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Analysis: When Cats Fly

When I watched the two 32-foot Wright Performance catamarans, Team LPC and Team Allen Lawn Care and Landscaping, pirouette skyward during the first day of competition at the Race World Offshore championships in Key West, Fla., my first thoughts went to the guys strapped into the boats. As everyone knows by this point, they are pretty much OK.


Even in the most competitive circumstances, catamarans need to keep their distance if they want to stay on the water. Photo from the second day of the Race World Offshore Key West Championships courtesy/copyright Pete Boden/Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.

Because I am who I am — my kids call me a boat geek — my mind then went to what caused the crash. I’ve been covering powerboat racing including Unlimited hydroplanes and offshore for much of my 33-year career and I’ve seen plenty take flight. I couldn’t help but wonder if the boats being so close together caused some kind of drafting or turbulence that contributed to their lifting off, as others, including the Performance Boat Center team’s Myrick Coil, suggested.

I figured it was a question plenty of other people who watched the crash had and I knew who to call. I’ve been friends with Steve David since he started racing Unlimited hydroplanes in 1988 because that was the year that I started covering powerboat racing. He’s one of the few guys to have raced Unlimiteds and offshore and he’s a pilot so he’s unwillingly flown boats and willingly flies his private plane regularly.

“Those two boats were so close to each other that it was air turbulence flowing off the decks,” David said when we spoke last evening. “When air flows over a surface it’s not laminar, and what you get are vortices that roll to the side and back. They’re each spilling the air to each other and all of sudden, the lifting force is significantly greater than the down-force created by the deck.”

So everyone who thinks it’s cool to see boats so close together might not want to wish for that in the future.

Some have compared this to the crash years ago when Ron Snyder in the Miss Madison and John Prevost in the Circus Circus went over side-by-side on Mission Bay in San Diego, but David said those boats were far enough apart that one didn’t cause the other to lift. It was just head winds on that section of the course.

Unlimiteds are designed basically to fly across the water with hardly any boat in the water. The last couple of feet of the running surface are angled up to let air spill so the boat runs level. The back of the tunnel on an offshore racing catamaran has a similar design so the boat doesn’t pack too much air.

Back to Wednesday’s crash, David said that there was nothing neither of the throttlemen could do to stop the blowovers. “There comes a point when you reach that point of no going back,” he said. “Once that bow went up with the force that it did with the rotational forces that it did no one was going to catch it.”

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