SARASOTA — Screaming across the water at 105 mph, my knuckles turned white as I battled to hold the steering wheel straight while searching the horizon for a fishing boat.
"There he is," Joey Gratton said as he pointed to a flats skiff a half mile off the starboard bow. "Let's try to give him some distance."
Gratton, a veteran throttleman, has taught his share of rookie offshore powerboat racers how to pilot high-speed catamarans. I have driven race boats before, but a lot has changed in the five or so years since I last sat inside a cockpit.
"The windshield is a lot smaller," Gratton said as he eased back on the sticks, slowing the boat so I could make the powerboat turn. "Everything we do now is geared for safety."
Offshore powerboat racing in 2010 is nothing like the glory days when Don Johnson, Kurt Russell and Chuck Norris went deck to deck in the rough waters off Key West.
But while the fleet may be smaller, the competition for a diehards such as Gratton is every bit as intense.
"Come out this weekend and see for yourself," said the 58-year-old Sarasota resident who hopes to win the stock class at Sunday's Super Boat National Championship off Clearwater Beach. "On any day any boat can win."
In the 1950s and '60s, offshore powerboaters took off from the beach, ran all-out far from land, returned a few hours later and called it a race.
The sport raised its profile in the '70s and '80s, thanks to the participation of high-profile movie stars, but interest eventually waned and powerboat racing devolved into a club sport where the team with the deepest pockets, not the best driver, took home the checkered flag.
In 2000, St. Petersburg attorney Michael Allweiss tried to restructure offshore powerboat racing by tightening the rules and shortening the course. The former powerboat racer met with initial success, staging several 100-boat races off the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg.
But after a few seasons, Allweiss alienated some of the team owners, self-made millionaires who didn't like being told what to do. So they formed their own league, started bickering and the sport bottomed out again.
Through it all, however, one thing has remained constant: the weekend warriors in their small, outboard-powered catamarans.
"It is the most competitive class that I have ever raced," said Gratton, who has also run the bigger "super cats" in competition. "This is what racing is all about."
Gratton and driver Kyler Talbot, 42, from Bremerton, Wash., run a 32-foot Doug Wright model built on Florida's east coast.
"This boat flies," said Talbot, who is just finishing his rookie season. "It is just a lot of fun to drive."
Offshore powerboat racing has never been the most fan-friendly sport.
Unlike NASCAR, where there is little visual difference among the body styles, powerboat races have traditionally featured boats of different lengths, manufacturers and power, all running at different speeds on courses that often are confusing.
It has been a form of organized chaos, with various styles of boats racing all over the place. Even the most educated powerboat fans can have a hard time following the action.
When it comes to the race, the driver, who sits on the right, must keep the boat on track. Some courses are easy, such as the one here in Clearwater, with long straightaways. Others are more difficult, with lefts, rights, rough and smooth water.
Unlike auto racing, where a driver controls both speed and steering, offshore racing is a team effort. Boats don't have brakes. That is where the throttleman comes in. He sits on the left side, manipulating the speed and position, or trim, of the boat in the water. Speed up on the straightaways. Back off in the turns. It is a delicate balance, but a good throttleman is often the difference between winning and losing.
The stock class is one of the most affordable. A used race boat costs between $100,000 and $150,000, compared to $500,000 or more for the larger catamarans. The boats in the stock class are less expensive (though admittedly not as fast or glamorous as the turbine-powered cats) and therefore, are often among the larger fleets at an offshore race.
Gratton and Talbot don't know how many of their fellow stock class racers will show up Sunday, but all it takes is one other boat to make it a race. "Whoever shows, we'll be ready," Gratton said.