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Jetboaters race the rapids

The Red Bird Racing team tackles the Salmon River rapids during the annual jetboat races in April 2007. Photo courtesy of Red Bird Racing (Photo courtesy of Red Bird Racing / The Spokesman-Review)
The Red Bird Racing team tackles the Salmon River rapids during the annual jetboat races in April 2007. Photo courtesy of Red Bird Racing (Photo courtesy of Red Bird Racing / The Spokesman-Review)

Buddies live in Salmon’s fast lane

On rivers throughout the West, Mike Egbers of Mount Vernon and former Mount Vernon High School classmate Eric Hamburg of Shasta Lake, Calif., have been making waves on the U.S. Northwest Circuit of whitewater jetboat racing.

The circuit consists of six races a year. They begin in March, and are held in Idaho, Oregon and California.

Last year, the pair finished second at the annual Salmon River Jetboat Races in Riggins, Idaho. Their boat, Red Bird, was dominant in the small block/stock classification (SBFX).

Red Bird flew over the rapids, beating all but one of the higher-performance- class boats in two days, 10 legs and 80 miles of racing on a course considered the most difficult and hazardous on the circuit. They finished the 10 legs in 1 hour, 1 minute, 48 seconds.

Not bad for two guys who had never raced a boat before 2006. Egbers, the boat’s driver, is a partner in a trucking business, while Hamburg, the boat’s navigator, is a retired California lawman.

“I’ve had boats in the past,” said Egbers. “I’ve always liked boats and have always wanted to try performance racing.

“Unlike circle racing, in this type of racing you are going against the clock. Racing against the clock just fits our personality.”

Things didn’t go right the first time the pair put the pedal to the metal in Roseburg, Ore.

Egbers admits that in that first race he simply got the boat on the water and took off. The two were in for a rough ride.

During the third leg, the boat hit a rock, became airborne and struck a tree before returning to the water.

The boat had a 3-foot hole in the aluminum hull. It was just above the water line, so Egbers and Hamburg were able to limp back to the dock.

The fact that both were left unscathed is a testament to safety precautions. Roll bars are mandatory. Racers are restrained by safety harnesses, and they wear helmets, fire suits and life jackets.

Wisely, the duo worked on their skills before graduating to a more powerful boat.

Whitewater jetboats are typically all-aluminum and 16 to 22 feet in length. Powered by inboard V-8s, they are capable of speeds up to 115 mph, depending on engine size. The Red Bird boat boasts a 350 Chevrolet power plant.

Propulsion comes by way of a jet pump that blasts water through a nozzle on the stern. The boats can run in inches of water, just skimming across the surface.

Egbers and Hamburg understand it takes two to race Red Bird.

“Eric’s job is 50-50,” Egbers explained. “He has to keep one eye on the gauges and the other on everything else. He keeps us on track by spotting potential hazards, observing safety boat flags, timing the run and watching the gauges. He also manages the engine during the run, controlling the cooling system and other functions.”

The two use hand signals to communicate whether to stop, slow down or keep going. “I’m totally focused on where the boat is going,” Egbers said. “Things happen very fast. There’s a big difference in cruising along the river in a pleasure craft at 20 to 25 mph, and racing up it at 80 mph. At that speed, things come up very fast.”

At Riggins, boaters five times cruised up and down an eight-mile stretch of the River of No Return.

That means navigating rapids such as “Lightning Creek,” “Rock Patch” and the infamous “Time Zone.”

On rivers on which they race, it’s up to Egbers to locate a course through boulder-strewn cauldrons of whitewater that is both safe and fast.

“It’s all about finding that line,” he said. “There is always a traditional line on these rivers. Then from there, you just modify it. The amount of modification you are willing to make depends on either how brave or foolish you are. You have to be thinking three moves ahead at all times.

“You want to try and shave some time off where you can. But at the same time, you want to play it safe. You always have to remember that the power of water is amazing.”

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