Daredevil boaters squeeze into cramped cockpits, strap on helmets and rev up to 100-plus mph. They man throttles, maneuver tight corners, and pray the pressure-intense waves don’t capsize their catamarans or V-bottom vessels.
It takes bold adrenaline chasers to brave race day at the 28th Annual Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix Festival, which kicked off June 23 and ends Sunday. In the Gulf waters off Lido Beach, between New Pass and Big Pass, boaters have sustained whiplash, been knocked unconscious and suffered from dehydration. This year, on the 6.5-mile racecourse, more than 30 boaters will compete, as 50,000 spectators watch and rescue crews hover.
“It’s a highly risky business,” says Donald DiPetrillo, a Fort Lauderdale-based fire chief who is the festival’s assistant safety and rescue coordinator. “I don’t know the last time you went 125 or 200 mph in a car and had to handle it on a rough road. But imagine going down a road with hills and burms in a Jeep at 200 mph and getting pounded each time.”
While the fatalities worldwide in boat racing are rare, accidents inevitably occur and DiPetrillo’s team is equipped to handle any catastrophe.
“There are injuries and incidents, of course, but for the most part, these racers are pretty good,” DiPetrillo says.
So are their saviors. The medical collective, directed by trauma specialist Dr. Louis Pizano from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, includes DiPetrillo and his co-administrator, Brian Haff.
“Our job is to provide medical and safety services to the boat racers, like pre-race physicals in the morning, teaching them survival techniques and how to escape from their boats, and providing protection on practice and race days,” says DiPetrillo, who works 10 to 12 races a year as a contractor with Super Boat International.
Boaters are required to wear open-faced or closed helmets, and personal flotation devices with five- or six-point harnesses and backup air supplies.
“When boaters have an accident, they have to get out of their safety gear, invert themselves, make sure their partner isn’t injured, and stay on their air supply until we’re able to respond,” DiPetrillo says. “Depending on the size of the race course, it can be between less than a minute to a couple of minutes before we get to someone. We position boats on every corner because most incidents occur when a boat is turning.”
Sarasota’s course has five turns, so DiPetrillo’s divers – all of whom are paramedics or firefighters – cover those points (there are two people on open-deck, 25-foot boats at every single turn). There are also boats in the middle of the course, as well as a 45-foot transport boat with a doctor or trauma nurse aboard, and two overhead helicopters. These four-passenger turbine helicopters (dubbed Angel 1 and Angel 2) fly at speeds up to 125 mph and follow the boats. DiPetrillo is in one aircraft and Haff is in the other; they stay in touch with radio control using marine VHF systems and private channel phones. A total of 17 staff members are on hand during race day.
Before the competition, there are five-hour safety primers called “dunker training sessions” in a nine-foot chlorine pool. Boaters memorize the acronym B.R.A.C.E. (B for brace yourself, R for reach for your air, A for get on your air, C for find the handle of the canopy to escape, and E for locate your exit point).
“When there is an accident, we drop orange smoke flares in the water and tell race control. Then we deploy a combination of divers from helicopters and boats,” DiPetrillo says. “The transport boat with the doctor heads toward the accident scene. We put the victim in the transport boat and get him or her to the local rescue service, which is the Sarasota County Fire Department.”
Though safety measures continue to get more efficient in racing each year, the same cannot necessarily be said of the sport itself, DiPetrillo says.
“When this event first started, boats were doing 70 mph, and now we have boats that are doing 200 mph – 55-foot long boats with four turbine-powered engines, made out of Kevlar and Styrofoam instead of just wood or metal, so they come apart and the crash is more violent,” DiPetrillo says. “The sport is inherently more dangerous than it was 15 years ago, and while the technology is better and the racecourse is better, the speeds are much higher and the risks boaters are taking is higher.”
Boats might come to a corner, lose control and spin around in circles, hurling the occupants. Vessels roll over, collide with one another or “stuff” (when a wave hits the boat’s nose too hard, which is akin to running into a wall with a car). Catamarans go airborne. Engines catch fire. But because of DiPetrillo and the various local rescue agencies that assist his co-workers, historically there have been positive results.
“It’s a dangerous sport and we’re there to minimize the risks. It hurts us as much as anybody else when something bad happens because the racing community is like a big family,” DiPetrillo says. “Things do happen, unfortunately, and we’ve had some extremely good outcomes in extremely bad incidents.”
Even still, do not nudge DiPetrillo to race.
“Honestly, I don’t even like to get on a motorcycle in Florida,” DiPetrillo says. “I don’t think I could do this.”