Performance boaters have long taken a bad rap for being gold-chained, fat-walleted, egotistical blowhards who quickly swap a check for 2,000 hp marine missiles and menace the waterways.
Forget that stereotype. Today’s go-fast boaters are more cerebral, more competitive and less likely to assume they know it all. The prevailing attitude is that with speed comes responsibility. Because of this, performance-driving boat schools are cropping up around the country. Some are run by manufacturers like Donzi Marine. Others are independent programs such as Tres Martin’s Performance Boat School.
I had a chance to attend both schools on the infamous go-fast waters of Lake Havasu on the California-Arizona border, during the area’s popular Desert Storm Shootout. What I learned about going fast on the water will make you a safer boater and may save you some money.
Jim Waters, a top-level Hollywood executive, is a longtime boater. He recently acquired a DCB (Dave’s Custom Boats) twin-engine catamaran. Faced with a more aggressive hull style and increased horsepower, he decided to seek out additional training.
Scott and Shellie Potter, from California, felt the same way after acquiring their three-year-old DCB F29. They loved the adrenaline rush from speed. But when friends came along, Shellie was too often relegated to the back seat.
“I was tired of that. I wanted to know more about how to handle the boat, dock it, launch and load it. I wanted to be more confident in my ability to take it out alone,” she said.
Scott was happy to see her take a more active interest in the sport, and wanted to be a better driver himself, so their week’s vacation at Desert Storm began with two days of instruction from Tres Martin and Brad Schoenwald, partners in the Ultra High Performance Course. The school runs $2,500 per student, but the ability to run your fast rig with greater skill and confidence pays a priceless dividend on your investment.
Martin is world-renowned as a racing and performance expert, and throughout his lectures, students furiously jot notes. All of his words come from his years of experience; Martin won’t commit his lessons to a textbook — he’s afraid of losing control of the content to competitors.
Competition? After attending these classes, I also met up with Craig Barrie, vice president of sales for Donzi Marine and chief instructor for hands-on training aboard the Donzi 38 ZR Competition. The “Comp,” as Barrie’s team calls it, is a dual-helm boat ideally suited for training wannabe captains. Between the two schools, I picked up a ton of great skill-sharpening lessons worthy of any boater’s performance tool bag.
Speed 101: Turning
Both classes began with basic boater safety training and the “Rules of the Road,” aka the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, or Colregs. Before you can fly, you have to learn to walk.
Hull dynamics, and how they affect a boat’s handling, came next. Donzi builds monohulls so Barrie focused on V-bottoms, but Tres Martin’s curriculum covered cats and their distinctive traits as well. The schools had other differences, but they both stressed one of the most important skills to master at speed: turning.
“No V-bottom can turn safely in excess of 70 mph,” Martin said from the lectern.
“That may be true for some boats,” Barrie said during our later tests, “but I set mine up myself and am confident in its turning ability.”
So how do you safely turn at speed? Tres Martin has a special technique.
“You need to monitor your tach,” Martin said, “because the first sign of instability will be one tach spinning up beyond the other.” Turbulence around the hull is interrupting solid water flow to one or (with twins) both of the props — a sure sign things are about to go wrong in a hurry.
“In stepped monohulls, the engine inside the turn is most apt to lose its bite,” Martin said. “In cats, the outside one more frequently loses bite.”
For both Barrie and Martin, setting up for the turn is as important to its flawless execution as actually making it. The steps are deceptively simple.
To set up or “get set,” do a head pan to check for other traffic. Pull back slightly on the throttle. Martin repeats again that he wants you under 70 mph before the maneuver.
In Martin’s turn, hands on the helm at 3 and 9 o’clock, he executes the turn by rocking the helm 180 degrees then returning to center repeatedly — that rotation changes depending on the steering ratio of the helm. You’d expect the give-and-take turn to be jerky, but in execution, all three students managed smooth, flawless, aggressive turns from 50 to 70 mph.
Martin said that method better aims the boat and keeps the props hooked up in clean water. Craig Barrie uses a different technique.
“Slow down, check around, then feed a half-turn to the helm, then a little throttle,” he instructed me. I gave the helm 90- to 180-degree twist and fed in some gas. The boat steadied in the turn.
“Now, if you want to turn sharper, add more speed.” It seemed counterintuitive, but as I added throttle, the boat arced tighter and I edged the speed up, keeping one eye on the tachometers — both holding steady at equal rpm.
What if one tach suddenly ran up to the red line — or worse, you felt the boat slip loose at the stern?
“Your escape plan is always go straight. Never yank the throttle back. Go straight, get control, then ease back to a comfortable speed and collect your wits,” Martin advised.
Even a PWC rider can tell you that the quickest ticket to instability is to suddenly stop the engine.
What’s the big deal about getting “set”? Both instructors agree on this.
“When you chop the throttle, where does all that gas in your tank go?” Martin asked his students. By the law of physics, it rushes forward, helping to settle your bow in the water, ready for a secure turn.
Think of it like driving a rear-wheel-drive vehicle through a curvy course. Decelerate as you approach the turn, loading the front tires (the bow) to prevent understeer. Then accelerate as you come through it to push the back axle into the turn (the aft sections of the hull) and focus the energy equally on the front wheels (the bow), enhancing stability.
Performance 102: Holding Steady
With all the focus on turning, Barrie sees a lot of captains fail trying to maintain too much speed in a steady course. Running at speed is not just knowing how to work the controls; it’s about reading water.
“In performance boating, it’s not how fast you can go; it’s how long you can go fast,” he said. The most important thing when maintaining a course at speed is anticipating what’s happening on the water in front of you. What is the sea state? When is the next turn or nav marker? What are the other boats doing? Reaction times must be a lot quicker, like a snow skier setting a course through the moguls, and that comes with experience. And making mistakes.
“Sooner or later,” Barrie warns, “the boogie man will come. When you make a mistake and get caught, you usually know what you did before it happens.”
You won’t see the next wave coming — or you’ll change your grip on the helm on re-entry, feeding in rudder.
It’s that experience thing. Like with Jim Waters in his DCB.
Running with his instructor, he broke 105 mph and held it. Then, decelerating to 50 mph, he went into his 180-degree turn. Using Martin’s 180-degree turn-and-return rhythm, Jim quickly gained confidence, and he bumped the speed up another 10 mph. With each turn you could see his self-assurance increase, and as his turns smoothed, he cracked a slight smile.
Back at the dock we found Scott waiting for his wife to return. As they docked, Martin flashed a thumbs-up at them. Shellie had earned the coveted certificate that would hold down their insurance premiums and boost her bravado higher.
Stepping to the dock, Shellie gushed to her husband, “You’re gonna be givin’ up some throttle time, Scott.”
Maybe the schools need to add another class topic that dates back to kindergarten: learning to share.