Playing in Traffic

From the racecourse to your favorite waterway, Reggie Fountain shows how competitive driving skills let you be the master of any situation.

We've all been there. You're cruising along on your own, everything is nice and peaceful. But up ahead there's a confused mess of boats and wakes - typical weekend traffic. In a few minutes you'll be in the thick of it, and even though you've encountered such situations before, you're a little unsure about your next move. You hate to admit it, but you're not in complete control.

The one place where a boater must always be in complete control is on the racecourse. During competition, you have to cross wakes, pass boats, be passed, and run rubrail to rubrail - all in the heat of battle. Knowing the proper moves for each situation makes the difference between winning, losing, or - sometimes - crashing. So we turned to Reggie Fountain, a world-renowned champion racer with an office that looks like a trophy shop, to show you how to handle a boat when surrounded by others.

For his version of traffic school, Fountain put us on one of his new 35 Lightnings and had us square off against a Fountain 42 Lightning. His point: to teach you how to effectively manage tight situations instead of letting them get the best of you. Staying in control and safe is his primary mission. Although he used high-performance boats for these lessons, they are definitely not limited to the go-fast crowd. These lessons can be applied by any driver in any kind of boat, whether you're out relaxing on a Sunday afternoon in your cruiser, competing in a bass tournament, or bombing around the lake in your family runabout.

PREP WORK

Before you can go out and play, Fountain has a little homework for you. You must create a point of reference for the positions of your boat's trim indicators, so it's necessary to learn to level the drives and tabs. This is easiest to do when the boat is out of the water, but it can be done in the water if you don't mind going below while at the dock and getting wet. Line up the tabs and the drives' anti-ventilation plates with a straightedge along the boat's bottom. This is their neutral position, which you should mark on your indicators at the helm.

As we powered up and let go the lines, Fountain made a telling statement, one that obviously came from his background on the racecourse: "When you leave the dock, your goal is self-preservation. Unless you know the experience level of the drivers around you, assume they don't know what they're doing." We could relate to that.

Leaving the channel en route to open water, we hit the gas and got up on plane. Before we gained too much speed, Fountain gestured toward the horizon, telling us to keep our eyes up and look far ahead, not just at the water right in front of the boat. He also stressed the need to use peripheral vision. The idea is to see and forecast situations long before you have to confront them, giving you time and room to plan your reactions. "See that big cruiser about a half mile ahead, running at about 20 mph?" Fountain yelled over the wind blast. "You'll be dealing with its wake real soon." This advice is similar to what is taught in auto and motorcycle road-racing schools: Plan ahead by focusing on where you'll be in about 12 seconds, which when running at 40 mph, means about 700 feet. Also be aware that your hands tend to turn the wheel toward where your eyes are looking. If you stare at that log in front of you, you'll likely run over it instead of going around it. Keep an eye on your surroundings, and don't fixate on any one object for too long.

WAKE-UP CALL

Fountain grabbed the radio and instructed the 42 Lightning up ahead to continue on a straight course and produce a sizable wake. We're sure you've all crossed wakes in your time, but just because you got over them doesn't mean you did it right. For our first handling lesson, Fountain showed us the right and wrong ways to execute this maneuver. First, the wrong way.

Fountain guided us up on the 42 Lightning's wake at an acute angle, almost parallel to the waves, and rolled through them. There was no pounding, and this method can feel smooth at slow speeds. "Try it like this running above 30 to 40 mph," Fountain warned, "and when the wake hits the side of your boat, you can lose control." Or worse, the boat can roll up on its side and then all the way over.

TEACHER'S PET

Here's a math quiz: What do you get when you take a 35' boat with a 32' running surface and pack it with 940 hp? Answer: A rocket with plant-you-in-the-bolster acceleration from the bottom of the power curve to the top. The twin-stepped bottom of the Fountain 35 Lightning worked like a charm, aerating the running surface sufficiently to produce a top speed of 84.8 mph yet still be able to whip through slalom turns with the drives and tabs set at neutral. Fountain's full hydraulic steering enhances the confident feel at the helm. ** **

** **From inside the cockpit, the ride remains comfortable, thanks to secure sit-down electric bolsters and an effective windshield rather than a low race-style fairing. The bolsters are quite comfortable for seated operation but come up a little low on the back for driving while standing in rough water. In classic Fountain style, all the Gaffrig performance gauges are arranged in an easy-to-see horseshoe around the wheel. Also in keeping with the manufacturer's practice, the throttles and trim buttons are set up for left?handed operation. Fountain says this is so they can be worked by the driver or a dedicated throttleman.

For strength and weight savings, Fountain builds the 35 Lightning with foam coring and a laminate of four-way directional fiberglass. The hull and deck attach in a shoebox lid-style joint that's tabbed together with fiberglass on the inside. Mold work on the hullsides and deck is flawless, and immaculate graphics are applied in polyure-thane paint.

Whether you're trying to maneuver away from the back of another boat or crossing the wake of one that just passed, Fountain stressed that the safest way is to negotiate the waves head on at a speed slow enough so that you don't launch. Before the next pass through the 42 Lightning's wake, he trimmed down the drives and trim tabs a little (about one or two points on the indicators). This set the bow lower in the water so it would slice through the wake. Next, even though we were coming up on the same acute angle as before, he quickly turned the boat so it was positioned perpendicular to the waves. "Keep the power on," Fountain yelled as we rammed through, "and hold that line as you cut the wake. After you clear it is when you should get back on course."

Remember that the closer you are to the origin of the wake, the narrower it is and the faster you can get through it - but it's at its steepest. It's here, though, that you'll find a sweet spot, the smoothest place to make your crossing. Water coming off the transom creates a hole just behind the boat, then rolls up to create a hump, which is followed by a second trough and then another hump. Just behind that second hump is where the wake will be at its smoothest - often about 100' astern of the boat creating the wake. Because of the proximity to the other boat, make sure it's maintaining its speed.

Crossing a single wake, whether you're on a racecourse or in your local cruising grounds, is not your biggest nightmare. A confused jumble of wakes can raise the blood pressure of even the most stalwart boater. When you find yourself in this situation, hold your course as straight as possible and trim down slightly to keep your boat level. We confessed that we don't always make frequent trim changes underway, so Fountain told us, "Pulling back on the throttles trims the boat as it slows. As the props spin more slowly, they create drag, which applies negative trim to the boat and lowers the bow." We tried this trick. It worked.

If you must turn in a messy situation, complete the maneuver quickly. Keep the time that the side of the boat is to the wakes as minimal as possible. As the keel passes over a wave, it can cause the boat to roll to unexpected angles. Fountain introduced us to the "steam roller" technique of getting through rough patches. Get in behind a larger boat and let it plow down the waves for you. The best place to ride is just to the left or right of the prop wash. Avoid the aerated water behind the props, which may cause you to lose your bite on the water, thus reducing speed and lessening control. If you're trying to pass that lead boat, remember its prop wash is traveling back so you have to run that much faster to pull ahead.

Whatever you do, avoid running too close to the wake's waves, which can suck you in. To demonstrate how disconcerting it is, Fountain pulled our 35 Lightning behind the 42 Lightning and eased over to the right, balancing on the edge of the wake's flat water and inner waves. We soon fell into a trough. Fountain held the wheel straight, but the boat veered back and forth on its own as the wakes bounced us around.

PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS

Wakes can throw you around, but it's the boats - and other captains - that are truly worrisome. "When you first encounter another boat, make sure the captain knows you're there," Fountain advised. Pulling up alongside from out of nowhere can spook a driver and cause him to respond erratically. Ease in and give him a wave. Then go on your way. If you decide to pass the boat ahead of you, make your move cleanly and quickly. Leave at least two boat lengths - use the longer of the two as your guide - of separation, gunwale to gunwale. If you're passing in a turn, do so on the outside. If the boat you're passing gets into trouble and spins out, it's going to do it to the inside.

Fountain continued: "When you're running alongside a boat, if your boat has the power, pull ahead so that your transom is at least even with its bow. That way, if the other captain makes a mistake, it'll happen behind you." If you can't pull ahead and are running alongside, leave at least one boat length between the two of you. If either driver runs into trouble, you'll need all the room you can get to avoid a collision.

As long as both drivers recognize and adhere to this set measure of separation, you'll stay safe. "If you realize you're heading for the same destination, improve your line of approach by gradually moving over. As long as the other driver keeps moving with you, you'll be lined up with your target perfectly." If the other driver doesn't maintain the separation, pull ahead if possible or let him take the lead.

Okay, we've looked at situations in which you're the aggressor, but what do you when a faster boat is coming up on you? This is the most uncomfortable place to be. You never know what the other guy has in mind or what he's capable of. Fountain's advice: "This is where it pays to keep some throttle in reserve, which will allow you to accelerate away to get to open water - or out of his way altogether."

Naturally, you'd rather make the pass yourself and tear across to open water away from the chaos. But when you get caught in a crowd, being assertive in your maneuvers is the winning way to run safely. Just ask Reggie.