According to the dashboard reading of a reporter’s car, the temperature along the Ohio River Thursday evening sat at 93.
According to Portsmouth resident Del Book, the temperature inside the tiny, decidedly one man cockpit of his SST 120 racing boat was 107. The obvious sweat on his forehead wasn’t about to deter Book from testing out different kinds of propellers on the mildly choppy waters of the river.
With the number 18 plastered on the side of his boat, Book will be of one of about 14 or so American Powerboat Association racers to take on a roughly ¾ mile rectangular course laid out on the Ohio River for the upcoming Portsmouth River Days. Although there seems to be some disagreement as to exactly how long it has been since powerboat racing was part of Portsmouth’s annual end of summer festivities, a member of Book’s crew – a former racer himself, who asked his name not be used for any story – stated he remembers almost 30 boats roaring up and down the river in Portsmouth in 2015.
Officially the Portsmouth National Championship Boat Race, and unofficially “The Roar on the River,” the races are sanctioned by the American Powerboat Association (ABPA.) What is referred to as the conducting club is the Breakwater Powerboat Association (BPA.).
“We could not be more excited to have the opportunity to bring tunnel boat racing back to Portsmouth,” says John Hitchcock, race director and president of ABPA. “This is a huge event for us as well as Portsmouth.”
For the upcoming races, Book will drive a wood and Kevlar vehicle specially designed for him by well-known race boat designer Greg Pugh. Like other SST 120s, it can reach speeds of about 110 miles per hour. He added drivers experience three to four G’s of force during racing turns. One of the owners and now currently the sole operator of Book Brothers Marina in Stout, Book said he’s been racing different boats since 1999.
“We’ve never won anything,” he readily admits. “We’ve come in second a couple of times.”
Book expressed a hope his Thursday evening run, which lasted about 45 minutes, would be his last trial run before next weekend. All drivers and teams all will have a trial run day Aug. 31, with racing Sept. 1-2
As previously mentioned, the main point of Book’s Thursday test run was to test different propellers. Book said the best type of propeller to use depends mostly on water conditions. Book warned a reporter the first propeller he tried Thursday had remarkably sharp edges and indeed looked like it could be used as part of a food processor or something in a bloody horror movie.
Normally, Book and one of his teammates said the SSTs run on leaded racing fuel. On Thursday, Book used cheaper aviation fuel containing less lead. When he pulled the boat from the water to try out a second prop, he later had problems restarting his boat. His teammate stated the reason was aviation fuel obviously is designed to work at high altitudes and the Ohio River simply does not sit at a high-altitude.
Not totally incidentally, Book said each propeller is worth about $1,500. Ultimately, the pilot said he liked the second propeller – which was not as deadly looking as the first – at least for the water conditions as they were Thursday evening. He noted during races, propellers can be changed out in a matter of minutes. On Thursday, Book experienced what he said was a reoccurring problem with his starter, although he did not seem overly concerned about the issue.
Book said he and his family have been around boats. His enthusiasm for racing boats just kind of came naturally, he said.
“It’s an amazing feeling once you get going,” Book said of piloting one of the high-powered racing boats. He said the boats easily can move from 0 to 100 miles per hour in less than five seconds. At one point, Book compared driving the SSTs to “flying a plane with the rear end dragging in the water.”
Book stated equipment inside the cramped cockpit includes, among other things, an oxygen tank to be used by drivers largely in case of emergencies. With the oxygen tank and a breathing mask, should a boat overturn, pilots can safely stay submerged for up to half an hour. He added a fairly new requirement of the APA mandates all drivers obtain certification in dealing with the boat’s emergency breathing system. Book said testers put you in a capsule in a swimming pool then flip you underwater to see how you handle it.
Book noted all sanctioned races must include specially trained and accredited stand-by diving teams to help deal with any emergencies. At least partly for safety reasons, pilots are linked to the shore by radio during all races. Book said pilots and spotters also talk about the location of other racers and so on.
On the shoreline for Thursday’s test runs, Book’s wife Erica said she gets nervous every time her husband takes to the water in a race boat. She said normally she spends his time on the water pacing back and forth. She doesn’t race herself she said at least partly because her husband told her it’s too dangerous.
Book stated he has been in numerous mishaps on the water, everything from colliding with other boats to submarining his own boat.
In speaking with the Daily Times previously, BPA’s Brandy Hitchcock said the Portsmouth races will feature different classes of so-called tunnel boats. The boats include what she called “sponson tips,” which at high speeds, kind of allow the boats to fly across the water. Hitchcock said at top velocities, only the propeller of the boat is actually in the water, which could be said to be in keeping with how Book describe the feeling of driving a race boat.
The Portsmouth event is to include several classes of tunnel boats. The fastest boats are the SST 120s, like Book’s, featuring 200 horsepower motors. Hitchcock claims tunnel boats are the fastest cornering vehicles ever built.
A second SST class, the SST 60, features 80 horsepower motors. Thundercat inflatable boats also are considered tunnel boats though they are made from rubber. They feature the same power motors as the SST 60 class boats. The inflatables feature a two-person crew. One sits in the front of the boat and steers by shifting his or her weight. The second sits in the back controlling the throttle. The inflatables have one major advantage over other boat classes in that they can run on choppy water while others simply can’t, Hitchcock said.
Book’s partner had nothing but praise for Portsmouth’s docking facilities, saying they were extremely spacious and accommodating for racers. He added a hope to see next weekend the huge crowds which lined the riverbank for previous races.
Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370-0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.