No one starts with a 180 MPH catamaran or 120 MPH V-bottom as a “first” powerboat. Every accomplished, competent, responsible and above all safe performance-boat owner/operator started small and worked up. That’s because while there’s much to be learned from the few go-fast driving instructors out there, hands-on helm time—and we’re talking thousands of hours of it—is indispensable. Talk to a really proficient operator and you’ll find that he or she learned to run comfortably at relatively low speeds in smaller boats, and moved up incrementally long before chasing bigger speed numbers in bigger boats.
There are two things to understand before we get started on the basics of piloting a high-performance boat.
First, powerboats don’t have brakes. As simple and obvious as that sounds, it’s particularly important to know and internalize as speeds increase. Water is great at producing drag on hulls, no about that, but as speeds increase it takes longer for a vessel to slow down. By its very nature, high speed cuts into driver reaction time. There’s simply no way around it.
Second, water conditions are dynamic. They can go from calm to rough in seconds. Wind direction can change just as quickly. So anything you learn about driving a go-fast boat in this article has to be tempered with the understanding that what works in one water condition may not work in another. That general guideline about ‘never going faster than conditions allow’? It’s about as subjective as guidelines get.
Awareness Means Everything
While you’ll spend a lifetime learning the nuances of how outdrive and tab trim can affect the running attitude of a powerboat, paying attention to what’s happening around you is pretty easy—it just takes a little effort. With the wind and noise and sensation of speed and motion, newcomers struggle to overcome sensory overload, which makes it easy for them to lose situational awareness. They simply get overwhelmed. Conversely, veteran go-fast powerboat drives can fall prey to complacency.
Either way, if you’re not aware of what’s happening around you while you’re operating a powerboat at any speed, you’re at risk.
"You really need to use your peripheral vision whenever you're operating a powerboat, but it's especially important on weekends when vessels are likely to be randomly shooting across your path—without warning—from all directions," said Tres Martin, who runs his Performance Boat School in Ocala, Fla.
"My approach to boating on holiday weekends is to assume there will be a lot of operators out there who don't know the rules of the waterway."
Martin advises paying particular attention to other vessels when you are overtaking them, as well as passing them head on.
"You have to be really careful when you're coming up behind another vessel because the operator may want to change direction without warning right in front of you," he said. "And when you have an oncoming vessel, you want to take extra care to 'show' your port side so the operator in that boat will understand you intend to pass them to port. These are operating basics you need to be aware every day, but they become even more crucial on holiday weekends when the waterways are crowded.
"And you want to stay far, far away from vessels that you think, for whatever reason, might be uninsured," he added. "If something happens, those are the last people you want to be involved with."
Martin suggests conservative operation on busy weekends—and that likely means every weekend until after Labor Day. Speaking of the July 4th weekend he said, "This is not the weekend to hang it out,” he said. “On a weekend like this one, you're not going to want to try to get a full-on run out of your boat. Wait for another time when the water is less crowded for that."
Distracted driving, the kind that comes with smartphone usage by operators while underway and is the subject of a current BoatUS Foundation safety campaign, becomes even more dangerous as speeds increase. Consider this: Running at 50 MPH you cover 73 feet per second. At 100 MPH, not an unusual speed for a go-fast V-bottom or catamaran, you cover 146 per second. At 150 MPH—in range of many high-performance catamarans and even a V-bottom or two— you cover 220 feet per second. Distraction of any kind is something you simply don’t have time for.
"I think distracted operating is a bigger factor in accidents than people admit," said Martin. “Nobody wants to admit that they got into an accident because they weren't paying attention, because it makes them feel foolish."
Martin is emphatic about the need for performance-boat drivers to constantly maintain situational awareness. It is, he maintains, at least as important as anything else when it comes safety.
"What we teach in school is that you need to be on a 'high-alert level' when you're operating a performance boat," said Martin. "You have to be focused on everything at hand. You need to be driving defensively. What is boat is driving next to you going to do? Check out the group of personal watercraft over there. What do you think they are going to do?
"The loss of situational awareness happens when the driver takes his eyes off what we call the complete sightline of operation," he continued. "As drivers, we have 'front focus,' where we are going and what's ahead of us, and 'peripheral focus,' all the things that are going on around us. We need to pay attention to both. You need to understand and be aware that something is going to go wrong. You're not sightseeing—drivers fall into that trap all the time. When you're behind the wheel, it's no longer just a 'fun boat ride.'"
Believe it or not, Martin—a retired offshore powerboat racing world champion—works with more experienced go-fast powerboat operators than rookies. (As noted at the outset of this article, pretty much no one starts with a high-performance V-bottom or catamaran.) While owners of new go-fast cats and V-hulls can pay renowned experts like John Tomlinson of TNT Custom Marine in Florida and Bob Teague of Teague Custom Marine in California—and while builders such as Cigarette Racing Team and Skater Powerboats will gladly introduce their customers to those aces and others—Martin’s school, which he runs with fellow instructor Brad Schoenwald, is the only one of its kind in the nation. What’s more, completing the school’s course can reduce an owner’s insurance premiums.
In addition to private, one-on-one courses, the school offers group courses for eight to ten students around the country. The course begins in the classroom, starting with basic instruction on stepped-hull hydrodynamics. Martin and Schoenwald don’t expect to create experts on hull design, but they do expect their students to leave their classroom with an understanding of what is actually happening underneath their boats, which directly affects handling, tracking, trim, and other aspects of performance.
Schoenwald became friends with Martin while he was looking for a Cigarette to buy. After Schoenwald bought his “dream boat,” Martin suggested that he take his driving course. Schoenwald’s reaction was, he admits, true to form.
“I was like, ‘I’m a U.S. Coast Guard guy, I teach people to drive boats,” Schoenwald recalled, then laughed “What can this race guy teach me? So I went out and started driving my boat, and at one point it did something odd, something I didn’t expect. I called Tres and he said, ‘I told you that you need to take my boat school,’ and I finally figured out how stupid I was.
“When I look back on my progression through the Coast Guard, at every level up to 110-foot cutters, I had specific training and had to demonstrate a minimum proficiency level to operate each vessel and become certified on it. I should have recognized that straightaway,” he continued. “Everyone needs to understand that they need to have training, especially in the high-performance arena, because of the severity of consequences that come with the speed.”
Martin agreed. “Most people think they have their boats in control—that’s the one that gets me most,” he said. “The newer boats are so much closer to the water that the drivers envision themselves in their cars, but they are traveling much faster than they would in their cars. They feel good. They think they have control. But they have no idea how close they are to being in big trouble.”
And, as you’d expect, Martin and Schoenwald devote serious time to the subject of boating under the influence. Their philosophy is simple: zero tolerance.
“It’s not enough just to say to the operator, ‘Hey, don’t be under the influence,’” says Schoenwald. “They have to be aware of other individuals under the influence operating boats in the same area."
From there, it’s out on the water for real-world instruction, and that starts before the boat leaves the dock, with pre-float inspections of everything from the engine compartment to Coast Guard-required safety equipment. “Our primary focus is on prevention rather than response,” said Schoenwald. “From there, we go into the operational part of the course. There are very specific ways we want the boat to be set up for a turn, go through the turn, and exit the turn. From there we go into collision avoidance.
“The big ‘Ah ha!’ moments for the students are in trimming and turning techniques,” Schoenwald added.
The cost for the Tres Martin Performance Boat School course varies from $1,500 to $3,500, as dictated by the top speed and type of vessel the student owns (120 MPH V-bottom, 180 MPH turbine-powered catamaran, etc.). Between the classroom and on-water, hands-on instructional time, the course takes approximately 12 hours. Schoenwald says that the on-water time tends to vary with the skill level and ability of the student. He is also quick to emphasize that the course is useful for any powerboat owner, not just owners of ultra-exotic go-fast cats and V-bottoms.
“We’ve had lots of guys come in thinking they didn’t need it, and not one of them has walked away without saying, ‘I’m really glad I did this,” said Schoenwald. “They may have doubts when they come in, but no one ever leaves with the same feelings they had when the showed up.”
From V-Bottom To Catamaran
While Cigarette Racing Team, Outerlimits Offshore Powerboats, and Fountain Powerboats still build a handful of high-performance V-bottoms every year, catamarans dominate new builds these days. That said, most catamaran owners started with V-bottoms. They learned the basics of trimming down their drives when coming on plane and then trimming them up—always conservatively—once on plane. They learned to dip trim tabs from one side to the other to keep their boats level while running in quartering seas.
Take nothing away from those operators, because running a V-bottom at high-speed is as tricky and potentially dangerous—no way around it—as running a cat at high speed. Still, the majority of folks who want to go really fast, as in consistently above 120 MPH, are running cats.
While V-bottoms tend to feel a lot like high-performance automobiles, catamarans present a completely different and likely unfamiliar driving experience. Like cars, V-bottoms typically feel as if they are “leaning in” when they turn, as do most of today’s catamarans if turned correctly. But many of the older cats always feel as if they’re leaning outward through turns, regardless of speed.
Before stepped hulls took over the V-bottom market in the mid to late 1990s, the general rule was “slow down and trim down your drive” before you entered a turn. While the “slow down” part hasn’t changed with the advance of multi-running-surface (translation: stepped) hulls, the “trim down” part has. In some of the earlier aggressively stepped V-hulls, suddenly dropping trim and diving into a turn—even at reduced speed—reportedly led to rollovers.
So regardless of your level of high-performance powerboat driving experience, it’s crucial that you ask the manufacturer of the V-bottom in question about how to set up your drive trim before entering a turn. Or work with an instructor such as Martin to learn the proper procedure for turning your stepped hull V-bottom sportboat. There’s simply no universal formula that works across all go-fast monohulls for turning.
However, there are plenty of myths out there among first-time catamaran owners and veterans. Chief among them are the notions that cats are more difficult to turn than V-bottoms—and don’t turn as well—and that they are prone to blow-overs, meaning susceptible to taking flight when all the wrong factors are present. Neither could be further from the truth.
“Catamarans can actually turn on smaller radii than V-bottoms, but rely solely on the tunnel wall to hold in a turn, whereas a V-bottom is balancing itself on an axis in a turn,” said Martin, who has provided training to Navy Seals and the engineering staffs at Mercury Marine and Mercury Racing.
As you’d expect, there also are several commonalities between turning a V-bottom and turning a catamaran.
“There are a couple of things you need to check off before you turn your boat, period, whether it’s a cat or a V-bottom,” said Martin. “And they are things you can see in your peripheral vision.”
Even veteran performance boat owners like Rick Bowling of Alamo, Calif., can still learn. Bowling, like Martin, is a retired offshore racer with world champion credentials. In addition to a 31-foot Formula cruiser, he owns 28-foot Skater catamaran and a 37-foot canopied Talon catamaran, both called Gone Again. Converted from a two-man bare-bones raceboat to a comfortable four-person pleasure boat, the 37-footer is powered by twin 1,350 HP turbocharged Mercury Racing Engines and is capable of running more than 160 MPH.
“I had no idea my boat could turn like this,” said Bowling after sharing the cockpit with Martin during a course on Lake Tahoe in California last year. “It really was incredible. I’m so glad I did it.”
“I find that even catamaran veterans don’t understand how to turn their boats until they get through the class,” said Martin. “The don’t understand the hydrodynamics of how it turns. But once they learn how to balance the boat, they can navigate their way through a turn very nicely.
“A lot of guys coming from V-bottoms understand that they don’t turn quite the same way as their V-bottoms, so in their quest for safety they turn at lower speeds, say 45 mph and below,” he continued. “But those speeds don’t create the proper balance, so the cat leans 'wrong.’ When they make a left turn, it leans out to the right. When they first learn to turn a little faster, they can get the boat to turn flat. But you really need the catamaran to break 50 mph to get the vertical edge of the tunnel to load with right amount of water-drag to pull down the inside sponson and in lean in through a turn.”
Martin breaks proper catamaran-turning technique into five elements, two throttle-based and three steering-based. While his turning technique is proprietary to his course—meaning he won’t hand it out in detail to the media—he said that anyone from a novice catamaran driver to one with decades of experience can learn it.
“In the classroom, we go back to the fundamentals,” said Martin. “We begin the course giving our students an understanding of how a catamaran—an air entrapment/compression hull—actually works. But to understand that, you have to first understand how a V-bottom works, and we include that, too. A V-bottom is still the ‘parent hull’ of a catamaran, which is like a V-bottom split in half to create air entrapment in the tunnel between the two hulls. Most people don’t understand how a boat gets on plane—they don’t understand how it goes from in the water to on top of the water. We go through all of that, from how the lifting strakes work, to how the steps function, and what we mean by ‘angles of attack.’”
One of the benefits for drivers who go from a V-bottom to a catamaran, Martin said, is that, with rare exceptions, cats don’t have trim tabs. That translates to one less variable for operators to control. Drive trim, however, is another matter, and he works diligently to help new novice and veteran operators understand and apply it correctly.
“A lot of guys coming from V-bottoms to cats want to trim and trim and trim and get the nose up, and that’s not really what catamarans like,” Martin explained. “They really like to be laid down and run flat, like they’re on train tracks.”
As for catamarans “blowing over,” Martin said it’s not only rare, but close to impossible for most drivers to do.
“That’s the biggest concern of most new cat owners,” said Martin. “They’ve seen videos of those types of accidents. But the air entrapment in most catamaran tunnels is not enough to overcome the boat’s actual weight. It’s very hard for the average consumer to blow over a cat; they’d have to drive up another boat’s wake. And that’s something else we teach—situational awareness—where and when to turn, not just for your cat but for the other boats in your area.”