Rocket Man

By David Speer
Featured in Powerboat Magazine
July 1996

In my mind, Howard Arneson is powerboating's rocket man. It's been that way since I took my first ride with him nine years ago. The missile of my virginal affection was his turbine 32' Skater. Powered by a single General Electric T58 delivering 1,325 hp geared to an Arneson model 8 surfacing drive through a 3.57:1 reduction box, it clocked 120 mph, day in, day out.

When I recently visited Arneson Marine in San Rafael, Calif., we enjoyed a ride in his current rocketboat, his fourth design. This 40' Skater has two T58s and more than twice the power of its predecessor. Arneson's first turbinepowered boat was a 23' Arena Craft powered by a Boeing 502 gas turbine engine rated at about 400 hp. The next 29' Sanger cat broke 100 mph with a Pratt & Whitney PT6.

We climb aboard. I strap into the companion seat and buckle up my helmet and vest, knowing the bay is about to reverberate like the landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base. Once you ride a turbine past the century mark as easily as my niece eats a Twinkie, there's no easy way to turn back to pistons. "Running a turbine adds just another zero or two on the price tag," Arneson likes to chuckle.

"Stand by to fire rockets."

"Standing by, sir." One glance at the instrument cluster tells me Star Trek's Mr. Spock could solve the blastoff sequence, but he's nowhere in sight.

"Fire rockets."

Whooo-oo-o-o-shhh. Beneath the enclosed canopy, the comeliest whistle on earth fades astern into the roostertail, and you can't sense the true speed. Those air pockets on San Francisco Bay don't slap your face. You can see the speedometer, though, and hear the relentless whack generated by the front side of the surface-piercing props against the water. Where a pair of internal combustion engines cruise at 70 mph, this thing plays at 100.

We duck under the San Rafael Bridge and throttle toward the calm water near San Quentin. We're going to find that sweetheart spot. We're accelerating hard and fast now, the surge of power throwing my head firmly back. The airspeed indicator bounces off 180. Ground speed, actual speed relative to the ground, is lower but not by much. We're at sea level and quartering the wind. The Nl and N2 gauges (speed of the output shaft, speed of the compressor) are straight up, indicating 80-percent power.

"Smoking rockets, Commander." Eighty percent is nothing.

"It's a total vacuum cleaner of the mind," says Howard over the intercom. "My greatest moments are out here in the bay. Nobody is around and I'm doing my thing."

Arneson doesn't sit still, continually inventing something. Lately he's come up with a device called the Twin Fin that improves directional control of his surfacing drive,

marketed by Twin Disc. His Deadrise Steering system is ingenious, and I'll explore it in an upcoming feature. He still tinkers with his trademark trimmable bottom, which uses cam-controlled rocker plates. And there's a revolutionary gadget on the transom that we can't discuss-yet.

Arneson's biggest project is a new 46' Skater, the 14th turbine-boat he has built for himself or a customer. He's got his eye on the 425-mile run from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which he'd tackle with POWERBOAT'S blessing. Our founder Bob Nordskog holds the record at 5 hours, 57 minutes and 22 seconds. We'll keep you posted.

This latest thrill machine will be propelled by a single Isotov TV3-117V turboshaft turbine built in the former Soviet Union. Known as a workhorse in the helicopter business, it develops a whopping 2,250 hp. Importantly, its configuration allows direct mounting to the custom gearbox, doing away with a V-drive and shafting.

"Although my current boat has twins, I was so intrigued by how well the 32-footer ran with one engine I knew that's what I wanted to do with the 46-footer," says Arneson. "It makes sense. The engine has plenty of horsepower. And I love the simplicity: one engine, one battery, one starter, one prop to worry about. Besides, has anyone noticed the fastest boats in the world only have one engine in them?"

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