The Need for Speed
Annual Boat Races
Depending on the time of year, the churning sound of helicopters above the streets of Key West can mean one of two things. During the summer months, that sound means our amazing Mosquito Control organization is protecting one and all from those tenacious, voracious, winged buggers. But once the dog days of Summer are complete, the hum of helicopters signals Race Week on the island.
The World Offshore Power Boat Championships, is a highly-anticipated sporting pilgrimage to Key West that culminates at the close of the first week of November with race-teams, their crews and their monstrous, motor-heavy boats filing through the Keys and onto the island, the largest boats precariously tilted and lashed to trucked-trailers en route to the Truman Waterfront Park, home of the Race Village. After staking-out their parking spots, team caravans blossom into pop-up parties, lining the entrance to the Navy Mole and race head-quarters. Electric cars, scooters and bicycles zip around the park, piloted by sharply uniformed crew with thumping music, libations, and friendly, yet fierce competition.
Like most high-energy competitions there can be dangerous mishaps, as the physics of wind, water and speed prevail. Vessels can flip vertically in the blink of an eye. For safety’s sake, as Superboats became more powerful–and much faster– the fixed wing lookout rescue planes were replaced by helicopters nicknamed Angel Air. These lookout aircraft circle the course watching for trouble, and often find it. When a mishap occurs, the Angels are on the scene in less than a minute and a few bad-ass dudes in full dive gear can be seen leaping, fins first, into the sea, anywhere from fifteen to fifty feet from the hovering chopper to help free the crew.
Another mandatory facet of the Key West race is the critical monitoring of sea life along the course. For the past twenty-four years, Marathon Turtle Hospital founder Richie Moretti and his team–along with a fortunate photographer–ride in the sea-life chopper, scanning the course for sea turtles, manatees and dolphin. Other than the race’s Executive Director, no one else wields the power to stop a race like Moretti; further proof of just how much Key West values both sport and the marine environment.
After covering the boat races for the past 24 years by land, sea, and air, I can attest the best, if not the most dangerous way to shoot the races is from 30 or so feet above the screaming machines, hanging Platoon style out the open-side of a helicopter. On the straightaways, chopper pilots, with their noses pointed slightly south, propellers and rotors whizzing, track the boats, allowing photo and video crews to push the envelope in hopes of grabbing fantastic images. In terms of adrenaline and general bragging rights, a seat in a race chopper is second only to driving the boat.
Someone well acquainted with the thrill of the throttle is former Key West Mayor and current Monroe County Commissioner Craig Cates. The Key West native and his brothers, Scott and Kevin, have competed with their custom Conch Attack powerboat in race locations from the freshwater Ozarks to their salty home where the Gulf meets the Atlantic. The Cates team has Scott driving, Craig working the throttle, and Kevin running the pit crew. Those unfamiliar with the sport may be surprised to know it takes two pilots to run these powerful machines. With danger at every turn, the driver’s primary concern is staying on course, looking for the quickest route and avoiding other boats, while the throttle man reads the water and must know when to accelerate or back off, intuition learned through experience alone.
What makes Key West such an exciting race destination? Cates was quick to answer, explaining that no other course features the relative flat calm of the harbor and the unpredictable conditions of the open ocean, which can include heavy wind and waves and shifting ocean currents. “Different styled boats may gain a lead in high waves, while others do better in the harbor, it’s unlike any other course, and that’s why everyone loves to race in Key West.”
The Boat Races are produced by Race World Offshore in coordination with the City of Key West and the United States Coast Guard and Navy. Race Week Vacation Packages, VIP Programs, and Sponsorship opportunities are available by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
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