One moment, teammates Ken Bolinger and Forrest Riddle were flying high—literally and figuratively—in their 30-foot Stock V-class Tiki Lee’s/Fastboys Racing V-bottom in last Sunday’s Sarasota Powerboat Grand Prix. The next moment, they were underwater.
The Mod V-class Tiki Lee’s/Fastboys Racing cockpit pairing of Ken Bolinger and Forrest Riddle arrived in Sarasota, Fla., last week ready to compete and left grateful to have survived. Photo by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.
That is the essence of a V-bottom stuff, an accident in which a boat nose-dives—typically at a high rate of speed—and becomes a submarine until whatever buoyancy it has left lifts it back to the surface. From the initial impact, when the water is like granite, to the sudden deceleration the water-resistance creates, the violence is severe. It can destroy an offshore raceboat.
Which in the case of the Tiki Lee’s/Fastboys Racing 30-footer, is exactly what happened during the Southwest Florida event. Bollinger’s side of the canopy (starboard) collapsed. The dash and steering column ended up on Bolinger’s legs, pinning him in the cockpit.
Riddle’s side of the cockpit fared better, but most of the forward bulkheads and a hefty section of the deck itself blew out in the accident.
“We got a pretty good jump on it at the start,” said Bolinger, who lost conscious upon impact and sustained a broken right femur in the wreck. “We were out in front and the boat was riding well until we hit a rogue wave that launched us. We went nose high, and as we came down I could feel the back of the boat catch and that threw us forward. At that point, I blacked out for 10 or 15 seconds.”
Severe damage ahead of the boat’s cockpit created an escape hatch of sorts for Bollinger and Riddle.
When Bolinger came to, Riddle was trying to open the hatch in the mostly crushed canopy, but it wasn’t budging. He exited the boat through the missing bulkhead ahead of the cockpit and tried to open the hatch from the outside. But despite his best efforts, he could not—and the Tiki Lee’s/Fastboys Racing Phantom V-bottom was sinking.
The P1 Offshore safety team, a group of trained firefighter paramedics/rescue divers led by veteran offshore racing safety coordinator Shawn Steinert, arrived on the scene moments later. The safety team’s Mike Osborne and Bryan Hiatt tried to open the hatch from the outside to no avail.
Knowing time was not on their side, Osborne made a bold choice. He climbed into the cockpit through the hole left by the missing bulkhead and began to leg-press the boat’s collapsed dash so he and Hiatt could drag Bolinger, whose right femur was broken, from the boat before it sank to the sea-floor some 30-plus feet below.
In severe pain but aware of his situation, Bolinger already had his regulator in his mouth—just in case the boat sank before they could get him out of the cockpit.
His agony was about to get a whole lot worse. In a race against time, they had to drag him through the hole in front of the cockpit—the same way they entered it. Meanwhile, rescue team member Danny Allis had tied a line from the safety boat to the raceboat so that it would be marked after it sunk.
It took all three strong men to drag Bolinger out of the cockpit, through shards of fiberglass, to the deck of the raceboat. It took two more men to transfer him to the safety boat.
“You have no idea how much I screamed when they dragged me out,” he said, then chuckled. “And how much I screamed when they reset my leg on the safety boat.”
His raceboat sank moments later.
Click the image above to watch the video of the Tiki Lee’s/Fastboys Racing stuff last Sunday in Sarasota, Fla. Video courtesy/copyright Carson Plank.
Within 15 to 20 minutes, Bolinger was in a hospital trauma center. Now he’s back at home in Harrisburg, Pa., recovering. In addition to his broken leg, he has a black eye, a substantial collection of cuts and bruises and likely some soft-tissue damage in his shoulders. He will not be able to put pressure on his right leg—much less walk—for six weeks.
Said Steinert, who is rightly proud of his team, “Those guys definitely thought on their feet and pulled off a pretty extreme rescue. And it has us thinking about some new tools we could use to work underwater, maybe even provide a surface-based air-supply system.”
Though Bolinger’s offshore racing season is done, he is hoping to be at the Tiki Lee’s poker run, American Power Boat Association-sanctioned kilometer run event and top-speed shootout event in Sparrow’s Point, Md., July 8-11, “just to hang out.” No doubt, plenty, of his friends and offshore racing fans will be delighted and grateful to see him.
As for the team that saved his life last Sunday afternoon, he has nothing but gratitude and respect.
“They are angels,” he said. “And they are awesome.”
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