Boats and their crews do the seemingly impossible in jet boat races. They zoom down stretches of river--sometimes across white water sections--at 80-140 mph, generating boat-sized wakes and passing spectators in mere seconds. It's the stuff of extreme-sport television shows. The adrenaline gets fans hooked and keeps them hooked--many have been following the sport for decades.
This year is a big year for those fans and others involved in the world of jet boat racing. This year, Idaho hosts the 2012 Toyota Weaver Seed World Jet River Marathon, with races taking place on the St. Joe, Snake, Clearwater and Salmon rivers in April.
Spectators watch for free--just bring a chair and pick a spot along the river.
"[It's] a very big deal. The U.S. has the opportunity to host the World Jet River Marathon only once every four years," said Gary Labrum, a fan turned racer turned U.S. race director.
In the '80s, Labrum knew a couple of guys who raced. But that wasn't enough to get him down to the river to see the races. That didn't happen until he and his brother happened to be passing through Riggins one weekend and saw boats racing on the Salmon River.
"After that, we had to go and see. It was unbelievable," Labrum said. "Driving up and down a free-flowing river at considerable speed. Having been in boats and having done some whitewater rafting, it was mind boggling to see what they were doing. Lots of skill, luck and just plain chutzpah--it was kind of intoxicating."
Riggins resident Kim Friend, organizer of the World Jet Boat Marathon for the past seven years, said the event's goal is to bring back the excitement for the sport.
"Back in the day, in the late '80s, early '90s, whitewater jet river racing became a big deal and lots of people came out," Friend said. "Our goal was to bring that excitement back. Changing the venue at Riggins to shorter 'legs' really made it accessible to spectators and more equipment-friendly to racers.
"We wanted to get the U.S. excited again with the world competition and, in the meantime, build up the whole circuit. If we could try to bring other venues into this competition, we could bring the race circuit back annually," Friend said.
The organizers knew that if they didn't bring a world venue here, they would have lost race competitors to the other venues in the United States that would have won the opportunity to host this world race.
"We had to bid for this event, for these four venues. The Salmon is a risk for their equipment and they don't want to risk not participating in the worlds by only participating in the annual Salmon River race. Therefore, we needed to incorporate the worlds and the Salmon River course to make it a win-win. Plus, most racers know they can't consider themselves the best if they don't race the Salmon."
Adding a new river, the St. Joe, and bringing back two famous racing rivers--the Snake and the Clearwater--gives the World a full and exciting agenda, Friend said. The World Jet Boat Race Marathon rotates among the four countries that jet river race: Canada (centered primarily in Alberta), New Zealand, Mexico and the United States.
Twelve boats, including four world champions, have pre-registered for the event in Idaho, and organizers are expecting more--a total of about 30 to 40 boats by the time racing begins in St. Maries on Thursday, April 12. Each boat has a two-man crew and usually at least three more support personnel.
Among those registered is the One Unlimited team from New Zealand, several teams from Canada, and some teams from the United States, including some college students from the Treasure Valley.
Shay and Grady White of Meridian are among those registered to race. It will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for the brothers, who grew up in a family of jet boat-racing enthusiasts.
Shay, 25, said he has dreamt of competing in the jet boat river races his entire life. He and Grady finally got permission from their mother Jayne, the boat's owner, to compete this year. Originally, she told them they would have to wait until after college but agreed to let them since Idaho is hosting the world competition.
White's family has been in the jet boat world as safety boaters for more than 35 years.
"My brother and I have been driving jet boats through whitewater since a very young age," White said. "We both learned to read water at a young age, and working on jet boats our whole lives, it kinda just feels like the right time to start. ... We need new blood to keep these races going or we will lose them."
He and his brother decided to get their boat ready for the world championships last April at the Salmon River races. Shay will drive the boat and Grady will navigate.
"Watching the races is one of the coolest things on Earth," White said. "People are not supposed to be able to go [that fast] on water and through whitewater. Just watching it is a rush."
The racers are expecting to run more than 500 miles of Central and North Idaho rivers, said Labrum.
"The fastest will do so in less than six hours total [of] course running time over the eight-day period," Labrum said.
With boats going super fast down river ways, organizers and supporters put a lot of energy into safety.
"We're a safe, professional operation. We have some of the best jet boat pilots around in charge of our safety boats," Friend said. "They all belong to Western Whitewater Association and Northwest River Runners--some of the best boat drivers anywhere in the West. They are really well versed in any river section and also safety procedures on the river."
On each safety boat, there is one emergency medical service person and a Ham radio operation person. The Ham Radio Club, which offers its services as a hobby and as a service to the community, sets up a communications network hub midway through the course.
"It's like having an air traffic control situation. This is a very great and thorough operation," Friend said. "They have everything mapped. They know who's on what boat, and each boat is rigged with their communications equipment."
This system allows organizers to know what is happening at any given point on the race course because the radio operators give real-time updates on the precise location of boats from start to finish. If anything happens, everyone knows immediately.
Friend said organizers hold the event during the time of year when tourism is slow and they aren't competing with other recreational river uses, like angling. The attention from the races and the racers themselves will help boost the local economy. Costs vary, but one of the Canadian racers, for example, figured the cost of running a boat at $2,000 per hour, said Labrum. That includes boat fuel, repairs, breakage, and motor wear-and-tear. Race support teams might spend about $1,000 a day for lodging, food, fuel, souvenirs and the like.
Friend said that every year Riggins bends over backward for the event because it brings such an economic boost.
She said the concept is to highlight North and North-Central Idaho. When people think of Idaho, they often think of Boise. Through this event they want to encourage people to explore all there is to see.
World jet boat races are as good a reason as any to head north.
"When you go rafting, you're thinking how big rapids can be, how exciting and how unpredictable. In marathon racing, some guys are going 100 mph through those rapids," Friend said.
"It just goes to show the skill of the boat drivers to read rivers, to read waves, timing. It's just something you just think, wow, I didn't think they could really do that. Now they have race boats equipped with turbine engines. ... That's a jet engine, to be specific. Wow."