During the early 2000s, Howard Arneson, the inventor of the Arneson surface drive, delivered the keynote address at one of Powerboat magazine’s Awards For Product Excellence banquets. A slight, soft-spoken man with a mischievous glimmer in his eyes that were always framed by triple-thick glasses, Arneson walked slowly to the podium. He waited for the applause from his fellow high-performance marine industry colleagues to subside before he spoke.
With yesterday’s passing of Howard Arneson, the high-performance marine industry lost one of its most legendary and influential figures.
“A few months ago I went to lunch with my friend Ross Perot,” he said. “As you know, Ross was running for President at the time.
“We walked into this coffee shop together and the place went silent,” he continued. “Old Ross, he pumped up like a bandy rooster and nudged me. He whispered in my ear, ‘What do you think all these people here are thinking right now?’”
Arneson paused for effect and smiled, then spoke again. “And I said, ‘They’re probably thinking, who’s that having lunch with Howard Arneson?’”
Several minutes later—after the applause and laughter died down—Arneson was able to finish his speech. It was a moment of pure joy from a colorful character who, by all accounts, delivered countless such moments.
Last night at approximately 10 p.m., Howard Arneson died, reportedly of natural causes unrelated to COVID-19. He was 99 years old, a milestone he reached less than a month ago on May 25.
To celebrate his 99th birthday, Arneson took a ride in yet another fast vehicle.
The Arneson surface drive in its various iterations was his best-known high-performance marine product. It was developed in the late 1970s and found immediate success in the offshore racing world. In 1992, Arneson sold manufacturing rights for the drive to Twin Disc Corporation.
Yet the Arneson Pool Sweep was his far and away biggest money-maker. Arneson made a fortune on the automated swimming pool cleaner, and he had no qualms about spending it on a slew of fast boats and exotic cars in the years that followed.
Arneson’s most famous boat arguably was a 32-foot Skater Powerboats catamaran powered by a 1,323-hp turbine engine. In September 1990, Arneson piloted the 32-footer 1,039 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis. Smashing the previous record by more than seven hours, the journey took 12 hours, 40 minutes and 50 seconds.
That accomplishment put Arneson, then 69 years old, in the national spotlight. His endless good cheer and humor kept him there.
Arneson’s former 46-foot Skater is still making the rounds. Photo from the 2019 Texoma Throwdown by Kevin Johns/Instant Memories
Perhaps the finest ambassador the high-performance powerboating world has ever known, Arneson never took himself too seriously.
“Howard was a lot of fun,” said Bob Teague, the founder of Teague Custom Marine in Valencia, Calif., who first met Arneson in 1974 and shared more than a few moments in the cockpit with him. “He was a blast.
“When I first took over as the president of Pacific Offshore, I think the Vallejo (Calif.) race was our first or second event after I got started,” he continued. “Howard wanted to race in the worst way in his turbine Skater, but I had to tell him, ‘Howard, your boat is so much faster than everything here. I can’t have you showing up the whole fleet.’ So he said, ‘How about if I just do the first lap and you come with me?’ Howard couldn’t really see all that well, even then. He needed help finding the turn marks. So I said, ‘OK, one lap, you got a deal.’”
When the green flag flew, Arneson nailed the throttles—either unaware of or completely unconcerned with a four- to five-foot workboat wake ahead of them.
“We launched to the moon off of that thing,” Teague said, then laughed. “As we approached the first turn, he kept asking me where his mark was, where he need to start his turn. I kept saying, “There it is, there it is.’ When he finally found it, we must have turned that boat at 150 mph.”
Teague paused to chuckle again. “When the races were over, I gave him a quarter of a checkered flag for ‘winning’ the first lap,” he said. “I still have a picture of it in my office.”
As a longtime resident of Northern California, Arneson became a fixture in the Bay Area go-fast boating scene. Fellow Northern California resident Rick Bowling got to know him in the 1980s when he was competing on the Pacific Offshore circuit. Retired from racing with his 37-foot canopied Talon catamaran Gone Again converted for pleasure use, Bowling stayed in close touch with Arneson. In February, Bowling visited him at his full-time care facility, which made him among the last members in the go-fast boating world to enjoy Arneson’s company.
Bowling and other members of the Northern California go-fast boating community celebrated Arneson’s 98th birthday at former offshore racer Rob Storlee’s home in Discovery Bay.
“For me, Howard was a mentor,” he said. “I always looked up to him—he was the guy I wanted to be like. At age 96, he was still running his 46-foot Skater with 4,500-hp worth of turbine engines. He was always in a good mood, always smiling and had nothing but good things to say. He never complained, even at the end.”
Dale Rayzor, another member of the Northern California go-fast boating community, also became close to Arneson throughout the years. While in college in the 1990s, Rayzor even wrote a paper about him. Like Bowling, Rayzor considered Arneson to be a mentor.
Dale Rayzor (left) last saw his longtime friend Arneson in late 2019. Said Rayzor, “He was like a father-figure to me.”
“Howard was the original turbine guy,” said Rayzor, who currently owns 46- and 30-foot Skater catamarans. “He probably had more miles at big speeds than anyone on the planet. He was out there testing on San Pablo Bay, for hours at a time, four days a week.
“He was such an intelligent and humble man,” he continued. “He was nice to everybody. He would talk to anyone. He was just a wonderful, kind-hearted human being.”