Local hobbyists get Unlimited enjoyment from scale boats (w/video)

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 18, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Terry Harmer admits he's always had a little bit of a competitive side.

When he was younger and used to race motocross, the 73-year-old retired computer programmer from Bellingham said he used to kick competitors' shifters into neutral or reach over and pull throttle cables off their motorcycles, because "that is what you do."

As he got older, Harmer's competitive appetite was fed on a smaller scale, as he started to race radio-controlled airplanes and sailboats.

But it wasn't until he was driving past Twin Lakes in Marysville that he found his latest passion.

"You can see the ponds from the freeway, and I looked over and I saw a bunch of canopies lined up, and I thought I saw a hydroplane in the water," Harmer said. "So I went back and looked at them. I had just stopped racing (radio-controlled) sailboats. I looked at those things and a week later I had one."

What Harmer saw and had to get was a radio-controlled scale version of the Unlimited hydroplanes that race in Seattle at Seafair and on the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities.

Three years later, Harmer is now the proud owner of two one-seventh scale electric Unlimited boats - the Miss Technicolor (a scale version of the boat Ron Larsen raced in 1974) and the Miss Bahia (a scale version of the boat Ron Armstrong won with in San Diego in 1986). He is actively working to build his third.

While racing those radio-controlled scale versions of the Unlimited boats that are about four feet long and weigh approximately 17 pounds, Harmer has found the perfect level of competition to feed his appetite.

"It's much more gentlemanly than racing motorcycles," he said. "It's much more like tennis than it is rugby. ... We like to say it's 65 percent competition and 35 percent exhibition."

Harmer and the rest of the Electric Scale Unlmiteds, a club of about 40 hobbyists from around the region who race and many of whom build their own one-seventh scale Unlimited boats, will put on an exhibition of both their craftsmanship and R/C driving skills on Sunday, Aug. 18, at Sunset Pond (formerly known as Bug Lake on James Street behind the Bellingham K-Mart) when the club hosts the Cascade Cup.

The event is one of 12 points-paying races the club hosts from May through October throughout the region on small ponds from Portland to Bellingham and Chehalis to Ellensburg. The club honors a season champion and swaps stories at its postseason banquet.

Harmer said he expects about 16 boats to show up Sunday and race in one of three classes - Vintage (rounded-bow boats that raced prior to 1970), Classic (pickle-forked-bow boats that ran in the 1970s and 80s) and Modern (boats that are scale versions of the turbine-powered boats currently being used in the H1 Unlimited ranks).

Like with the big boats, Sunday's event will include a series of heat races to set the field for consolation and championship finals in each class.

"If it's nice weather, it's a fun thing to do on a sunny day," said 44-year-old Bellingham resident Eric McRoy, who also is a member of the ESU club. "Kids go nuts and dogs go nuts over the boats. It's just fun. People can come see some close racing and maybe some boats they remember seeing at Seafair."

Though the boats are one-seventh scale in size compared to the H1 Unlimited boats, their speed is much faster proportionally - Seafair winner Jimmy Shane averaged 142.874 mph during his heat race earlier this month, while boat speeds at the Cascade Cup likely will top 50 mph as they motor around an approximately sixth-mile oval course the club plans to set up on Sunset Pond.

And just like with the big boats, the high rate of speed brings with it the chance of breath-taking accidents on every lap.

"Moving at 50 mph, these things have been known to get 12, 13 feet in the air," Harmer said.

The good news is the pilots of the boats also are just one-seventh-scale plastic replicas of real drivers, so life and limb is not at stake. The boats, which have carbon fiber hulls, also are relatively durable and simply need to be retrieved by a radio controlled "rescue" boat, dried out, checked for any damage and they're ready to race again.

"People have hit the bank at high speed and punched the nose in, and all you have to do is pull it out," Harmer said. "Guys that have the mold will often times just put it back in the mold and build a new nose for it. If it's a wooden boat, they simply break up."

One of the main objectives of the ESU club, though, is to ensure that boats stay intact.

The club's No. 1 race rule, according to Harmer, is, "Don't hit anybody."

And rule No. 2?

"Don't let anybody hit you," Harmer said.

Rookie drivers start a quarter lap behind veterans in races to give them a chance to learn how to properly operate their boats while not endangering anyone else's boat or their own.

And at the start of every season, Harmer said every driver must be approved to race with the club, ensuring that there are no "jerks" that routinely race with a win-at-any-cost mentality.

LABOR OF LOVE

The reason the ESU club is so protective of the boats is simple - it takes many long hours to build them.

Harmer estimated he spent about 100 hours building each of his boats.

McRoy, who owns Northside Dental Care, said he routinely spends a couple hours at a time after he gets home from the office or on weekends to build his boats. But he loves the craftsmanship.

"I've always enjoyed building models," said McRoy, who got into building scale Unlimiteds when he visited Harmer - the cousin of McRoy's mother - and saw him working on one of his boats nearly two years ago. "I first started when I was 11 or 12. The first model I built was a glider, and it crashed about five minutes in. That was discouraging, so I got into boats because I grew up on Lake Whatcom, and boats seemed like a natural thing to build. ... I like to paint. I like to build. Every once in a while they crash and you have to fix them, and sometimes you find out a better way to fix it the second time around."

But most of the work is definitely on the front end, when the boats are built for the first time with no real blueprints - just a pictures of the boat to replicate and a craftsman's eye for detail.

The first step is to pick a boat.

"Almost everybody has a story about their boat - why they chose that exact boat and not some other boat," Harmer said.

ESU club rules state that only one scale version of the boat is allowed in the club at a time, so builders must select a version of a boat that doesn't already exist.

Fortunately, there are many boats to choose from, as paint schemes and sponsors can change from year to year and even race to race.

The Miss Bahia, for example, raced just one race with that sponsor, Harmer said, and McRoy, who already owns a 1975 Miss Oberto and a 1990 Miss Oberto, is currently building a Miss Liberty Thrift scale boat that has a different paint scheme from a 1974 Miss Liberty Thrift boat that is already in the club.

And you better believe it makes a difference in this club.

"These guys really know their boats, and they really know their color schemes, and they know that in 1965 they had a different emblem on the tail than they did in 1964," Harmer said. "There is scale judging that goes on at the beginning of the season, and everybody has to pass that from one of the scale (committees), and you can't get away with anything. You have to have a picture of the actual boat in the water that you're making a model of, and you have to document that that boat actually competed in an Unlimited hydroplane race."

Like any good scale version, it's all in the details.

Harmer actually called the Technicolor company in England when he was building Miss Technicolor so that he could get the exact color palate that was used on the real boat.

"If I didn't, I wouldn't have a scale version of the Miss Technicolor - I would have something that kind of, sort of looked like the Miss Technicolor," Harmer said.

COMPETITIVE EDGE

Though most of the work goes into constructing the boats and making sure they are exact scale replicas, Harmer and McRoy said to be competitive, builders still need to continue spending time to fine tune their boats between races.

"There are some guys that don't do any upkeep, but they're not guys that win," Harmer said. "Some of their systems sound like a bucket of rocks when they run, and some are almost silent. You can guess which ones are faster. I do it because I love the development. I love the engineering of it. I love to solve puzzles, and there are opportunities to do that and feel like you're doing something special."

Though the scale boats are replicas of Unlimited boats in appearance, their power systems aren't.

You're not going to see any turbine engines on the Modern class boats.

In fact, the ESU club strictly regulates exactly what builders can use to power their boats, requiring the same unmodified electric motor, the same unmodified propeller and the same battery limits on each boat. Doing so not only keeps the boats close in competition, it prevents the competition from becoming a spending spree.

The plastic props the club requires cost only about $8 apiece, Harmer said, as opposed to $150 that could be dropped on a custom metal prop. Same goes for the engines.

It also means that the older boats have the ability to be just as fast as a new boat.

"One of the reasons the club got started is some of the guys were in other clubs, and they didn't feel like there was a friendly atmosphere," McRoy said. "They felt like it was a spending competition, so they made rules that limited the size of the motors and the props, so it kind of levels the playing field. It keeps it from getting ridiculously expensive and so the guy with the most money doesn't necessarily win every race."

That doesn't mean there aren't advantages to be had, though.

There are still areas that craftsmen who know what they are doing can make their boats faster.

McRoy said he recently had to rebuild one of his boats and ended up changing his strut, which holds the propeller, just a little.

"I'm getting like another 5 mph out of the boat now," he said. "I don't know what I did, but it's running better."

Harmer, meanwhile, has focused most of his work on the drive line and on making sure he is getting maximum power from his batteries with thicker wires.

"There are a couple of guys that are really, really good at setting up their boats, and they do win a lot," Harmer said. "They're also excellent drivers, but tuning and driving is what we want. ... I spend an enormous amount of time reducing drag in the drive line, because that's one of the cheapest ways you can find extra power."

GREEN WATERS

There's no doubt that this is not a cheap hobby, as time is far from the only cost.

"Be prepared to spend some money," McRoy said about advice he would offer to anybody interested in taking up scale Unlimited racing.

But getting a boat does not cost as much as you might think and expenses go down with the more you are able to do yourself.

Harmer estimated building a boat hull from scratch costs about $500.

For those that aren't quite that handy, but still like building things, a pre-built hull can run in the $600 range and allows builders to install the hardware, wings and paint it to scale.

Of course, boats can be purchased ready to race, but the price (minus batteries) can run in the $2,000 range. Occasionally, used boats become available for about $1,200 to $1,400, Harmer said, as builders move on to new boats or new hobbies, but with the ESU club rules, they will be just as fast as a new boat.

"Our goal of the club is to keep it cheap enough so that guys can afford to build boats without feeling like they're playing golf or something," Harmer said.

The boats are only part of the cost, though.

Each boat takes four lithium polymer batteries to run one heat, meaning it requires eight to 12 batteries per race day. At $75 a pop, that can get pricey, especially considering they last only one to two years before needing to be replaced.

Add in $50 for a charger, and Harmer recommends a generator ($500 to $600 used or $1,000 new) and voltage converter so batteries can be charged in the field, as electricity is not available at most lakes the club races at.

ESU club dues are $20 per month, and registration for each boat is $10 per year. Members also must join the North American Model Boat Association for $45 per year for the club insurance.

And don't forget other odds and ends like canopies and tools to work on the boat at home and in the field.

"The good news is all the cost is up front, and you can get most of it back if you decide to get out," Harmer said. "You can sell the boat and you can keep the generator or sell that if you'd like. If you buy a used boat, you can probably get everything you need for about $3,000, and you're racing."

MIXING FUN WITH COMPETITION

For those that do write the check, Harmer and McRoy said it's a rewarding investment.

In fact, both said they'd like to see a couple of new club members from the Bellingham area, and are hoping Sunday's event hooks a racer or two.

Harmer said the pits will be open, and builders and drivers will be happy to answer any questions when they're not hurriedly working on their boats to get them ready to race or actually racing them.

"If you've never done any model building and just want to race, it would be helpful to have someone nearby to help you out," McRoy said. "As much as we try to avoid it, boats do get broken and need to be repaired, and it's good to have someone that can help you with that. There are some guys in our club that don't want anything to do with building - they just want to race - and then there are some that enjoy building and racing."

Some of the club members even are crew members on the full-size H1 Unlimited teams.

But any hobbyist can be just as successful, if not more so.

It just takes time.

"Compared to an airplane, learning to drive these things is trivial," Harmer said. "They only have a throttle and a rudder. You can go out and 15 minutes later you could be driving the Miss Technicolor. But to put the boat where you want it, one or two feet from another boat, to understand what rooster tails do and what the turn roller does when the boat ahead of you is turning takes a while. I'm finally starting to drive decently now after a couple of years, but it's something you just work at and get better every time out."

Fortunately, the bigger one-seventh-scale boats are a little bit smoother to drive than one-eighth- and one-10th-scale Unlimited boats, which also have racing clubs in the region, Harmer said.

And he enjoys the greater attention to detail of the one-seventh scale boats and the more gentlemanly racing of the ESU club.

"I've raced a number of different venues and a number of different things, but the one thing about this club is people really seem to have fun," Harmer said. "I remember last year, Eric after a heat saying, 'Boy that was fun. I felt like I ran really good.' And another of the guys look over and said, 'Yeah, but you finished last. What do you mean?' You know, we have guys that like to trash talk each other in a fun way. But Eric's attitude was he was just having fun. We're all competitive and we want to win, but there is a limit. The No. 1 thing is having fun, and we have a ton of fun racing these things."

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2286.

CASCADE CUP

When: 11 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 18

Where: Sunset Pond on James Street behind the Bellingham Kmart (formerly Bug Lake)

What: The Electric Scale Unlimited Club will race about 16 one-seventh scale replica boats of Unlimited hydroplane boats that have raced in races like Seafair over the years. The course is approximately a one-sixth mile oval.

Cost: Free (though parking is limited)

Best place watch: On the benches on the west end of the pond, though the pits are open and boat builders/drivers are available to answer questions

Video: To watch boats in action, go to this story online at bellinghamherald.com/sports

More information: scalehydro.com

WATCH VIDEO

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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