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Commentary: Phenomenon or Phenome-not—It’s All Good

Since Phenomenon, the 55-foot-long turbine-powered catamaran that was to attempt to break the propeller-driven-water-speed record of 220 mph today, made its debut in November 2009 I have written 11 stories about it for speedonthewater.com/Boatermouth.com. That does not count one I wrote for Boats.com/Yachworld.com and another I wrote for the site’s print publication, Yachtworld magazine.

My coverage plan was simple: I would check in at least once a month with the Phenomenon crew and report whatever news there was. No news, no report. In the two weeks leading up to the July 2 Super Boat International Kilo Runs in which the Phenomenon team hoped to break the record, I would check in frequently. That was my plan, and I stuck to it.

But I have to admit that as the Kilo Runs drew closer, I saw Phenomenon’s chances of actually setting a new record getting farther away. With a combined 12,000 hp behind them, the boat’s drives moved enough to crack the stern bustle, break propeller shafts and allow the props to destroy one another. If that weren’t enough, as the Phenomenon crew worked to solve those problems new headaches—in the form of issues with one of the boat’s turbine engines—emerged.

As anyone involved in any water speed-record attempt can tell you, that’s how it works. When it comes to preparing to set an on-water speed mark, stuff happens. You fix it. Then more stuff happens. You fix it, and the cycle continues. And if you’re diligent and very lucky, it all comes together on the day you go after the record. All that’s left is having the stones to take on one of the most deadly pursuits in all of motorsports.

Yesterday, they called it quits. That was a smart move. A very smart move.

Did the Phenomenon team make mistakes? Undoubtedly. But from where I sit, the biggest one was setting out a sign in front of their display at the 2010 Miami International Boat Show in February that read, “World’s Fastest Powerboat.” That was a little over the top but, more important, it implied more than a little overconfidence given the task at hand.

So maybe they were a little cocky, or maybe—and this what I believe—they were doing a little internal cheer-leading, a form of self-motivation as in, “We put it out there. Now we have to back it up.”

Regardless, the entire Phenomenon story has been, well, fun to follow. Without question, the effort was completely homegrown. There was big Louisiana money—meaning Copeland—behind the project. Most of the team hailed from the state, and the team was based in Metairie, not far from New Orleans.

With their financial resources, they easily could have hired John Cosker of Mystic to build and throttle the cat. After all, Cosker has more seat time at 200 mph than just about anyone alive. And he’s just one example of the available talent, from Jerry Gilbreath to John Tomlinson, that could have helped with the project.

But that’s not what they wanted and that’s not what they did. They stuck with homegrown, as in Scott Barnhart, who managed the project and throttled the boat and Al Copeland, Jr., who drove and, without flinching, wrote one huge check after the next.

In the end, they failed—at least when it came to today’s Kilo Runs. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. They talked big in the beginning, toned it down in the middle and displayed sincere humility in the end.

My response to the final chapter—at least for the time being—of this story? Cheers and applause to the entire Phenomenon team. It was fun. It was intriguing. It was something to look forward to.

It was Phenomenal.

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Phenomenon Testing Today

Phenomenon on the Road for Sarasota Kilo Runs

Phenomenon Update: Waiting on Propellers

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Inside Phenomenon: First Look

Speed Record Attempt Boat Waiting for New Props

Boats.com Gets Turbine-Boat Interior Images

First Look: Inside Copeland’s Speed-Record Rocket

Copeland Group Shooting to Set Speed Record Before Miami Show

Record-Attempt Catamaran Unveiled at Key West Worlds