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Restaurateur missing in 100-mph boat crash

Chris Parker, a founder of the Bonefish Grill restaurant chain, was missing in Tampa Bay late Sunday night after a high-powered speedboat he was driving flipped at more than 100 mph.

Two women who were on the boat with him were hospitalized, authorities said. The accident occurred shortly after 2 p.m. about a mile south of the Gandy Bridge as Parker's boat sped alongside another boat, whose occupants were unhurt. They pulled the women from the water.

Rescue divers called off the search for Parker, 37, about 6 p.m., said Gary Morse, a spokesman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Boaters, including Parker's friends and family, kept looking for him Sunday night. Divers will resume the search this morning, but Morse said authorities had little expectation of finding Parker alive.

At the time of the accident, authorities said, the temperature of the water was about 60 degrees and Parker was not wearing a life jacket.

Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said Parker had been headed north toward the Gandy Bridge at speeds in excess of 100 mph when the front of his 36-foot Spectre racing boat lifted out of the water.

It came back down on a wave and lifted again, and this time the underside of the aerodynamic boat was hit by enough air to flip it over backward, Wade said.

The three riders were tossed out. The boat, its sides battered by the water, eventually righted itself. It drifted a mile toward the bridge before authorities hauled it out.

The two people in the other boat were not involved in the crash, Wade said. They rushed to Parker's craft and pulled the two passengers out of the water. They did not find Parker. The passengers were taken to Tampa General Hospital.

"There's a combination of things that could have led to this accident," Morse said. "Excessive speed could be one of them."

At the Gandy boat ramp, on the Tampa side of the bridge, boat owners gathered to view the wreckage, which will be impounded for investigation.

"There's no way they should have been going that fast in an area with a lot of boats coming up on the Gandy Bridge," said boater Dave Bodner, 50, of Tampa, who helped search for Parker. "It's unsafe for them and the people around them."

There's no speed limit for boats in that part of the bay, Morse said.

Parker was driving a custom boat made in Clearwater by Jay Pilini, who owns Spectre Powerboats. The boats, which feature tunnel hulls, or catamaran-type hulls, have won awards for performance and design.

The 2002, 36-foot Spectres retail for about $320,000 and typically feature two, 500-horsepower engines.

Pilini declined to comment.

Jim George, a former Coast Guard captain and Air Force pilot who works at MarineMax boat sales in Clearwater, said that "the faster the boat goes, the less of the boat is touching the water."

If a boat hits the wake of another boat, or any other sort of wave, it pitches the front of the boat into the air and forces the boat's engines deeper into the water. That gives the boat a lift like an airplane wing.

"Basically the driver of the boat was driving faster than conditions allow, something wasn't right, or they were totally inexperienced," he said. "It's a dual hull boat; that's the worst kind for catching air."

Parker's friends say he had owned the boat for about six or seven months.

"The (Bonefish) logo was on the side," said childhood friend Artie Crespo. "He just had it custom painted and everything."

Crespo, 37, said he went to St. Petersburg High School with Parker and they have remained friends since.

"He's a boater with lots of experience," said Crespo.

Morse, of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the boat's power could be dangerous.

"If they're not turning too hard or not operating beyond the conditions of the vessel, the vessel is pretty seaworthy. But these things have an awful lot of power and with the power they've got behind them, there is a potential for an accident," he said.

Four-year veteran boat racer Hugh Fuller said he doesn't race that particular model, but that speedboating is a safe sport.

"I've been up to 200 mph," said Fuller, who lives in Clearwater. "Like anything else, you have to have experience in it and you have to respect it. . . . This is very unfortunate."

Last October, the area around the Gandy Bridge was being considered as a host for a professional speedboat racing event. But federal authorities denied permits to the American Power Boat Association because the proposed boat launching area was populated with manatees.

No license is required to drive a boat in Florida unless you are born after Sept. 30, 1980.

Going airborne

It's rare, but a high-speed boat, usually a catamaran, can go airborne when traveling at high speeds.

1 At high speeds, the boat hits a wave, usually two feet or higher.

2 The boat bounces, lifting the nose higher than normal.

3 Too much wind under the hull sends the boat airborne.

Source: Donzi Marine