Fire On The Mississippi

Steve Temple
Featured in

Powerboat Magazine
November/December 1990

If speeding is a crime on the Mississippi River, Howard Arnesonís run from New Orleans to St. Louis on September 22 would have put him in jail for life with the chance on no parole. No one in history has ever gone so fast for such a distance in any type of boat. His attack on the 1039 miles of winding river was merciless. In addition to lopping more than seven and a half hours off the previous record, the kindly, 69-year old inventor handed to the other competitors a defeat so humiliating, that by comparison Napoleonís Waterloo was a celebrity roast. This wasnít a race, it was a demolition. Not only did none of the other boats keep up, nobody else even finished.

Incredibly, Arneson took off at sunrise from New Orleans in his turbine-powered Skater 32, and by sunset he was blasting past St. Louis. Total time: 12 hours, 40 minutes, 50 seconds. What makes this figure all the more remarkable is that he kept to the river channel for the entire run, taking no shortcuts that can shave more than a hundred miles off the trip. The best nonstop time prior to this event was 20 hours, 14 minutes, set by Bob Cox in 1984 in a 20-foot Charger bass boat powered by a 300-hp Johnson V-8 outboard. Arneson's new record is so far out of reach, even the fastest raceboats may not even come close to it for . . . well, probably forever, unless he breaks it himself.

Although his average speed was more than 82 mph, that included down time for four fuel stops, and slowing for barge traffic. Most of the way, when conditions allowed, he rocketed up the twisting river at 100 to 110 mph, with occasional bursts to 118 mph. Granted, these speeds are not unusual for a Superboat, but imagine cramming the engine hours of virtually an entire offshore season into a single day.

Arneson's advantage was superior technology-turbine power. The banshee wail of his 32-foot Skater catamaran comes from a single 1325hp G.E. T 58 turbine yoked to, of course, one of Arneson's ASD-8 drives with a Rolla four-blade 163/4 X 27-inch prop. In the three years he's owned the boat before the Mississippi run, he put 430 high-speed hours on the engine, covering by his estimation more than 30,000 miles, and the 300-pound turbine still hums along happily at 19,500 rpm. (A 3.83:1 gear reduction brings the revs down to manageable levels, and for maneuverability he uses a pair of electric bass boat motors.) Before the race he added two tanks so that the boat carried literally a ton of Jet A fuel, some 336 gallons. The engine typically burns 110 gph, or about one gallon per mile at a top speed of 118 mph.

Don't let anyone try to tell you that Arneson's achievement was somehow easier because of Miss' is just a lot of flat water. Clogging the river are literally hundreds of tugboats shouldering into huge barges laden with harvest grain. These working vessels' several thousand horsepower engines produce prop wash and wakes six feet or more in height that rebound off the river banks. Race organizer and fellow competitor Ted McIntyre knows better than most about these muddy mountains, because he slammed into one and punched an 18-inch hole in the sponson of his 31-foot Warlock, which eventually forced him to withdraw from the race. But that's getting ahead of the story.

The tradition of the New Orleans to St. Louis race dates back at least as far as the late 1800s, when the Natchez and Robert E. Lee steam-powered paddlewheelers contested for more than 90 hours up the river. Since that time, more than 1100 attempts have been made on the record, but only 16 or so beat the clock. In 1987, with much media hoopla due to the stellar presence of Don Johnson, 11 boats ran in a two-day competition (with an overnight rest stop in Memphis) for the fastest elapsed time. Johnson set a record of 19 hours, 51 minutes in a Lamborghini-powered Wellcraft Scarab 43. In 1988,12 boats again ran in a two-stage format, including Howard Arneson, who broke a gearbox south of Memphis, and Roy Fulton lowered the elapsed time to 14 hours, 55 minutes in a 22-foot Starcraft with a 225-hp Yamaha outboard.

With no race held last year due to lack of interest, Ted McIntyre of Marine Turbine Technologies, a Louisiana firm that does marine applications of aircraft turbines, decided to restore the tradition of the nonstop race. "There is so much history to this event," he explained. "The Mississippi is the main artery of this country. You get out on the river, it's an adventure." 

 McIntyre established the nonprofit Gulf Coast Power Boat Association for perpetuating the race, and invested more than $75,000 of his company's money to make things happen. He contacted about 50 potential participants, but ultimately only four other contestants coughed up the $1500 entry fee for the $10,000 cash prize race.

In addition to Arneson's Skater and McIntyre's Warlock 31, Scalded Cat, outfitted with two Lycoming 650-hp turbines and MerCruiser Five Drives, the other entries included Leon Ortemond's custom-built, 44-foot aluminum Mar-Con cat, with two 700hp Merlin diesels and Arneson drives for propulsion, and two outboard-powered bass boats, one of which was unable to start the race due to mechanical difficulties. The other was a modified 20-foot Charger with a 300hp Johnson V 8, owned by business partners Tom Vanover and Bill Bruce. The only change made to the engine was the installation of a set of Boyesen power reeds, but the hull was refitted so that it carried about 250 gallons of fuel that could be quickly relocated fore and aft with a high-speed pump for optimum balance. "It's basically a big gas can with an engine on it," joked Vanover.

The drivers of both the diesel cat and the bass boat knew they couldn't compete with the turbine boats' speed, and instead hoped to win by outlasting them.

By prior agreement at the drivers' meeting the evening before the race, at dawn Howard Arneson, accompanied by mechanic Jay Niccum and professional riverboat pilot Thomas George, gathered the boats together for the start by igniting the turbines' afterburner. (Arneson rigged this flamethrower by positioning three nozzles in the exhaust stack that inject an extra dose of jet fuel.) The group of boats began accelerating toward the start line off the Coast Guard station on Esplanade Street. Suddenly Arneson put his foot in it, and the Skater went ballistic.

The other boats gamely tried to keep up, but by the second bend in the river, within three or four miles, Arneson had shot out of sight. "They were docked back there," he grinned. "I made up my mind to hammer it right from the beginning."

That simple statement hardly does justice to just how hard Arneson went at it. Explained Ortemond, "I had a friend drive a car as fast as he could from the start at New Orleans to Baton Rouge, about 65 miles away. It's 134 miles by water, and he arrived just in time to climb up on the levee and see Arneson's rooster tail go by.

As for the rest of the field, surprisingly Vanover's 85-mph bass boat pulled away on the other two boats. "We got in front and kept on cooking," he said. Right from the get-go, mechanical problems plagued Scalded Cat, which had been completed just six days before the race, with time for only four days of testing. Ten minutes into the race, the starboard engine started sucking air in the fuel line, so McIntyre stopped to switch to the floor tanks. Not much later, the electrical fuel pump headed south, and more time was lost hooking up the mechanical unit. Then about an hour after that, the engine governor backed down on the port engine and the fastest the boat would run was 75 to 80 mph. Exasperated by all the glitches, "We got on the engines and wired them full bore," said McIntyre. "We dialed in all the horsepower for wide open operation at 110 percent. We threw caution to the winds and ran at 100 mph." This was not the end of McIntyre's problems, though.

Meanwhile, Ortemond had dropped out. Only 50 miles into the race, the camshaft on one of the diesels gave way. "We found out later that there was a faulty batch of camshafts from Brazil," explained Ortemond, "and one of them happened to be in my . . . motor."

Upriver, as Arneson blew by Vicksburg, Mississippi, Paul Shore, who had helped set the two-day record with Roy Fulton, stood on shore timing him. He thought Arneson was about 40 minutes ahead of schedule, but later was shocked to find out that the starting time was 7:00 a.m., not 5:00 a.m., and his calculations were off by two hours!

Even so, Arneson thought he should have been making even better time, but the commercial traffic forced him to slow down. "You wouldn't believe how many tugboats there were on the river. I was airborne more from those tug wakes than I'd be in an ocean race," he said.

Vanover's bass boat dropped to third place while he was refueling at Greenville, Mississippi, where Scalded Cat howled by with a hole in its sponson. A few moments earlier, the Warlock had threaded its way between two tugs passing each other and stuffed it in the confused double wakes, which punched through the hull some five feet aft of the bow and 18 inches above the waterline. "Gary Villiard was in our command center below decks [for engine monitoring and radio communications]," related McIntyre, "and when we hit that wave, he got drenched. He popped out of the cabin like a fishing cork and yelled that we were taking on water."

McIntyre managed to continue by keeping the bow trimmed up, but the force of the water spray began to steadily work away at the cored hull laminate. When the cat stopped in Memphis for fuel, it was about 20 minutes ahead of Vanover, but McIntyre was dismayed to hear than Arneson had already come and gone more than an hour ago at about 3:00 p.m.

Arneson's blistering speed amazed everyone along the river. Tug boats whistled and hooted as he sped past, and some pilots even slowed to make his passage smoother. Spectators crowded the bridges over the river, and the radio buzzed with news of his impending record. "Nobody could believe where we were," he laughed, "We couldn't believe where we were."

How does it feel to push that hard in a boat? "It's tense running at over 100 mph," Arneson said. "Your eyeballs jiggle around in your head, and the wind buffeting-imagine trying to stand up in a 100-mph gale for 12 hours. After awhile, you start hearing things too, you think something's wrong with the boat when the water conditions change. And when I started to get tired, you wouldn't believe how many times I thought of Bob Nordskog to help me. I kept saying to myself, `If he can do it at his age, so can I. If he was here, he wouldn't take it easy."'

After his fourth and final fuel stop near Cairo, Illinois, Arneson knew he had the race in the bag, that he could back off and still break the record. Moreover, the river was much narrower from there on, and harder to navigate in the fading light. Did he decide to let up? No way. "I decided to go out in a blaze of glory," he said.

As he drew near to his goal, the enormity of his achievement began to sink in, along with the fatigue. "I had a hard time seeing, my eyes were watering from big tears. You get rummy, emotional, so I had to think of other things. I knew Bob [Nordskog] wouldn't have tears in his eyes."

Arneson and his crew could see the lights of St. Louis as they roared past the Coast Guard station on Iron Street. Finishing as he started, Arneson lit the afterburner again, much to the surprise of the Coasties, who thought his boat was on fire. "Yeah, we won the race, but we burned to death," he joked afterwards. "I feel like I'm 19 again," he added. "I've always felt that way, but more so now." He later admitted being afraid to go to sleep and wake up to find out it was all a dream. "I didn't want to leave that moment"

Arneson's invaluable navigator Thomas George, who has piloted on two other winning runs on the Mississippi with Mike Reagan and Don Johnson, was also elated. "I'm still floating," he said. "I've been on record runs before, but have never been in a boat that runs so smooth." Added Arneson's mechanic and grandnephew Jay Niccum, "I feel real fortunate to be a part of this thing. I was surprised to hear Howard say he couldn't have done it without me."

In the aftermath, Arneson discovered that he had beaten his boat's truck and trailer by two hours, even though the route by land is more than 340 miles shorter. And what happened to the other two boats?

Two hours out of Memphis, Scalded Cat's power steering started acting up. First the pump reservoir's top broke off, so the crew had to pour in more fluid and stuff a rag in it. Then a high pressure line let go due to vibration, and after unsuccessfully trying to jury-rig the system with turbine oil and spliced lines, they resorted to steering with the throttles, and had to drop their speed down to 70 mph. 

Their gritty perseverance couldn't overcome an encounter with yet another wave, though. By this time, the hull puncture had split open to an eight-foot-long tear, and with the steering control virtually nil, McIntyre couldn't avoid taking on more water from a tug wake south of New Madrid, Missouri. He eventually beached the boat on a ramp at New Madrid, and upon calling in by phone, heard that Arneson had crossed the finish line.

Vanover and Bruce's bass boat hit something about 30 miles south of Cairo which sheared off the prop shaft. They found out by radio that Arneson was already in, so they didn't try to bolt on their spare lower unit. "It was dark, and we were fatigued, black and blue, and beat up," said Vanover. "We just called the Coast Guard and a tug towed us home. Sunday, the next day, we said there was no way we'd ever do this again, but by Tuesday lunch we were talking about what kind of boat we'd need. I guess you forget the pain."

All the competitors were gracious about Arneson's accomplishment. "What he did to that record is going to change the whole complexion of the event," observed McIntyre. "It's a daytime race now. He devastated the record, made a mockery of it. I'm half his age, and I was a whipped puppy. I want to be Howard."

Ortemond, a longtime personal friend of Arneson, summed it up best: "He's set a standard by which all men will measure. What he did on the Mississippi run is a quantum leap. It's like comparing the Challenger space shuttle to an airplane. They could've taken the other boats on a trailer to St. Louis, and still couldn't have beat Howard."

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