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Boat flips; driver in hospital

A powerboat driver spent some five minutes trapped in his cockpit under water after his boat flipped during a race Sunday on Seddon Channel in front of the new Tampa Convention Center. Tom Thomson, 53, of Savannah, Ga., was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where a spokeswoman said he was in critical condition. However, race officials said Thomson was conscious, alert and talking to family members.

Thomson was running fifth among eight SST140 powerboats with three minutes remaining in the National Marathon Championship when his boat caught too much air and flipped backward.

The race was stopped immediately, and a rescue boat sped to the capsized 18-foot vessel. But divers had problems getting Thomson to the surface.

"His helmet floated up, and we didn't think he was in the boat," said Walter Wade, one of the divers. "There's zero visibility down there. The mud is soft and gets stirred up. It was black. We couldn't find him."

Once the divers realized Thomson was still in the boat, which had taken on water, they still had trouble freeing him. "The strap didn't want to come loose," Wade said. "He was lodged under the steering wheel. He's a big guy and that made it harder too.

"He was unconscious a few minutes, but he spit up when they brought him out, so that means he's breathing. He spit water all the way to the hospital."

The accident occurred in front of Tampa General, and the rescue boat took Thomson to the emergency room.

The race was declared official and first place was awarded to Homer Greene of Hobe Sound.

The half-hour race already had been stopped after 20 minutes when three of the inflated buoys marking the turns of the course were ruptured and sank.

Thomson's mishap marred the final day of the Tampa Powerboat Challenge, the first time powerboats have come to Tampa.

Ron Gray of Palm Bay edged out Jack Withrow of St. Petersburg for the Formula 100 championship, and Terry Rinker of Tampa was the SST45 class overall winner.