Despite the deaths of three racers in two accidents a year ago, the 2012 Key West Super Boat World Championships will roar into the Island City this week with a fleet of up to 50 boats.
Race producer John Carbonell, president of Superboat International Productions, said he has enhanced safety procedures following last year’s tragedies, but ultimately it’s up to the racers.
“I go out and check the race course and tell them where the bad spots on the race course are,” Carbonell said. “The adrenaline is going. These guys overdo it a little bit, and that’s where they get into trouble.”
At the 2011 worlds, Missouri racers Bob Morgan and Jeffrey Tillman drowned when their catamaran Big Thunder flipped in Key West Harbor during the first race of the series. Two days later, Joey Gratton of University Park drowned after the boat he was throttling, Page Motorsports, rolled over in a turn and sank. Owner/driver Stephen Page of Fort Myers escaped with minor injuries by swimming out of a hatch in the floor of the cockpit. Gratton’s widow is suing Carbonell and his two medical safety directors in Broward Circuit Court, alleging negligence. The case is pending.
For the 2012 racing season, Carbonell began requiring crews in boats with canopies to submit an escape strategy plan in case they flip, stuff or roll over. There have been no fatalities so far this year.
“We’re making sure the guys can fit through the escape hatch on the bottom of the boat,” Carbonell said.
Two helicopters with jump medics will fly over the race course, augmented by six to eight rescue boats. A transport boat will stand by to take any injured racers to ambulances on shore. Several race teams, including Superboat Unlimited class rivals Miss Geico and Gasse, will have their own helicopter rescue crews following them around. Before the first race, crews will have to pass a “dunker” test in which rescuers strap them into a cockpit-like contraption submerged in a swimming pool, then turn them upside-down to practice escape techniques.
Veteran racer John Tomlinson of Aventura, holder of 40 world and national titles, will be at the throttles of Gasse with owner/driver Tor Staubo of Norway.
“I’m not any more concerned than I was in the past,” Tomlinson said. “After all these years of racing in rough water, I’m amazed [boats] come back to the dock in one piece. It’s a risk we take. It’s boat racing.”
Unlike the auto industry, Tomlinson said, offshore race boats don’t have standards for how they’re constructed — only guidelines — and, unfortunately, improved boat-building practices usually happen as a result of operator deaths. Gasse, he said, is as safe as it can be — with a beefed-up cockpit, 2-inch-thick glass windows, and a heavier hull than some boats he has raced. The 48-foot catamaran is powered by twin 1,350-horsepower Mercury engines.
Like Tomlinson, Miss Geico throttleman Scott Begovich of Jupiter said he and driver Marc Granet of Boca Raton always take their safety seriously.
“We’ve reinforced the hatch in the canopy, lowered the seats,” Begovich said of his 50-foot Victory with twin 1,075-horsepower Mercury engines. “We can get out either top or bottom.”
Begovich and Granet used to run a turbine-class boat in the worlds, but it burned and sank last summer at a race in Sarasota. Neither racer was hurt. They had to build their new boat from scratch.
“We’re a little under-powered,” Begovich said. “We’re saying, ‘if you want to beat Miss Geico, now’s your chance.’ ”
Boats will compete in eight classes, with three races per day Wednesday, Friday and Nov. 11 beginning at 10 a.m. each day. The Nov. 11 finale will double the number of laps and award double the points of the previous two days. The race starts and ends in Key West Harbor, with best viewing from bleachers at the Truman Race Village at the foot of Southard Street and from waterfront hotels and docks.
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