Thunder on the Narrows

The Kent Island Yacht Club is the perfect vantage point for the 13th annual running of Thunder on the Narrows, a boat race featuring flat bottom skiffs and hydroplanes that reach speeds of up to 75 and 160 miles per hour, respectively. This year, the Kent Narrows Racing Association will partner with Special Olympics Maryland in sponsoring the event on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 2 and 3. The money that goes to Special Olympics will support the athletes' participation in the Summer Games, Winter Games and World Games. Members of the Special Olympics team and staff will be on site, volunteering in all areas of the event and manning a Special Olympics booth.

A day at the races makes a great outing for the entire family. In addition to the excitement on the water, kids of all ages will enjoy refreshments, games, pit tours and autograph signings by the race drivers at the end of the races. On Saturday from 4 to 9 p.m., a blue grass concert will take place on the yacht club grounds.

Thunder on the Narrows is part of an East Coast circuit that includes races in Cambridge and Harford County, Md., and Hampton, Va. The two closest regions to us are the Md./Del./Va./W.V. region and the N.Y./Pa./N.J. region. Most race enthusiasts, however, pay little attention to geographical boundaries. "Drivers and fans come from as far north as Canada, as far south as Florida and as far east as Chicago," says Jimmie Stewart of Annapolis, a long-time fan of the sport.

This is an exciting year for Stewart, who will be driving for the first time in the competition. In the past, he raced radio-controlled model boats and enjoyed watching his father who was a riding mechanic in the Jersey Speed Skiff class in the early 1970s. "I'm a total rookie," he says, "[but] I've been around boats all my life. I love boats and racing---I love competition."

Stewart bought his skiff last summer from the original builder and used it as a pleasure boat, going out as much as he could to become familiar with driving it. This year, he has participated in as many races as possible to gain experience and recognition as a driver. Rules of the American Power Boat Association dictate that new drivers in the Jersey Speed Skiff class must complete 10 heats on the outside---that is, giving other boats in the race the right of way so they can feel what it's like to be in the heat of competition. After that, they are free to "go run with the big boys."

Over the last six or seven years, measures have been adopted to make the sport safer for drivers. Stewart describes a metal enclosure called a roll cage. "We call it an anti-boat device," he says. The roll cage goes over the driver and the rider and is bolted to the boat. Each person is strapped into a five-point harness and the harness is bolted to the cage. If a boat goes out of control and goes airborne over another boat, the roll cage would protect the occupants of the second boat from being struck by a propeller or rudder. "When my dad rode, you would grab a handle between your legs and one on the side and hang on and hope you didn't get thrown out," Stewart says. "Safety has become a big thing over the last eight or 10 years. We have to go through special training every couple of years, similar to what fighter pilots go through in the Navy and the Air Force. We are flipped upside down and must remove the steering wheel and remove the harness and get out without getting into a state of panic, in order to be certified to drive."

The Jersey Speed Skiff is designed to go from running flat to up on its side when turning abruptly. "It keeps walking itself around the turn," Stewart says. "It takes skill to read the condition of the water and the boats around you. It's a very crowd pleasing class-the boats are always jumping out of the water. You can hear the RPM's come up."

Stewart is busy readying his boat, Go'n Skiff'n Crazy, for his first official run at Kent Narrows. Watch for number JS-721. "I know it looks like my initials," he says, "but the JS stands for Jersey Skiff. All the boats in my class must have JS on them." The number 721 was assigned to Stewart in his model boat racing days.

Joe Cheezum of Centreville explains that boat racing is an expensive hobby. "I own a couple of boats and have been a national high-points champion for the last two years, earning the most points in my class. In the course of a weekend, if we can pay gas money and hotel bills, we feel thankful," he says. Cheezum's wife, Alicia, raced as well. "My wife hasn't driven for about two years. She won the national championship and then quit. We used to race each other. She had the slower but steady boat that won high points. Mine was faster but wouldn't finish. I was either setting world records or breaking down. She would laugh at me."

The Cheezums have had a new boat built this year and its name is For Sale-and it is for sale. They raced it in Decatur, Ill., over Memorial Day weekend and set a world record with it. "A lot of people came up to look at it that weekend," Cheezum says. "If we still own it, it will be at the Narrows."

In power boat racing, the owners, drivers, mechanics, builders and fans seem to comprise one big happy family that moves together from site to site, doing what they love to do. "Seeing the same people show up every time is good for morale," says Cheezum. The Kent Narrows Racing Association and Special Olympics Maryland invite everyone to come over on Aug. 2 and 3. Start a family tradition of your own.

Martie Callaghan is a freelance writer and native Marylander who enjoys spending time with her five grandchildren.


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Powerboat Show
Sailboat Show
Renaissance Festival
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