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HomeRacingThe Guardians Of Last Resort—Inside The APBA Rescue Team

The Guardians Of Last Resort—Inside The APBA Rescue Team

Few current offshore powerboat racers have the winning track record of Steve Curtis, a multi-time Union Internationale Motonautique Class 1 world champion now throttling the Huski Ice Spritz raceboat with alternating drivers Brit Lilly and Travis Pastrana. In 2022, Curtis clinched the Class 1 world title with Pastrana. More recently, he and Lilly took top honors at the 2023 Class 1 season-opener in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Led by Shawn Steinert and JR Anderson, the APBA rescue team can mean the difference between life and death following an incident on the racecourse. Photos by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.

But his hard-charging style has landed him another distinction. Few if any racers in the history of the sport have found themselves upside-down in a raceboat as many times as Curtis. Most recently, that happened with the Victory team boat he was throttling in Key West, Fla., during the 2018 Super Boat International-produced Offshore World Championship.

And though he’s never needed help getting out of an overturned boat, he’s always been comforted to know help is available.

“I’ve always managed to get myself out of the boat whether it be an open boat or a canopy boat,” Curtis explained. “To be honest, I have always believed that the boat should be strong enough to allow you to survive the accident and stay conscious. Then you can look after yourself and crew. I think that comes from the old days when the courses were a lot longer so you couldn’t have that many divers or rescue boats.

One of the winningest throttlemen in offshore racing history, Steve Curtis (far right) has been in more than a few roll-over incidents during the years.

“That said, it’s very reassuring to know that the rescue teams are out there ready to help you out should you have a problem,” he added. “They do a hell of a good job and have saved many lives.”

Today in American Power Boat Association-sanctioned races, that job falls to a safety team led by Florida-based rescue coordinator Shawn Steinert, head safety inspector JR Anderson, lead rescue diver and rescue team supervisor Artie Gatlin and safety resource coordinator Dakota Alexander. All told, the team has 25 highly qualified rescue divers.

“These guys are the best of the best,” Steinert said.

The Fundamentals Of Life Or Death
Imagine yourself blissfully ignoring the posted speed limit and tooling down the interstate at a cool 100 mph. A pickup truck a few hundred yards ahead of you suddenly spills lumber in the road. You swerve to avoid it and your car rolls. Injured or not, you find yourself upside-down and hanging from your seat belt as your vehicle comes to rest in a pond.

Now, imagine your car filling with water. It may happen immediately or it may take a minute, but fill it will. Regardless, you need to get out to survive.

That is the scenario offshore racers face when they overturn in their canopied raceboats. Their five-point harnesses, by design, hold them firmly in place. As water enters the cockpit, they have to access their onboard air systems (tanks and regulators) and wait for the cockpit to fill with water to equalize the pressure so they can release from their harnesses and any other impediments (steering wheel for the driver, for example), and escape through either top or—or in the case of most canopied catamarans— bottom escape hatches.

All of this and more has to happen seamlessly after a violent and disorienting moment. But almost nothing about life is seamless. Some folks perform better under stress than others. Racers knocked unconscious don’t even get the chance to put their self-extraction skills, learned through the APBA safety team’s dunker simulator, to the test.

“Some guys are super-calm, some guys can’t out of there fast enough,” said Steinert.

Regardless of how they perform in the dunker, when racers are struggling to exit under their own power during race for the rescue crew becomes a literal lifesaver. And it has to happen quickly, which is why the APBA rescue team has divers in a helicopter and in rescue boats on the courses that can be as long as seven miles nowadays.

“We pride ourselves on our response time, meaning how long it takes us to make contact with the racers in a boat that’s had an accident,” said Steinert, who rides in the rescue helicopter’s co-pilot seat. “We are running sub-30 seconds on average.

“We deploy two helicopter rescue divers on every ‘boat over’ incident unless I see helmets exiting the escape hatch,” he continued. “It is critical to not hold rescue resources back until both racers are on the surface. Time is not on our side during these incidents—that’s one reason they are required to have experience working in high-hazard and high-stress environments.”

Of course, roll-overs aren’t the only potentially lethal incidents in offshore. Collisions also can be deadly and require qualified divers acting immediately and professionally for the best outcome.

The APBA rescue team has to be ready to deal with all kinds of accidents on the racecourse.

Tickets To Rescue Admission
Gone are the unforgivable days when getting a gig as an offshore racing rescue diver meant knowing someone at the safety management level and being the new hotshot at your local dive shop. Just to get considered to make the APBA rescue team, you need to be a certified paramedic or emergency medical technician with a rescue-diver “or above” certification from PADI or NAUI (the two primary organizations that provide Scuba certifications). A background in public safety is also required.

“Most of our guys are either current or retired firefighters,” Steinert said. “We also have two Air Force para-rescue team members. They are both pretty amazing dudes and are trained-to-the-gills paramedics.”

Because hatch latching systems can differ from raceboat to race, rescue team divers need to be familiar with all of them.

That the APBA rescue team members practice and train using the organization’s dunker, a device that simulates rolling over and escaping from a raceboat in a controlled, swimming-pool environment, makes perfect sense. Less obvious but equally important are raceboat inspections at every race, which not only help identify potential areas of safety concern but familiarize the divers with various exit-hatch latch systems and cockpit layouts.

“We hold racers accountable for their raceboats,” Anderson explained. “There are no ‘mulligans’ if you don’t have something you need. The boats need to be race-ready when they show up. I’m not trying to be a jerk, but if you are willing to spend $10,000 on a propeller you probably should be willing to put a little nonskid on your boat so the rescue divers don’t fall off.

“Nothing at all against the older, veteran racers, but the ‘younger guys’ seem a bit more open and receptive to our requirements and suggestions for making a boat safer to race,” he continued. “I never get any pushback from them—they want to be safe. It’s a breath of fresh air for me.”

The Path To The Present
Both Steinert and Anderson have been working in rescue operations for more than 20 years. The director of the APBA Rescue Committee and a member of the organization’s safety committee, Steinert retired from the Orlando Fire Department Special Operations in 2016. During his 27-year career, he became the department’s rescue team commander and special operations instructor. In addition to working for Super Boat International, he became a private rescue diver for the Miss GEICO offshore racing team under offshore racing safety legend David D. Petrillo, who had introduced him to the offshore-racing rescue-diving world.

Like Steinert, Anderson worked with Super Boat International and was a private diver for the Miss GEICO team. His resume includes work as a firefighter and paramedic for the Orange Beach Fire Department Marine Division and a critical-care flight medic for Baptist Hospital in Pensacola. Anderson is the current director of the APBA Offshore Safety Committee.

Though they are not all captured here, the 2023 APBA rescue team includes Shawn Steinert, JR Anderson, Artie Gatlin, Dakota Alexander, Brad Myers, Brian Hiatt, Chris Demaagd, Corey Philman, Daniel Epperson, Daniell Allis, David McDonald, Devon Walsh, Jeff E-Khaladi, Jeremy White, Korey Steinert, Matthew Sausaman, Michael Osborn, Mike Sanchez, Pete Cordero, RJ Casey, Ryan Adams, Vidal Lazo and Yousell Garcia.

Steinert and Anderson also worked as rescue divers for the short-lived Offshore Super Series group in the mid-2000s.

In 2011, Joey Gratton died during the 2011 Super Boat International Key West World Championships. The popular racer from Sarasota, Fla., survived a rollover crash. But he didn’t survive the extraction.

Though working for the SBI rescue team at the time as a diver, Steinert wasn’t on the job that day. Anderson was—but as a private diver for the Miss GEICO team. Both men were horrified and transformed by the Gratton outcome.

“That was a turning point for me,” Steinert said. “I knew there had to be a better way. The stakes were too high.

Anderson agreed.

“The danger is obvious and the safety level didn’t match the level of danger in offshore racing,” he explained. “We made it our personal goal to change the industry. We saw it as an opportunity. You can’t have people on the water in rescue who aren’t qualified.

“We faced opposition, even up to last year,” he continued. “People didn’t think having a certified EMT or paramedic was important. People didn’t think having a background in public safety was important. But we stuck to our guns.”

Added Steinert, “We stayed true to ourselves and things worked out.”

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For the rescue divers as well as the racers, dunker training is essential.

Both Anderson and Steinert credited Race World Offshore president Larry Bleil and Powerboat P1 chief executive officer Azam Rangoonwala, as well as APBA Offshore Racing commission chairman Rich Luhrs and APBA chief referee Mark Austin for supporting their efforts.

“We could not do this without Larry and his group at Race World Offshore and Azam and Michelle Petro at Powerboat P1,” Steinert said. “This is not an inexpensive thing, getting 18 or so rescue professionals to a race. But you get what you pay for, and these guys are the best.”

Anderson put it plainly. “How much is someone’s life worth?” he said. “I cannot say enough good things about Larry, Azam and Michelle.”

Race Day Nuts And Bolts
On any given APBA race day, the rescue crew will have a minimum of 15 rescue divers. That became standard in 2022.

Three of those divers will be overhead in a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter most often piloted by Darliss O’Brien of O’Brien Helicopters, who has extensive experience flying offshore racing safety teams. The remaining 12 divers are divided into six two-man teams in rescue boats with lifesaving equipment and extraction tools below. (The team also has a minimum of two victim-transport boats at each race.)

“There is always one helicopter with three divers,” Steinert said. “But on the longer courses, we have as many as 18 divers on the course.”

At every APBA, there is one helicopter carrying three rescue divers and no less than 12 rescue divers in boats on the course.

Steinert, as noted above, always takes the front seat of the aircraft—his fellow divers ride behind him. His primary role is spotting situations where trouble is likely to occur, and during the years he’s learned to predict them.

“I’m not usually ‘focused’ on the leaders,” he said. “I am always scanning the course and the fleet and looking for racing in tight quarters, because that’s where a lot of the accidents happen. I base a lot on experience and intuition.”

While in the air, Steinert focuses on tight competition leading into choke-points, such as turn No. 1 in Key West, on the race course.

And there is the race-day morning “physical,” somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for blood-alcohol testing via breathalyzer, that all would-be racers must pass. The inglorious side of the sport’s class is littered with racers who couldn’t pass the test. But that’s not all the APBA safety crew is looking for.

“If we see any signs of impairment (regardless of blood-alcohol test results) during our morning evaluation we are going to at the very least have a discussion with that individual,” Anderson said.

Bringing Confidence To Constituents
The defending APBA national champion in the Super Stock ranks, Reese Langheim of the Jackhammer team has found himself upside-down in a raceboat five times since he entered the sport in 2018. So far this season, he and his new-for-2023, full-time Jackhammer throttleman Julian Maldonado—the son of former Jackhammer throttleman Ricky Maldonado—have kept their 32-foot Victory raceboat sunny side up on their way to a win in Cocoa Beach, Fla., in May and a second-place finish in Sarasota, Fla., earlier this month.

Though he’s never needed help exiting an overturned raceboat, Langheim and his family are grateful to know it’s close by.

“Every time I’ve gotten out, they’ve usually been right on top of me,” he said. “They are fast. They know what they’re doing. I feel like I can race hard knowing I have good safety people overhead. If I don’t feel comfortable with the safety team, I absolutely do not race as hard.”

“There’s nothing better than having the right people in the right places,” he added, then chuckled.

Said Langheim, “If I don’t feel comfortable with the safety team, I absolutely do not race as hard.”

Next up for the APBA rescue team is the Mercury Racing Midwest Challenge in mid-August in Sheboygan, Wis. Then they will head to the Powerboat P1-produced St. Petersburg Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Fla., September 1-3, and the September 22-24 Race World Offshore Clearwater ‘Nationals in Clearwater, Fla.

From there, they will trek to Key West, Fla., November 5-12, for the Race World Offshore-produced APBA World Championships, which in a way is where their journey to present really began.

The owner and driver of the Class 1 Monster Energy/M CON and Super Cat M CON/Monster Energy teams, Tyler Miller, will be in the mix at the remainder of the regular-season APBA races this season, as well as in Key West for the World Championships. Like Curtis and Langheim, he knows the value of the current APBA rescue team. And he couldn’t be more grateful for them.

“To have familiar faces that we see race after race is very comforting,” Miller said. “It definitely makes you push with everything you have and to the limits—and sometimes beyond—knowing that if things go bad they have your back and you’re going home to your family.”

In any offshore race, the most important thing is for competitors to make it home to their families—even if they have an accident.

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