Behind the Boats: Pilot and Mechanic Vern Gilbert Watched an Industry Get Bigger, Badder – and Much Faster | Local News


The large performance ships arriving in Lake Havasu for Desert Storm this week have little in common with a typical powerboat. At 40+ feet, performance boats are about twice as long as a recreational pontoon, with at least three to four times the power of a typical family outboard.

Vern Gilbert, owner of West Coast Drives in Lake Havasu City, said he’s frequented these performance boats since moving to Florida from Cincinnati in 1976. In the past two decades since arriving in Havasu, Gilbert has also been heavily involved in Desert Storm. – both as a pilot and helping other competitors prepare their personal watercraft for the event.

Gilbert was named King of the Desert in 2019 after being clocked at 186 mph on the ¾ mile Desert Storm Shootout course in his 1991 40-foot skate known as the Predator I. Although Gilbert says that he won’t be driving in Desert Storm this year, his shop was still bustling last week with other competitors’ boats preparing for the event – and said he expects more boats show up this week until the event kicks off on Wednesday.

“I ran so long that now I help them all as much as I can,” Gilbert said. “These guys here don’t really change the props a lot, we just want to get the maximum acceleration out of it. You start at 40 miles per hour. As soon as you hit 190 after ¾ of a mile, setup is really crucial—gear ratio and all. So I basically help with all of that.

Gilbert’s specialty is boat propulsion. He said he specializes in Mercury Racing’s Speedmaster No. 6 and Speedmaster No. 8, both of which have more than 1,600 horsepower each.

Late Thursday morning, Gilbert had a pair of big boats in his shop that he was preparing for Desert Storm – a 38ft catamaran called Predator III owned by Gary Smith and a 50ft owned by Jeff Chang.

Gilbert said Predator III had over 5,000 horsepower and ran on a special type of racing fuel called E85, rather than regular gasoline. E85 is 15% gasoline and 85% alcohol, and Gilbert said the Predator III can hold 250 gallons of fuel. It might seem like a big gas tank, but Gilbert said it’s relatively small compared to some of the other performance boats – noting that Chang’s 50ft boat sitting next to the Predator III has a gas tank. 600 gallon gasoline. Chang’s boat doesn’t use regular gasoline either. With twin-turbine engines like those used in jets and helicopters powering the boat, Gilbert said Chang’s boat runs on Jet A fuel.

Big boats need equally big gas tanks because they burn fuel quite quickly. Gilbert said a run from the island south to Havasu Springs and back requires about 100 gallons of fuel.

The attraction of such a boat is quite simple.

“Speed,” Gilbert said. “These will get you going over 200 miles per hour.”

Gilbert said he reached a top speed of 212 miles per hour and guessed that Smith’s Predator III was capable of reaching 215 MPH.

But such boats cost a pretty penny. Gilbert estimated that a racing boat costs around $1.8 million and an additional $200,000 for the trailer needed to transport such a large boat. Gilbert said race boat engines cost about $300,000 each and accessories cost more than some small used boats at $30,000 each.

“It’s an expensive toy,” Gilbert said. “There are definitely cheaper ways to get them, but these guys are competing with the best gear.”

Gilbert said often riders will have multiple sets of accessories on hand, so they can achieve peak performance in a variety of conditions with separate accessories intended for windy days or flat water.

But when it comes to the Desert Storm Shootout, everyone has plenty of power and top-of-the-line equipment. Gilbert said it takes a lot of experience to become the king of the desert.

“As you go over 150 miles per hour, the boat basically runs on an air pocket,” Gilbert said. “So the trim is very crucial and which way the wind is blowing. You’re basically piloting a boat.

Gilbert said racing boats keep getting faster, and it looks like speeds have increased particularly rapidly over the past 10 years. Gilbert said he won his first shootout with a speed of 176 miles per hour in the 90s, but today if you can’t get past 190 miles per hour you won’t even be competitive .

“Engines are getting bigger,” he said. “In the 1990s, the biggest engine was 850 HP – now you have a 1,750. You can fly a wheelbarrow if you put enough power into it.

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