PORT ANGELES — Sometimes you need a helping hand when you’re piloting a sprint boat capable of churning through waist-deep water at speeds in excess of 90 mph.
And sometimes that hand is waving furiously for attention in your peripheral vision, trying to avoid a dreaded “DNF,” or Did Not Finish — the penalty for a wrong turn.
Sprint boat racing has a buddy system, a driver and a navigator who are each tasked with memorizing a course’s layout mere hours before it’s time to put pedal to metal.
This isn’t your left turn only NASCAR super speedway or even an Indy Car or Formula 1 city circuit where you get the benefits of days worth of practice on a known course before qualifying.
Rotations, as course layouts are known, are only given out the evening prior to sprint boat races.
For Saturday’s run at Extreme Sports Park, the rotation was provided at the race’s Show and Shine event Friday evening, allowing for about 18 hours before the green flag waved and the first boat hit the course.
Whether its a veteran race team such as Port Angeles’ Wicked Racing No. 10 team of Dan Morrison and Cara McGuire or a team with (before Saturday) 18 minutes of total on-course sprint boat racing experience, the task is the same: get the rotation down and get it right on race day.
McGuire had yet to begin the process when interviewed at Friday’s Show and Shine event.
“To be really honest I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’m hoping to look at it soon,” McGuire said.
“Everybody does it a bit differently. For me, I look at the numbers and try to make shapes out of the islands. I don’t memorize the numbers specifically, but more the flow of it. I go over it multiple, multiple, multiple times until I can do it super, super quick, so I know I have that part down.”
McGuire said a walkthrough at the track follows.
“Then I walk the track and I try to do it while looking at the track from a bunch of different angles and vantage points because it doesn’t always look the same on a piece of paper,” she said.
“Multiple angles and elevations, then I walk out at kind of the same level [as the course].”
McGuire, who taught elementary school in Port Angeles for eight years and now is an assistant principal in Sedro-Woolley, said she doesn’t take any pages out of her old lesson plans — it’s not like memorizing the times tables.
“I think it’s more like when you’re in college, right? You learn your own learning style, how to memorize things, how to be efficient with your time when you are super busy. The same kind of applies here. Before I go to bed I try to do a couple of clean runs on the piece of paper, so that I’m sleeping with that rotation and thinking about it when I sleep.”
The first qualifying run of race day is about getting a time in and a feel for the twists and turns required.
“Dan and I always try on our first lap to get a solid, good lap in, not necessarily really fast, not anything special, but to try to get the flow in our head and be able to go faster and faster as the day progresses.”
Brian Swindahl, driver of the Puyallup-based Bandit Racing No. 47 400 Class boat, has been racing for five years. He quickly realized retaining a rotation in your mind is a different situation entirely when seated behind the steering wheel.
“This goes back to the very first year we were doing this,” he said. “You don’t realize as a spectator that when you get in the boat you can’t see over the islands. When you are up on the hill watching the boats go through its one thing, when you put your butt in the seat and take off you can’t see over the islands. Sometimes you’re racing through and those little channels come up fast.
“The very first time I got into one of these things, that was the first thing I noticed when I left the trailer.”
Swindahl had Troy Olsen navigate for him Saturday, but normally his 22-year old daughter Aubrey rides shotgun.
“There’s no way we are going to memorize all those numbers (the rotation is marked with numbers) on race day,” Swindahl said.
“So what we do is we go out initially, look at the sheet of paper with the numbers on it and start to break it down by looking around at points she recognizes, landmarks around the track. It’s like ‘We go by the beer garden, then around the island, back by the beer garden then up to the top.’
“Toward the end of the day as a driver I have the rotation in my head. But she’s saved me a couple of times. She’s definitely done that. One race over in Eastern Washington I missed a turn and made her mad. Next time we were coming up on that turn and she was almost flagging me down letting me know it was up next.”
Taydra Reichert of Tulameen, British Columbia, said she was in her third year navigating for the Fat Buddy Racing 13-M boat.
“The more you go the less nervous you get before each race,” Reichert said. “The first year I did it I was a mess. Now you get in and you are excited about it.
Reichert said her job pointing out left turns, right turns and straightaway sections is mostly about reassuring the driver.
“It’s a big trust thing between both of us,” she said. “He knows the track too, I’m there as a backup. I’m always pointing out where to go, but I’m there as a backup just in case he needs to rely on me. They have a million things going through their minds already.”
Driver Ken Worst and navigator Mike Rearden are relative rookies in the Jolly Rogers 625.
“We have 18 minutes in the boat spread out over four races last year and one this year,” Rearden said.
“Sometimes when you first get the rotation card it looks like it’s going to be really tough. I cut it into pieces and I name things. I name islands. I’m thinking in my head we are heading for the beer garden. You have to have names. Ken, I don’t know what he does. “
“I do my best,” Worst said with a laugh.
“Trying to keep it in the water is the hardest part.”
Worst said Rearden functions as a backup.
“I better know the track,” He’s saved me a couple of times. You don’t have time to follow his hands, it’s just going too fast. But you can glance down and see it in your peripheral [vision] and when he gets excited I know I’m going the wrong way, or going to be going the wrong way.”
While some navigators, such as McGuire use two fingers to signal their driver, Rearden said he uses his whole hand.
“I thought about using just fingers, but he’s not going to be able to see that,” Rearden said.
“I’ve only seen his hand a couple of times,” Worth said.
And Rearden said he can anticipate mistakes before they happen.
“You can feel it too, when we make a left he’s probably going to be hanging the boat a little bit to the right, so if I see him setting up to turn the wrong way, most of the time I’m mellow, but that’s when I get excited [starts waving hands].”