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World jet boat championship races draw fans to St. Maries

Paul Brebner, left, of St. Maries, and Logan Dianda, of Medical Lake, watch the 2012 World Jet Boat Races from a bridge above the St. Joe River on Sunday. (Kathy Plonka)
Paul Brebner, left, of St. Maries, and Logan Dianda, of Medical Lake, watch the 2012 World Jet Boat Races from a bridge above the St. Joe River on Sunday. (Kathy Plonka)

ST. MARIES – Mark Cromie’s jet boat roared to a stop on the St. Joe River here Sunday ahead of the competition.

The boat, powered by a helicopter engine, handled the tight corners of the scenic Benewah County waterway just fine, the 58-year-old, longtime boat racer said, crediting his experience with rivers back home in New Zealand.

“Other guys are more used to open rivers,” Cromie said. “I’ve been doing it 35 years. It’s just skill.”

Saturday’s and Sunday’s races were the beginning of the World Jet Boat Marathon Championship, which continues today on the Snake River in Lewiston, then moves to the Clearwater River in Orofino before the final races on the Salmon River in Riggins next Friday and Saturday.

Organizers said the event is proving a big success. They hope to continue promoting jet boat racing in the St. Maries area, said organizer Kim Friend, of Riggins.

“Riggins was a timber town that died just like St. Maries did,” Friend said. Now it’s dependent on tourism, and boat racing is part of that, he said.

“It’s so possible to rebound from an industry that failed,” he said.

Friend estimated 5,000 spectators lined the banks of the 25-mile race course on the St. Joe River for Saturday’s full day of racing. Seventeen boats competed.

“It was an amazing, amazing turnout,” he said.

Sheryl Cromie, who traveled to North Idaho from New Zealand with her husband, said the sight of families picnicking and other spectators lining the river added to their racing experience.

“It was quite great to see,” she said.

Linda and Jim Fisher traveled from Asotin, Wash., to support their boat-racing son Terry O’Keefe. They stayed in a motor home in St. Maries and said they were impressed by the widespread community support.

Linda Fisher said when they first got involved in boat racing, a longtime participant said “welcome to the family.” And it’s true, Fisher said: The racing group is like a second family.

Willie Burns, 58, traveled from Grimshaw, Alberta, to race with his son, Chad Burns, 33. Chad drives the boat while his father navigates. They grew up and live near rivers and are always on the water. Jet boat racing just came naturally, Willie Burns said.

Their boat, Bad Habit, also is powered by a helicopter engine. The elder Burns estimates the boat is worth about $150,000 and can reach speeds of 130 mph.

The Burnses participate in about three races each summer and in the world competition.

“This is the big one – this is for all the marbles,” Willie Burns said.

The top prize is about $4,000, he said – enough, perhaps, to cover expenses.

Mark Cromie said no one could be in it for the cash: The cost of competing is too high. The Cromies paid for their boat to be shipped here from New Zealand. Then they flew to Los Angeles and rented a car to drive to Idaho.

“I’m sure we’re not racing for the money,” Mark Cromie said.

The thrill of the speed and the competition drives most racers. Cromie said his boat raced a top speed of 126 mph Sunday on the St. Joe, burning three gallons of fuel per minute.

Jim Shubert, Benewah County’s deputy coroner and a volunteer with the St. Joe Valley Search and Rescue, said many community members were apprehensive about how the boats would affect the scenic river, but residents reported no problems.

“It’s gone over really well, and I expect to see it back,” Shubert said. “One hundred years ago it was steam engines. Now it’s jet boats.”