance Championship, an international all-female racing team traveled to Rouen, France, to compete against the top drivers in the world. And not only did these intrepid women participate in the May 26-27 racing event, they stormed the awards podium, taking home 4th in class and 9th overall.
The team comprised four of the world’s best female in-shore pilots, including team captain Marie-Line Hericher of France, Bimba Sjoholm of Sweden, Mette Bjerkaes of Norway and Canadian Tammy Wolf, who is currently based in Illinois. They had their share of problems: four drivers and one radio operator with four different native languages between them; radios that only worked half the time; and oil pump issues that kept the boat out of the race for two hours. But in the end, it all came together.
“We had 10 or 12 boats in our class, and there were 40 boats overall,” Wolf reports. “To take home those honors was huge. When we did our parade lap, thousands of spectators were waving and blowing us kisses, and each rescue boat came up to us, filled with officials and race organizers giving us the thumbs-up. It was amazing.
“And I had the privilege of sharing the experience with these incredible women,” she added. “There were no egos. They were really open and supportive, and everyone was there for the right reasons.”
Wolf, who grew up outside Toronto, says she has been around boats and water her entire life. Not only did her family have a cottage in Muskoka, in the heart of Ontario’s lake country, her father was Mercury Marine’s service manager for Canada. She spent her childhood, she says, surrounded by iconic, world-class racers who became adopted members of her extended family.
“My greatest memories are boat races,” she recalls. “It was always there.”
Although her father did not approve of his only daughter getting into powerboat racing, Wolf was determined to make her dream come true.
“I worked two jobs and saved all my pennies,” she says, chuckling. “Then, when I was 17, he went away on a business trip. When he came home, there was a race boat in the driveway. I started racing as soon as I was 18.”
Wolf’s preferred boats have always been Outboard Performance Craft, which feature some of the most powerful outboard engines in powerboat racing and are capable of speeds over 140 miles per hour. Most boats in the OPC class feature the “tunnel boat” design, which allows the boat to skim over the water.
Since Canadian OPC racing was on the decline early in Wolf’s career, she decided to compete in the United States — where she was in for two big surprises.
“I met my husband (Mark Jakob),” she says. “He raced in my class; we were competitors. When we got married, my home became the United States. Now we live 20 minutes outside the OPC National Championships in Kankakee.”
As it turned out, she fell for more than Jakob. She discovered her passion for tunnel boats.
“It was world-class racing,” she enthuses, “and I fell in love with it.”
Most high-tech OPC race boats can leap into action from a dead-engine start, go from 0 to 100 mph in 6 seconds and turn 180 degrees with astronaut-worthy forces up to 5Gs. According to the American Power Boat Association, these boats are the fastest-turning vehicle in the world.
“Imagine that you’re going 120 miles per hour down the highway,” Wolf says, “and… you know those emergency U-turns? Imagine turning at that speed and then continuing on in the other direction without ever slowing down.”
Here’s how it works: Rather than driving through the water, the tunnel boat is hovering above it. The air funnels through the bottom, so there’s no drag. The boat literally glides on air down the straightaway, then the driver trims in the motor for the turn. Get ready for those Gs.
“It’s like being on rails,” Wolf says. “When you trim in, the gear case and prop bite into the water, and you turn on a dime. And then you’re gone.
“It’s the most intense performance machine out there,” she adds.
Tunnel boats are, Wolf explains, difficult to drive under the best of conditions. And conditions aren’t always the best.
“With water conditions, current and wind, no lap or turn is ever the same,” she emphasizes. “Ever.”
Something as seemingly minor as a gust of wind can flip a tunnel boat. Wait, a gust of wind?! When asked how a driver can be prepared for something like that, Wolf pauses thoughtfully.
“Ninety percent of what we do is feel,” she says finally. “You’ll know when you’re on that edge, plus we have at least one spotter/radio person giving reports. If you do end up too high, you can save the boat by trimming down so the gear case can catch.
“But most people can’t move quickly enough to do that,” she acknowledges. “So you go for a swim.”
Wolf has been lucky; in her nearly two decades of racing, she’s never had a serious crash. She has, however, had a close call. In 2009, she and a teammate tangled, and her boat jumped over his.
“It wasn’t until we were back at the trailer that we realized how much destruction there was (on the boats),” she remembers. “We escaped without a scratch.”
One big challenge with tunnel-boat racing is that the driver sees only about 40 percent of what’s around him or her due to large blind spots. As Wolf observes, it simply is what it is.
“I’ve been racing for 17 years, and you get bumps and scrapes,” she says matter-of-factly. “This is a high-performance, high-speed sport, and when you have 20 boats going around a corner, things can happen. You shake yourself off and keep going. Everything is a learning experience.”
All of this certainly can make tunnel-boat racing an exciting spectator sport, and in particular, the 24 Heures Motonautiques de Rouen is not known for user-friendly conditions. Wolf says that is part of its appeal for elite racers. After all, this is the biggest endurance powerboat race in the world; the event routinely draws close to half a million spectators. She notes that the city of Rouen essentially shuts down for the event.
“They say just to finish is a testament to the drivers and equipment,” Wolf says. “At Rouen, you have to deal with barge traffic, and it’s rough water. You can have 4-foot swells.”
She comments that she always wanted to go to Rouen as a spectator, so receiving an invitation to participate was mind-blowing.
“I’ve always dreamed of going to watch, so imagine what it’s like to get an invitation saying, ‘You’re the top female driver in the U.S., and we want you to come!” she muses. “It’s a huge honor. I don’t even have words… it’s a dream come true. Even in the U.S., only a select few drivers are ever invited to this event.”
At Rouen, Wolf and her teammates drove a 16-foot Moore tunnel boat, built in 2003. It features a low-emission, high-performance 2.5L Mercury Opti-Max engine, as well as a pink paint job to commemorate the event’s first all-female team.
The boat is a single-seater, so drivers rotate every two hours throughout the competition. Each team is allowed six visits to the pit/paddock area to work on its boat. The team to complete the most laps in 24 hours wins the event.
Did Rouen live up to Wolf’s expectations? Yes, and then some.
“It was so rough,” she recalls. “The boat was launching out of the water, and we had barge traffic, breakwalls on both sides and L-shaped docks protruding into the river. And the crowds were phenomenal. Even the bridges were packed with people — it was like a rock concert! Even now, I’m still processing all the craziness.”
While Wolf says she’s planning to focus on U.S. racing for the rest of this year, she acknowledges that she’s keeping a weather eye on Norway, which will host the World’s Cup in August, and she is trying to secure sponsors.
It has never occurred to Wolf to pursue anything other than racing. For one, she loves the people.
“In racing here in the U.S., it’s close… people are friends,” she explains. “It’s not like other sports, like NASCAR, where the teams don’t really talk. There are such amazing people, and there’s such a family atmosphere. In the pit, you’ll see lots of families; it’s wonderful how many generations are in this sport.
“We’re friends until we get on the water,” she adds with a laugh. “Then everyone wants to win.”
Wolf says she also loves driving. A lot.
“The skill that’s involved — the focus you need as a driver — is unbelievable,” she says. “With undercurrent, cross wake, even a gust of wind, not for a second can you lose focus. The challenge is what I love.”
Wolf has had to give up a few things to accommodate the life she has chosen. Her family still has the cottage in Muskoka, and she says she loves to waterski, Jet-Ski and go tubing. She and her husband also enjoy time on the river in Kankakee, but those are rare pleasures.
“The summers are jam-packed with racing, so there’s not really time for those other things,” she reflects. “You recognize there are things in your life you have to give up, but I wouldn’t stop. This is the most incredible sport out there.”