Commentary: How Fast is 180 mph?

According to, an 800,000-pound Boeing 747 takes off at 180 mph. When I look at one of those monsters up close, I’m amazed they can fly at all.

But why—other than for the sake of pure trivia on the miracle of flight—do I bring it up on a blog about high-performance boating?

Because these days we talk a lot about going 180 mph on the water. It happens all the time, right? A lot of people have done it, right? It’s not that big of a deal, right?

Wrong, wrong and dead wrong. A lot of people haven’t done it, unless you count a few dozen people as a lot. For that reason, it doesn’t happen all the time. And when it does, it’s a very big deal.

Let’s put it in perspective. Two days ago I was driving through the Arizona desert on my way to Las Vegas to catch a flight after a day of Powerboat magazine tests. I was driving at 80 mph, which was less than half of the speed of the 170-mph boat ride I’d taken that morning. And the desert seemed like it was flying by.

I mentioned it to John Tomlinson, my co-pilot—something he doesn’t get called very often—on the ride back to Las Vegas.

“Yeah,” he said and nodded. “You should feel what a boat is like at 190 mph. A lot of them feel connected at 170 and 180, but 190 feels so much faster. It feels loose. It’s a different ball game.”

I asked him how 200-plus mph felt at the 2010 Lake of the Ozarks Shootout with David Scott and his eyes glazed. “Fast, really fast,” he said. “The boat never stopped pulling.”

Then I asked him if he’d do it again. “I don’t know,” he said with a tone that indicated that he felt he might have gone as fast as he ever needed to go. “I’m not sure. Dave Scott’s not sure. He said before the run, ‘John, if we run 200 mph I think I’m done.”

Tomlinson and I talked about big speed for at least an hour. We talked about factors beyond his control. We agreed that there are many of them. We agreed that there is nothing safe about covering 264 feet of water per second—the distance traveled at 180 mph. We agreed that people who think so are kidding themselves.

More perspective: I’ve talked to a lot of catamaran builders, including Peter Hledin of Skater and Randy Scism of MTI over the years. None them can tell you at exactly what point a catamaran will be become a wing.

Oh, I suppose that technically they can say that a cat will become a wing when the pressure on the bottom surface exceeds the pressure on the top surface … but I could tell you that.

Just as I can tell you that an 800,000-pound 747, for exactly the same reason, takes off at 180 mph.

Something to think about the boating season approaches.