Boating Writers International 11th Annual Writing Contest – Merit awards were given to Jeff Hemmel’s “Who Needs Water” in the Boat tests category.
Ronnie Thibodaux, the “Cajun Airboat God,” has gotten us stuck. Not the get-out-the-paddle-and-push kind of stuck but more the fully-aground-in-a-field-of-mud variety. We’re along the shores of Louisiana’s isolated Bayou Teche, and the last thing I feel like doing is tromping through gator-infested muck back to the launch ramp just because the Swamp King decided to take his hot-dogging too far. Maybe his airboat would do fine in this predicament, but we’re in a real boat, the kind that I’m about to remind Thibodaux needs at least a little water in which to float. Nice going, your holiness.
“Now hold on a minute, boy,” Thibodaux says, sporting a Cheshire Cat grin. With that he hits the trim, burying what looks like an industrial-strength surface drive with an oddly designed ventilation plate into the dense brown soup. He nudges the craft into reverse-nothing. Then the boat slowly starts to ease itself backward, literally digging a hole. Miraculously, water begins to slowly seep in around the prop. The process continues until we’ve dug a trench about the length of the boat. Thibodaux shifts into forward, and with a punch of the throttle, we’re up and out, skidding across the mud with a rooster tail of muck spewing from the prop as the speedometer nears 25 mph. The Super Mud Boat lives to float another day.
There is a world out there full of strange folks who aren’t totally convinced that water is necessary for boating. All they need is a little dampness-even high humidity will do. Seeing a chance for some down and dirty fun, we tested four of these mud-slinging, stump-jumping…er, um…boats, that can handle anything you throw at them-except waves. Be it made of mud, vegetation, wood, or even rock, we motored on through, rarely going places that you couldn’t walk home from. Maybe they’re right. Water? Who needs it.
There’s a beaver dam up ahead that’s taller than an NBA center, but the hell if I’m going to slow down. I squeeze the throttle of this glorified lawnmower engine, and my 16′ johnboat gets up to ramming speed. Wham! I hit the woodpile, the bow goes up, and I start to climb. The prop is now clawing wood, not water. Soaring airborne momentarily, I bang down on the opposite side…and skid full force into a sea of mud. The end of the road? Get serious. I just jam on the gas and plow on through.
The Beavertail Mud Motor is a godsend to outdoorsmen who long to reach places outboards fear to tread. The motor is an air-cooled, electric-start, 27-hp Kohler lawnmower engine, linked by a universal joint to an ultra-rugged, sealed 6′-long enclosed driveshaft that sticks out over the transom. The weedless prop is protected by a steel skeg. “It’s designed to hit things,” says Walter Schytte, a Beavertail rep. “The prop just gets knocked up out of the water, then comes back down, and you continue on your way.” The concept is simple and so is servicing it-take it anywhere they work on lawnmowers.
Also used to enhance shallow-water ability are the company’s performance pods-transom extensions that help the boat plane faster, add to top speed, make for easier trailer launching, and direct water toward the prop.
Originally intended for duck hunters, the Beavertail is finding favor with flats fishermen. Because these boats are air-cooled, you can run with the prop half out of the water so as not to damage the seagrass. Can’t do that with an outboard, which has to be lower in the water to stay cool. “Used conscientiously,” says Schytte, “it’s much more environmentally sound than an outboard.” It didn’t even damage the dam. Although I’m sure it scared the hell out of the beavers.
The normal stomping ground of Thibodaux’s Super Mud Boat is just that-ground. “Anywhere you have shallow water where a conventional boat can’t go and an airboat isn’t allowed, this is what you’ll need,” explains Thibodaux of his creation. “It can get you into those back areas, those corners and ponds, to do the type of fishing and hunting you want, without a whole lot of work.”
The aluminum hull of the Super Mud Boat is nothing extraordinary-a flat bottom that takes only a sheen of water to plane and rounded chines that help it bank sweetly into a turn. It’s the drive that’s special. Think of a rugged-looking surface drive with a powerful hydraulic trim, a 1/2″-thick aluminum skeg plate for protection, and a horizontal plate that’s designed to catch the spray of water leaving the hull and funnel it toward the prop. The drive is connected to an engine originally made for a Mazda RX-7, a supercharged, fuel-injected 240-hp rotary that, when in water, gets us to 39 mph. Its real specialty is low-end grunt, which on this boat gives new meaning to the word holeshot. Each Mud Boat is custom built, and the one we’re on was made for Louisiana Governor Mike Foster.
“We’re able to run deep water, shallow water-even pure mud-and maintain the same rpm and speed while doing all three things,” says Thibodaux. “It’s basically a one-boat-does-it-all type. That’s why I call them Super Mud Boats.”
Of course, Thibodaux didn’t earn his nickname making mud boats, super or otherwise.
This Cajun’s bread and butter is airboats, aluminum-hulled erector sets with minimal creature comforts and an honest-to-goodness airplane propeller mounted to the stern. From dual-passenger, single-engine models to triple-engine tour boats, Thibodaux has built them all. His “Cajun Airboat God” moniker came courtesy of the Discovery Channel’s popular Monster Garage, where he helped turn a Volkswagen Beetle into, what else, an airboat. That sank.
Airboats can go anywhere. Thibodaux emphasizes this at the end of our ride, when, rather than following the creek to the launch ramp, he simply powers across a field to the trailer. Back at the shop, a customer confides that he uses his to blow leaves into his neighbor’s yard. They’re fast and can go almost anywhere. Supporters would even argue they’re environmentally friendly. Rather than chew their way through plants, frogs, and mud, an airboat merely skims over them with minimal impact-although the noise would deafen any wildlife within earshot.
Airboats are off the charts in terms of decibel levels, which is why many areas have banned them. “Noise is the biggest problem by far,” admits Thibodaux, “but it’s the best piece of equipment for doing no damage to property.” According to Thibodaux, the majority of airboat buyers are commercial. Some of his biggest customers are in the oil, geologic, and tour industries. His recreational users are mostly hunters.
“If I had my choice, I’d hunt out of an airboat,” says Thibodaux. “It can cross levees and canals, get me into places no truck or boat can go.”
ON THE ROCKS
Seven years ago, Kevin Turner couldn’t find a boat that would withstand the punishment he routinely dished out on rocky rivers. So he built his own-the RiverPro. Using a Mercury SportJet with a heavy-duty intake grate and a tough 3/16″ aluminum hull designed to take major abuse, the RiverPro combines the shallow-water ability that small-river bass fishermen require with the speed that tournament anglers demand. “At 50 mph, there’s not many faster,” says Turner, “or ones that can go where this boat can.”
Spotting a narrow, winding inlet off the Tennessee River, Turner sweeps into the cut and heads into a virtual no-man’s land of downed trees and stumps. Before I can brace for impact, the boat is gliding across trees that would send a fiberglass hull to the landfill and taking enough hits to snap the blades off a dozen propellers. Just when I think it can’t get any uglier, Turner spots a fallen tree with the diameter of a fifth-grader and a chainsaw-eaten notch out of the middle. There’s room for a canoe at best, but Turner nudges us into the opening. Then, just as things get uncomfortably tight, he powers up and through-hull squealing in protest. All this occurs after he jumps over an exposed sandbar, runs through a mere 4″ of water, and hits 53 mph in the deep stuff (almost a foot!).
The RiverPro has a console-forward design for more room in the cockpit and to ride it as level in the water as possible. That attitude keeps the intake out of the rocks. For those occasions when the boat takes a serious hit, welded-pipe guards enable the boat to slide over obstructions without hanging up on the jet pump.
“It’s not if you’re going to hit, it’s when and how severe the hit is going to be,” says Turner. “The RiverPro has never left me stranded, and I do some pretty radical boating.” Radical? More like insane. It’s a tough little boat.