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Dunk test a lifesaver for powerboat crews

Published Nov. 21, 2005

Flying around a turn in Key West Harbor at 85 miles per hour, Rick Turmel's offshore race boat caught a wave the wrong way and rolled.

"The first thing you ask yourself is what just happened," explained the throttleman for Team Extreme. "Then the training kicks in. After you go through the dunk test enough times, getting out of an upside down boat becomes second nature."

Before the offshore powerboat racing begins this week off St. Pete Beach, every driver and throttleman must demonstrate a successful escape from the Offshore Super Series Soaker.

"We have never had anything like this before," said David DiPetrillo, safety director for the powerboat tour. "This is the first fully-canopied dunker tester in offshore racing. It is made from the canopy of an actual race boat. It even has escape hatches."

Flipping over in a race boat is no picnic. Even though a racer is strapped in and wearing a helmet, at best you will emerge dazed and confused.

"That is why we put so much effort into this," said DiPetrillo, who also works as the special operations chief for the Fort Lauderdale Fire Department. "This needs to be an intuitive reaction."

Dominic Visconsi Jr. and Jim Dyke, teammates in the OSS Cat Popeye, have had their share of rollovers.

"You'll need a long sheet of paper, because I have had a few," Dyke said. "But each time it is a new experience."

The two were the first to test the Soaker on Tuesday. They had rave reviews.

"It's fun," Dyke said.

"Great," Visconsi added. "Why don't you give it a try?"

Joey Gratton, who has been racing since bell bottoms first came into fashion, insisted. "I'll hold your hand," he said. "There is nothing to it."

Gratton from Sarasota also has rolled several times over the years. "You are good for one every five years," he said. "I've flipped twice recently so I figure I'm good for the next 10 years."

DiPetrillo led Gratton and me to the crash simulator. He told me to remember BRACE: B means brace for impact, R means reach for exit, A means grab the air supply, C means calm down, E means exit.

"Got it?" DiPetrillo asked. I nodded. "Good. Here's your helmet."

Gratton and I climbed into the cockpit and strapped ourselves in. My harness was a little tight.

"Let me loosen that up," Gratton said.

"Pasta and beer," I confessed.

Then, unceremoniously, the contraption was rolled over into the water. My first reaction was to panic. Then I remembered DiPetrillo's advice: Stay calm.

But talk is cheap when hanging upside down, staring at the bottom of a pool. I knew I should have taken a deep breath before I went over. But instead, I was fiddling with the seat belt that was digging into my gut.

Starved for oxygen, I looked for my air supply. I found the scuba regulator where they said it would be and took a deep breath.

Satisfied that I was not going to die, I began to work on the three-point harness. I got one side unclipped and then gravity took hold and I slid down, banging my head on the steering wheel. Good thing I was wearing a helmet.

Meanwhile, Gratton, the old pro, was unfastening the escape hatches. He stood up, stuck his head out the floor hatch, which was now above us, signaled that we were okay, then we both swam out the roof hatch, which was now at our feet.

Back on the surface, DiPetrillo asked how it went.

"No problem," Gratton said.

I tried to sound confident.

"Nothing to it," I lied.

"Wanna go again?" Gratton asked.

"No thanks," I replied.

OFFSHORE SUPER SERIES WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

Today-Sunday. The dry pits will be at Vinoy Park. Food and beverage concessions will be set up Wednesday. Admission to the park is free every day except Friday, when $5 will be charged. The racing will take place off St. Pete Beach, near the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.