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March 25, 2008

The Need for Speed

Hair-on-fire velocity can actually make sense.

With the spiraling price of gas, many anglers are opting to slow down to save on fuel, rather than speed up. Yet even with pumps pushing the $4 mark at marinas, there's still a demand for go-fast boats from Donzi, Fountain, Marlago, Midnight Express, Scarab and Yellowfin, especially among the tournament set. Is this a matter of time versus money, or do high-performance hulls really run better? Many anglers are convinced that performance trumps penny-pinching, and here's why.
 
Think about it: NASCAR has led the way in safety and performance developments in that car you drive. In the same way, the high-speed technology of the American Power Boat Association has spilled over into high-stakes fishing tournaments.

"Everything we've learned from racing has been directly applied to our fish boats," says Reggie Fountain, founder of Fountain Powerboats. And he should know, as a former Team Mercury star who has competed on the powerboat race circuit for more than 50 years with 105 gold trophies to his credit. "I've learned as much from losing and crashing as I have from winning," says Fountain.

Fountain's checkered-flag past gives him insight into the ways high speed can help anglers. "Better performance means big dividends for fishermen," he says. "It lets you get to the fish first and fish longer. It gives you greater range to find more fish because you're burning less fuel. It lets you run in rough water and get back to the scales on time. But in order to achieve that ultimate performance the boat must be designed right, built strong and set up properly. It all works together."

Say "Go"
Hydrodynamics and aerodynamics are the two main factors that affect a boat's performance. Naval architects have always taken a basic formula using a weight-to-horsepower ratio, factored in propeller slippage and come up with the projected speed for a particular design. It's still pretty much done that way, but the formula has gotten some new variables.

High-performance hulls incorporate lifting strakes, keel pads and steps or notches to force lift. As the water flows aft from the bow, it hits the steps and creates aerated or "fuzzy" water. This helps separate the fiberglass bottom from the water's surface. The frothy mixture is less dense, resulting in less drag.

The hull's center of gravity and placement of these steps are critical, however. If the center is too far forward, the boat tends to catch on the steps and steer on those hard points. That's why the location of fuel tanks, live wells and batteries is so important. The angle and height of the steps must also be factored into the design. Bigger notches add aeration, but they also reduce overall stability.

"Making a boat go fast in a straight line is not difficult," says Gene Weeks, director of high-performance boats for Donzi Marine. "Making the boat go fast and able to turn safely is obviously everyone's goal. In the next couple of years we're going to see fish boats routinely running in the 80-mile-per-hour range with the new larger horsepower engines, so safety is always paramount."

Necessities below the waterline can hamper hydrodynamics. Engine gear-case shapes and their placement determine how well a boat planes, turns and handles in reverse. To reduce drag, engines should be mounted as high as possible. Raise them too high and there's not enough blade bite to maintain control. And without enough water pressure, the risk of engine damage is very real.

Fishing features can throw more monkey wrenches into the works: Live-well pickups and transducers create drag and disturb water flow to the engines in ways that the hull designers don't want to think about.

Air Traffic
And it's not all wet. Above the waterline, the console, T-tops, rod holders, antennae, windshields and enclosures cause drag in the air. All are helpful to anglers, but go-fast designs minimize their impact on hydro- and aerodynamics to maximize performance.

As speed increases, T-top shape becomes even more critical, Weeks says. The leading edge of the top should have a slight down angle to deflect wind. Otherwise, it acts as an air dam. The faster you go, the more the effect of aerodynamics is exaggerated.

Running at eye-watering speed is certainly not for the faint of heart. It takes experience, skill and a heap of common sense to handle this much power. That said, the trend towards well-designed high-performance boats shows no sign of slowing down, despite rising fuel costs.

"These days when we want to go fishing, we want to get to the grounds, fish and get back to our busy lives," Weeks explains. "Time is more valuable than the price of a gallon of gas."