KEY WEST, Fla. — Almost a year after three offshore powerboat racers died at the Key West World Championship, the president of the sport’s primary U.S. sanctioning body issued a strong message for participants in this year’s competition.
“Have an escape plan and make sure we know what that is,” said John Carbonell, president of Super Boat International, for those in boats equipped with enclosed, fighter jet-style canopies.
This year’s competition begins Wednesday.
During the first of three race days of last year’s championship, Robert M. Morgan of Sunrise Beach, Mo., and Jeffrey Tillman of Kaiser, Mo., died when their 46-foot catamaran — Big Thunder Marine — did a reverse flip and violently crashed inside Key West Harbor in front of thousands of fans.
Two days later, Joey Gratton of Sarasota, drowned after his 38-foot Superboat 850-class catamaran, Page Motorsports, rolled over and partially sank. Gratton’s racing partner, Stephen Page of Fort Myers, survived with only minor injuries.
Those killed will be on the minds of many racers. But the death toll at last year’s world championship hasn’t seemed to deter the number of participants at the event considered my many as the “Indianapolis” of offshore powerboat racing.
Some 42 teams, representing the U.S. and 10 other countries, are entered for the event that also features a second heat Friday and the finals Sunday. The challenging route frequently provides racers a combination of calm and rough waters to test engine performance as well as boat-handling skills.
“Everyone knows if you want to be the best, you must win in Key West,” said Carbonell.
Still, the combination of speeds that exceed 150 mph and mistakes can be disastrous for competitors — even fatal.
Carbonell said his medical and safety staff has taken all the precautions they can to help racers if they get into trouble.
For the 6.5-mile course, there are two helicopters with rescue divers that can be deployed from the air. Six medical boats with rescue divers, a highly experienced trauma doctor and two patient transport boats round out the medical plan.
More than three-quarters of the boats entered are equipped with canopies. Along with cockpit harnesses, they help fend off powerful impact forces during most accidents, but can present challenges if drivers must get out in a rollover. Onboard oxygen systems help conscious drivers continue to breathe, but without proper training, panic can occur along with the risk of drowning.
Veteran North Miami throttleman Johnny Tomlinson agrees that providing SBI rescue personnel his team’s escape plan is prudent and that his team should take on even more responsibility to survive an accident.
“By having the escape strategy form filled out, it makes the guys in the cockpit think about it (what to do in an accident) and plan more,” said Tomlinson, who throttles and manages Gasse Racing owned by Tor Staubo of Oslo, Norway.
Tomlinson, 50, who has amassed 41 national and world titles since he began racing in 1986, said that while safety is a priority, participants continue to have a strong desire to win.
To improve his chances, Staubo is bringing two Superboat Unlimited class catamaran boats to Key West so he’ll have a backup. Each boat, equipped with two 1,350 horsepower engines, is worth about a million dollars. Tomlinson said the team will spend about $250,000 this week pursuing a world championship title.
And when the green flag is displayed, the danger factor no longer preoccupies racers’ minds.
“Prior to the races, there’s a lot of anxiety and you think about the risks,” Tomlinson said. “But once you start, that all goes out the window because you’re focused on running as efficiently and as fast as you can.”