Just Shelley

The race

In my late teens I was going out with a guy who was heavily into hydroplane racing — stock outboard racing to be exact. Brian raced A stock, one of the smaller types with a maximum speed of 50-55 MPH.

I became a fairly decent and respected crew member, with Brian as well as other racers, to the point where they would allow me to take their boats for a ride after the races. There’s few experiences you can have in life to equal being on your knees at water level in a boat made of 1/4 inch plywood, racing over the water at 50+ milers per hour.

To set the stage for the rest of this story, I need to tell you that at that time there was a real sex bias in boat racing circles. Men raced, women supported. I was unusual in that I would help carry the boats and worked on the mechanics, including being able to set up a boat quickly and efficiently.

Once a year, at the biggest of the local (Seattle) races, the guys would let the ladies have a turn in a ladies-only racing competition — the annaul Powder Puff Race.

Now that you all have had your laugh for the day, I’ll continue with my story.

Brian’s hydroplane was a sharp turning little beastie, but didn’t have the power that some of the other boats had. For the race, he trained me to stay tight in the turns and to hit the mark (the clock) at the start line.

The day of the raced dawned. This type of hydroplane race is run in two parts, and the best overall score is declared the winner. A field of 11 boats took to the water for the first round, slowly circling, moving into start position. I circled the “field”, keeping my eye on the clock and determined to end up at the start line just as the clock hit zero, and also determined to own the inside lane.

The one minute gun sounds. I’m moving closer….closer…closer…mark!

I owned the inside and was fairly sure I hadn’t “jumped the gun” (crossed the start before the clock was finished). However, right beside me was the hottest boat of the show, driven by the woman who had won two years running. The Nemesis.

We stayed side by side all throughout the race, me able to keep up because I kept tight to the turns, her always ahead because she had the more powerful boat.

Round the field we went until I saw the green flag for the last lap (you actually don’t remember what lap you’re one when you’re racing). I poured on the power, I cut the corners, I leaned forward and down into the wind. Regardless of my last efforts, the Nemesis crossed the line ahead of me.


I headed into shore to get re-fueled and was surprised to be met by a large group of people jumping up and down screaming at the top of their lungs. I had won!

It seems that I did hit the mark exactly — Nemesis had jumped the gun and was disqualified that round. Big huge smile. Too bad. So sorry. Big huge smile.

Next round. Again I circled the field, lining up … wind is picking up … circling closer … more chop in the water … closer…

Time does slow down. As I headed into my final approach, one of the other racers, Janet, lost control of her boat trying to fight the increasingly rough water. She wasn’t aware that I was on her inside, and yanked her boat to the left, right at me.

There are no brakes in a hydro. There’s no horn, either. And you can’t yank a boat around or you’ll flip it. Taking your hand off the gas will drown your boat with backwash. All I could do was gun the motor and hope to speed past her. But it was too late.

Janet hit me in the right side just as my boat dipped to the right, forcing the front of her hydro over the top of my sponson, crashing through the side of my cockpit and directly into me. Luckily, the hit on the cockpit slowed the boat, and she only hit me at about 40 MPH, we estimated later.

The force of the blow knocked me over into the other side of the cockpit and pushed Janet’s boat over, dumping her in the water.

I passed out, and when I came to I was lying across the front of the boat, which was, remarkably, still afloat — my falling forward kept it from being swamped by the backwash.

I turned towards the beach and saw Janet in the water, signaling that she was okay. Good. Good. I couldn’t move and just lay there looking at Janet and the people on the beach, not quite sure where I was or why I was laying across the front of the boat.

During this time, the emergency crew who originally thought I was leaning forward to check on boat damage finally realized that I wasn’t moving or signaling that I was okay and sped towards me. As soon as they realized that I must have received a direct hit from the other boat, they sank my boat in order to use water rescue techniques to minimize further damage to me.

After carefully loading me into a stretcher, they sped me to shore where a double line of racers was waiting to keep the crowds back and a clear path to the ambulance.

I don’t remember a whole lot of much of anything until I got to the hospital. I didn’t even hurt that much, though this was to change — drastically — over the next four months of treatment.

Janet’s boat caught me in my right thigh, literally liquifying the muscle, and shredding it into two pieces. Because of my kneeling stance, my bones were cushioned from much of the shock and weren’t broken. I did have cracked ribs from the hit to the cockpit side when I was thrown. Still, all in all, pretty damn lucky.

The result of the second round? Six of the original eleven boats were totalled, and the round was cancelled. Since I won the first round, I won the race. It was the last Power Puff competition held, as by this time, more women were getting into racing.

Today I have a huge dent — literally a dent — in my right thigh as a remembrance of my first, and last, hydroplance race.

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