Speeding Into The Danger Zone

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Closely involved with every aspect of the Fountain kilo boat project, Ben Robertson, Jr. (above) says his greatest concerns have to do with the possibility of mechanical failures.

Mostly lost in the understandable excitement and buzz about Fountain Powerboats’ upcoming assault on the V-bottom kilometer speed record is one simple fact: It is an incredibly dangerous pursuit with zero margin for error. And no one knows this better than Ben Robertson, Jr., who will pilot the Washington, N.C. company’s purpose-built canopied 40-footer powered by twin 1,900-hp turbocharged engines from Sterling Performance.

“My biggest concern is a mechanical breakdown,” said Robertson, who with Reggie Fountain, Jr., piloted a 42-foot Fountain to a kilo run record of 171.888 mph in 2004. “From steering to propellers to gearcases to drive shafts, we are in the unknown zone. A lot of things can happen.”

Robertson is targeting 200 mph as a kilo record goal, though everyone involved will be delighted if the Fountain boat surpasses the 180.464-mph kilo mark set by a 43-foot canopied Outerlimits V-bottom piloted by Brian Forehand in 2014.

It’s a lofty goal to be sure. At 200 mph, a boat covers 293.33 feet per second—less than seven feet shy of a football field—or 89.41 meters per second. At that speed, the same boat will cover a kilometer in 11 seconds. But a kilo record is the average of two speeds over the course of a kilometer in two timed runs, one in each direction. So everything has to work perfectly for 22 seconds.

That isn’t a lot of time in everyday life—it probably took you close to 22 seconds to read the paragraph above this one and even less time to forget it—but it’s an eternity on the water at 200 mph. Small problems are serious at that speed. Big ones are deadly.

“If we lose a propeller blade the boat will turn sideways to the side where we lost the blade,” said Robertson. “If we lose a propeller or break a shaft or a gearcase locks up, that would be a disaster. If would be like putting the brakes on the side with the failure.”

Debris in the water, which could lead to propeller, lower unit and even hull damage, is another major concern, Robertson said. Before each run, a helicopter will fly over the course and a safety boat will run it—both with spotters in search of debris. Robertson also said that the Fountain team will be paying close attention to wind conditions.

“If it’s at all gusty, it will be a no-go,” he said. “A steady breeze up to seven or eight miles per hour, we can handle that. But gusty 10-mph winds at the speeds we plan on running would be too much.”

Maintaining control while slowing down from top speed has been a longstanding concern in V-bottom kilo run attempts, as mono-hulls can find themselves oscillating during deceleration. If the oscillations become violent enough, the boat can enter a severe chine walk and—in the worst case—overturn. Based on his past V-bottom kilo run experience, Robertson is unconcerned with the deceleration process.

“Slowing down was not as big of a deal as we had anticipated when we did the runs in 2004,” he said. “The boat slowed perfectly. It just laid down flat without bouncing or wanted to steer right or left. The new kilo boat has the same basic hull as the last one—it’s just a little straighter and lower to the water. So while we’ll be careful and look for issues during testing, I’m not concerned about it.”

Wakes from other boats won’t be a factor, Robertson said, as the Pamlico River will be closed to traffic 2.7 miles up and down river from the course. “Last time we did kilo runs, we had to deal with boat wakes,” he said.

Robertson also said he’s confident that the 40-footer, complete with a cockpit capsule outfitted with airbags, is the safest boat Fountain has ever built. Still, he knows that while some of the inherently lethal risk can be mitigated, it cannot be eliminated.

“It’s like flying an airplane because you actually are flying,” he said. “You do very, very little steering. You just have to keep the boat balanced and running down the course, and you do not want to get aggressive.”

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Matt Trulio is an award-winning journalist who has covered the high-performance powerboat world since 1995. He wrote for Powerboat magazine for 17 years and was the magazine’s editor at large until it ceased publication in 2011. Trulio is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site that covers the high-performance powerboat realm. He’s also the former editor of Sportboat magazine.

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