Claiming the Mississippi
Elizabeth Gentry Sayad
Featured in
Volume 44 no. 11
November 1990

ST. LOUIS, MO.-"Some day I'm going to own this river," businessman/inventor Howard Arneson said with friendly determination in 1988. Two years later the veteran racer, who set a new American Power Boat Association (AP13A) record in the Mississippi River Challenge from New Orleans to St. Louis on September 22, smiled and acknowledged, "Now I do feel I own a little piece of it."

Arneson's stunning time for the 1,039mile marathon race was only 12:40:50, peeling seven hours and 36 minutes off Bob Cox's record which was set in August, 1987. The Louisiana Gulf Coast Power Boat Association, whose race chairman, Ted MacIntyre, was a challenger, sponsored the 1990 return to the non-stop endurance format that began 120 years ago when the stern-wheeler Robert E. Lee beat the Natchez. Arneson won the race's $10,000 purse.

Arneson had competed in 1988 in the Mississippi River Race, a two-day daylight run with an overnight stop in Memphis. Following the same rigorous course, he had suffered a gearbox failure in the 32-foot cat with Arneson drive just south of Memphis. "I must have sounded awfully brash and cocky when I said I'd own this river some day. That quote's been haunting me."

A Californian from San Rafael, Arneson has clearly established the one-day race format for the future. Averaging 82 miles per hour in river conditions that were as optimum as they could have been without closing down the giant artery to barge traffic entirely, he set a pace that will eliminate bass boat contenders in the future just as the earliest motorized boats wiped away steam-powered vessels.

"Marine Turbine Technologies has the ability to break Howard's record," MacIntyre insisted nevertheless. Also a Mississippi River Race veteran who ran into difficulty in 1987, this year MacIntyre maintained a fast pace at 85 miles per hour as he passed Greenville, Miss., where he encountered a tow boat wake which punched a soccer ball sized hole some five feet aft of the bow. Through skill and sheer determination, MacIntyre and his crew continued on for another four hours trimming the boat so that it did not flood. An hour and one-half south of Memphis, his crew discovered that the fluid had drained out of their power steering system, which forced them to reduce their speed to 60 miles per hour and to steer by use of their throttles. Just south of New Madrid, Mo., MacIntyre hit yet another wake of a tow which swamped the boat. The sun had set and they walked in darkness to phone St. Louis to discover Arneson had just crossed the finish line at 7:35 p.m.

About that same time, St. Louis racer Tom VanOver, another Mississippi River Race veteran who had sped past Arneson in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1988, broke a prop axle __ in his customized bass boat just south of Cairo, III. "The Coast Guard, whom we contacted by emergency radio, was extremely cooperative and alert to our position. They contacted a tug boat which pulled us out of .the water. Getting back to St. Louis at 5:00 a.m. the following morning, we cussed a lot and swore we'd never do it again. Only two days later, however, we met to discuss just what kind of a boat we would need to win next year."

The fourth challenger, Leon Ortemond of Erath, La., had the toughest luck. He cracked an engine just after his departure from New Orleans around 7:00 a.m.

Arneson, who was the senior challenger at age 69, described the physical demands made when roaring upstream at speeds up to 115 miles per hour. "The wind factor is like hanging your head out of a car on a super highway for 12 hours. My ears were folded over the entire trip."

Crediting seasoned river pilot Thomas George of Jackson, Miss., Arneson says, "I couldn't have done it without this navigator." George's triumph is that he has navigated three winning Mississippi River runsMichael Reagan's Grace Cup Record in 1982, Don Johnson's Mississippi River Race record in 1987, and now Arneson's race. Long-time record holder Bill Tedford had advised Reagan that the most important component of his attempt would be an experienced Mississippi River pilot. Jacques Cousteau followed the same strategy when he brought his Calypso up the Mississippi several years ago. George's succession of wins seems to corroborate such wisdom.

"The race may still be shortened many miles at the right river stage," George stated. This will probably depend upon the pilot's knowledge of short-cuts and viable risks. But how much further can the record be reduced since it's already gone from the 1870's record of 90:14 to the 1990's record of 12:40?

George also passed on an appropriate adage:
"If you can't run with the big dogs, then go get on the porch."