KEY WEST, Fla. — Billy Allen was on the throttle and Larry Pinegar was driving on Wednesday, Nov. 6, when their 32-foot Doug Wright catamaran, Team Allen Lawncare & Landscaping went airborne. The crash happened at the Race World Offshore Key West World Championships. And Team Allen's crash happened simultaneously with the LPC catamaran next to them.
The crowd panicked—the sight of one boat crashing is jarring enough, but two boats, in sync, flipping at triple-digit speeds evokes a visceral reaction. Both boats came to rest upside-down. On a nearby dock filled with spectators, phones were shooting video and people were shouting and hoping—helpless to render aid. Meanwhile, now underwater, Billy and Larry had only moments to escape.
Boat racers are required to go through “dunk tank” training for situations like these, during which they are dropped into the water upside-down in a simulated crash and have to escape. The training worked: Billy and Larry tried to stay calm despite their injuries, and they put on their oxygen masks. The top hatch and canopy had been ripped off, so when Billy unbuckled, he fell down, through the top of the cockpit, into the water.
“It took a minute for me to get my bearings, that I was under the boat,” he said.
Larry was having a hard time getting out; his side of the boat had sustained the most damage. So Billy swam through the boat’s tunnel—between the two hulls of the catamaran—toward open air. “As I swam through the tunnel, I heard the people on the docks screaming,” he recalled. No one knew whether the men had survived.
“As I swam I saw Mike and Loren come out of the bottom of their boat,” Billy recalled. But Larry was still inside the Team Allen boat. Billy headed for the boat’s bottom hatch.
“I got to Larry and pulled the hatch open and helped him get out of the boat. It was a team effort: we train to do that in a dunk test. They train us to be patient and calm and that is why we are here today.” From the crash to the time Larry emerged, it was about a minute—though it almost certainly felt like an eternity for the men in the crash and spectators straining to see the orange helmets of the drivers.
(video courtesy of Joey Barbe)
When Larry emerged from the hatch, cheers erupted from the crowd. Meanwhile, the support boats and helicopter were circling. Doc Janssen, the race medical director, was quickly on the scene and was able to wave off the rescue divers—known as “angels”—since all four men had gotten out of the water. The men were taken by medical boats to the nearby naval base, where four ambulances were waiting. “The emergency rescue was flawless,” Billy praised.
A Team Allen spokesperson explained the crash happened because the two boats were too close together. Powered catamarans work by “packing” air underneath, between the two hulls. The air helps lift the hulls out of the water, while the thrust from powerful engines keeps them leveled out. But a sudden rush of air can be treacherous. That rush of air was brought on because the two boats were traveling so close to each other, the team spokesperson explained, it left nowhere for the air to go. Normally air travels under, over, and around the boat, but at that speed, when air cannot flow past one side of the hull because there’s another boat next to it, it can increase the air pressure underneath. That’s why both boats suddenly soared and tumbled in a crash that looked synchronized.
Billy was the least injured of the four men: ingested a fair amount of water, and “a lot of bumps and bruises.” Larry and the men from LPC were hurt worse, but none were in critical condition.
In true racer style, though, Billy is already thinking about the next race: “We’ll have to do a lot of repairs, if not… a new boat. But, we will be ready to come back and win.”