by Bob Wonders
Generally speaking, when a sportsman (or woman) holds a world record, be it against the clock, for endurance or perhaps a score, there’s often a feeling of sadness when that record is broken, and someone’s name is deleted from the record books.
Celebrations begin, the crew showing delight as ’Team Predator’ cruises slowly acorss Cancun Harbour, the new world record safely in its grasp. - Key West to Cancun world record
Be that as it may, I’m about to introduce you to a world record holder who is more or less desperately hoping someone will come along and smash it, preferably to smithereens!
His name is Bob Barnhart, a Canadian builder/developer and offshore racing enthusiast.
Back in 2008, Bob and a hand-picked crew of five aboard the 50’ (15.24-metres) Nor-Tech named ‘Team Predator’ set a new mark of eight-hours, 23 minutes for a dash across the Gulf of Mexico, from Key West, in Florida, to Cancun.
'Team Predator' begins its journey into the record books as it powers away from Key West, in the United States, on course for Cancun, Mexico. - Key West to Cancun world record
And that record was not taken from just any old boater, no sir, it had been held by boat building legend and performance guru Reggie Fountain, a man who, it can safely be said, knew how to get the best out of a high-performance boat.
Back to Bob Barnhart; the Canadian is a highly-experienced boater, and over the years has owned Fountains, Formulas, Cigarettes and Nor-Tech performance rigs.
Although he has never competed in sanctioned offshore races, he has done numerous Poker Runs and an array of what could only be termed 'high-speed cruising.'
The word 'slow' is not really on Bob’s radar.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Bob and his pride and joy, ‘Team Predator’ on the magnificent waters surrounding the US and British Virgin Islands, where Bob keeps his boat for his regular Caribbean cruises.
I learnt very quickly indeed that Bob is a skilled hand at the wheel and knows and understand his boat in every sense.
His story about the Gulf crossing was quite fascinating.
The idea to make the run stemmed from an article Bob had read in the respected US publication, ‘Powerboat,’ back in 2007.
'There was an advertisement in the magazine concerning Fountain powerboats and it remarked that Reggie had established an official speed record from Key West to Cancun.' Bob recalled.
'At the time, I thought to myself what a cool thing that would be to do.'
That, shall we say, planted the seed in the fertile Barnhart brain.
In his never-ending search for perfection in boats, Bob decided that when it came to a package offering both speed and durability, Nor-Tech, based in Fort Myers, Florida, really did fill the bill.
Luck was on his side.
He contacted Terry Sobo, of Nor-Tech, laid out his proposal and was delighted that the company saw merit in the plan and backed him to the proverbial hilt.
Bob was not about to order a boat 'off the rack'; ‘Team Predator’ was custom-built to his specifications, a Nor-Tech 5000 powered by triple Yanmar diesels delivering 480hp each and sending the power to the water via Arneson ASD-8 drives.
The custom inclusions included a 400-gallon (1514-litres) fuel tank, Garmin chart-plotters, autopilot, bow thrusters, sonar, an electric compass and communication headsets and digital data displays.
Garmin chart plotter shows 'Team Predator' loping along nicely at 50.6mh, just 263 miles to go. - Key West to Cancun world record
To aid in the long distance factor, air conditioning, a head and a galley were included.
As any good skipper would do, Bob also sticked the boat with the necessary gear demanded by an open ocean crossing – a life raft, satellite telephone, an EPIRB, commercial grade flares and a back-up, hand-held GPS.
The engine room was not overlooked; despite the triple Yanmar installation being brand new and having attainted a glowing reputation for being dependable and durable, Bob carried aboard a range of spare parts, specifically belts, filters and propellers.
Kevin Cooper (right) hands Terry Sobo a new propeller, just one of those little tasks powerboat crew's have to do. - Key West to Cancun world record
One unique feature ‘Team Predator’ was adorned with was a GPS tracking device known as ‘Spot’; this enabled Bob to periodically leave a mark on an electronic chart interfaced with Google Earth.
This enabled Bob’s family and friends to follow his progress to and from Cancun in real time.
It was time to choose a crew and Bob declared himself very fortunate to have gathered some top men around him comprising Nor-Tech’s Terry Sobo, friends from Naples, Florida, in Hans Haedelt and photographer Jay Nichols and a man who proved to be indispensable, Kevin Cooper.
An experienced offshore racer, Kevin was at the time president of the Pacific Offshore Powerboat Racing Association and a man with plenty of tough ocean racing to his credit.
When the team was ready (and raring!) to go, the usual happened in that weather proved totally uncooperative.
'When conditions were ideal at Key West, it was anything but at Cancun; when Cancun was all in our favour, it was anything but at Key West,' he lamented at the time.
Finally, Bob felt confident enough in the forecast he received to call the crew together, even thought it was short notice for all involved.
Timing was important, it was May, and the following month would not only herald the beginning of summer, but also of the hurricane season.
The ‘weather Gods’ eventually gave their blessing.
As Hans Haedelt recalled, it was a case of 'pack your bag and get yourself here now.'
'How could I refuse, this was one to cross off the bucket list,' he told Bob.
Boat and crew came together at Key West’s Galleon Marina at 0600hrs and spent the next 80 odd minutes checking every aspect of boat and equipment.
They departed at 0723 and when clear of the harbour began making very good time.
In conditions described as 'dead flat' ‘Team Predator’ was making 65mph (104.5 kph) and Bob recalled thinking ' this will be a piece of cake, we’re going to smash this record.'
Famous last words!
‘Team Predator’ and its crew did not know what was ahead.
As they entered the Straits of Florida the seas began building, initially four-foot (1.2-metres) swells, managed fairly easily by a ruggedly-built 50-footer, but before long they had developed into six-footers (1.82-metres) and continued steadily building.
The hills of the island nation of Cuba could be seen in the distance and as they cleared the western tip of the island the conditions became decidedly less friendly!
I guess it had to happen; a ‘rouge wave’ appeared out of nowhere, looking like a wall of water and it launched ‘Team Predator’ into the air.
Photographer Jay Nichols did not see it coming and was caught unawares, slamming down on the deck and sustaining a painful compressed vertebrae.
He was in considerable pain and the crew’s first thought was to examine the feasibility of turning around to seek medical assistance.
The distance covered meant they were past the half-way mark, and it made turning around out of the question and it would have been doubtful if they had enough fuel.
They decided to press on, making Jay as comfortable as possible, strapping him securely in a standing position into the navigator’s bolster seats.
Standing meant less pressure on the injured back.
After spending considerable time at the wheel, Bob tuned the helm over to Kevin Cooper, with just 150 miles (241 kilometres) to go.
Kevin Cooper checks on 'Team Predator's fuel reserves, jerry cans lashed aft which threatened to come adrift as heavy seas pounded the boat. - Key West to Cancun world record
With one eye on his injured crewmate and the other on the approaching seas, Cooper gently increased pressure on the throttles.
Bob explained that Kevin felt had 'got into a rhythm’ and the miles were slowly ticking away.
'Kevin made up all the time we had lost in the rough conditions and all in all did a phenomenal job on the wheel,' Bob declared.
With land in sight, the team knew success was at hand; they had done it, they had crossed some of the most treacherous waters in the region and covered the 400-miles in just eight hours and 23 minutes.
'It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything,' Bob Barnhart said.
No doubt his crew would echo those very words.
So what did I mean earlier when I stated that Bob Barnhart is hoping, make that praying, that someone comes along and smashes his record?
As Bob puts it, having crossed the Gulf twice (‘Team Predator’ made the return Cancun to Key West crossing taking just two minutes longer) he now knows exactly what is required and is supremely confident that ‘Team Predator’ can post superior times to those achieved in 2008 - the eight hours 23 minutes.
Nearly there ....'Team Predator' enters Cancun Harbour. - Key West to Cancun world record
'So I want someone to come along and better that time and therefore give me the necessary reason to take the Gulf on again,' he explained.
I learnt one thing when boating with Bob down in those fabulous Virgin Islands, I learnt that it would not be a good idea to bet against him doing it!
'Team Predator's crew, back row, left to right Hans Haedelt,Bob Barnhart and Jay Nichols. Front row, Terry Sobo (left) and Kevin Cooper. - Key West to Cancun world record
The graphic on the side of 'Team Predator's ' coaming says it all. - Key West to Cancun world record