All that can be heard is the roar of the engine. The boat is literally flying on a pocket of air between it and the water as it speeds down the Ohio River, the once calm water now a distant memory.
As the vessel speeds along, the rush of wind and water leave lines of evidence of the boat's path on the surface of the river like brushes spreading paint on a canvas.
According to Dr. Daniel Joseph, that is what it is like to drive a high-speed vintage raceboat. Joseph and Dr. David Kappel both have been in the painstaking, but highly rewarding, process of restoring historic raceboats so they can again scream down the Ohio River.
Photos by Sarah Harmon
Dr. Daniel Joseph, right, and his wife, Debbie, present the Jade Dragon, the vintage boat they have restored in anticipation of this year’s Vintage Raceboat Regatta.
"The fun is driving these boats at high speeds. The wind is in your face - they throw a lot of water, and it's an exhilarating rush that you can't get any other way," Joseph said. "When you're skimming across the water you got all the different feelings that are hit at once. It commands 100 percent of your attention."
For the doctors, restoring vintage hydroplane raceboats is more than hobby - it's like bringing back a moment in time. Kappel is restoring the Screamin' Meemie and Joseph the Jade Dragon, both built by the late famous designer Henry Lauterbach, who built several famous raceboats and whose hydroplanes are highly coveted.
In their heyday, the boats could reach record speeds of more than 100 mph, making racing speedboats historically one of the most dangerous sports. According to Joseph and Kappel, many racers have died in their quest for greatness.
- The seventh annual Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta comes to Heritage Port from Aug. 31-Sept. 2.
"They're a portion of the past that will never happen again," Kappel said. "They are a piece of our personal history."
The boats are beautiful masterpieces of polished wood - usually birch, mahogany, spruce and oak - and use car engines that are tweaked to run faster and with more power than they would on the road. The vintage boats also have an open seat so the driver can fully experience the sensations of driving on the water. According to Joseph, modern raceboats have safety features, including a protective capsule that surrounds the driver. Although it makes boats safer, Joseph said the capsule isolates the driver from the sensations around them.
"For me, driving these boats, they really appeal to all five sensory parts of you - the smell of the engines, the feel of the vibrations, the visual, the auditory full-throated roar," Kappel said. "All your senses are engaged."
Rebuilding an antique boat is not for the lazy or weak of heart, they noted. The process could be compared to a special kind of surgery. It takes extensive mechanical and wood shop skills, and it can take years to track down the correct parts.
"It's the equivalent of you trying to copy a Rembrandt," Joseph said. "Or the Mona Lisa - da Vinci did the left half, you just finish it off and do the right half. That's why it takes so long."
"You can do whatever or you can do it the right way," Kappel said. "You're constantly trying to match things. Part of it's trying to figure out how they originally solved some of the building challenges with curves and slopes and angles."
For three years, Kappel and his former classmate from Magnolia High School, Jack Wolf, have been rebuilding the Screamin' Meemie, which originally was built by Lauterbach in 1973 and named after the sound made by a bomb dropped in World War II. Kappel and Wolf both grew up in New Martinsville and have happy memories of raceboats flying down the river in the New Martinsville Regatta, which was arguably the fastest freshwater course in the world.
The Screamin' Meemie was originally built for Chuck Kittel, who came back from active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. It was a national champion but was wrecked in Red Bank, N.J., in 1978. The boat was repaired and had gone through several owners before Kappel and Wolf bought it in 2009. Since then, they have been trying to restore the boat to as close to its original condition as possible.
Joseph has been having the Jade Dragon, also built by Lauterbach in 1965, restored by Lauterbach's son, Larry. The Jade Dragon is a "sister boat" of two very famous hydroplanes, the Wa Wa To and the Washington, D.C., and has reached speeds over 140 mph. According to Joseph, Henry Lauterbach said it was the prettiest green boat he's ever seen.
Three years ago, Joseph's brother saw the Jade Dragon for sale on eBay, so Joseph and his wife, Debbie, traveled all the way to Chattanooga, Tenn., to bring her home. However, when they arrived, the boat was in such disrepair that pieces of wood were flying off the boat as they towed it back to West Virginia.
After three years of work, Larry Lauterbach is in the last stages of rebuilding the Jade Dragon. It will have its grand debut at the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta on Labor Day weekend, joining dozens of other vintage boats of a day of speed, air and water.
"They are so beautiful the way they run," Joseph said. "They are just beautiful boats that are even more beautiful on the water. They're spectacular. There's really nothing like it."