Flying Through the Field of Dreams
Story by Ashley Shaffer
Photo by Will Kanellos
Fans focus their attention on the starting line as the bright orange engine of jet boat 151 starts to rumble. Driver Kyle Patrick concentrates on the track as he slowly glides the boat to the Field of Dreams starting line. Mentally navigating the course’s water channels, he envisions the moment he will break through the checkered-flag finish line with the day’s fastest time. Kyle looks to Alex Patrick, his 19-year-old daughter in the navigator’s seat. Both are anticipating a win.
The green starting flag drops—the race begins. Exhilarated spectators spring to life as the engine roars and a frothy jet of white water spews behind the boat. One, two, three seconds pass by, and Kyle and Alex are weaving through the track’s tight corners at 90 miles per hour.
Each jet boat team consists of a driver and a navigator who work together to direct their boat through a maze of twisting water channels only 12 to 15 feet wide and less than a meter deep. The teams individually race against the clock to beat their competitors’ times.
“I get a little nervous if we wobble a bit, but I trust my dad,” says Alex, who began racing for the Psycho Racing Team alongside her father in 2009. She enjoys the adrenaline rush she feels as the boat picks up speed and the pride she sees in her father’s face when they race. “How proud he is of me for racing is an awesome feeling,” she says. As the boat’s navigator, Alex is responsible for monitoring oil pressure and water temperature gages during the race, as well as pointing her dad in the right direction when he is uncertain where to turn. “There are a few times I’ve saved him,” Alex laughs.
Kyle says he loves being able to spend time with Alex competing in a sport they both enjoy. The father-daughter team drives a 13-foot A-400 jet boat powered by a 411 CID Chevrolet engine. “You just can’t win a race without your team working together, and how cool [is it] that Alex is a part of that with me?” he says. Growing up in a family that enjoys racing at high speeds, Kyle says many life experiences led him to his jet boat racing career. “I have been in a boat since I was six months old; I’ve raced motocross and water-skied since I was six—it didn’t take much to get me into the water,” he says.
Jet boat racing, also known as jet sprinting, is a competitive sport that originated on the rivers of New Zealand. The sport made its way to Australia in the mid-1980s, where the competitions became safer by racing on man-made tracks. By the 1990s, the sport had finally migrated to the US. In 2007, Kyle and a few friends decided they would bring jet boat racing to Tangent, Oregon. Teaming up with a landowner who shared his interest in the sport, Kyle designed the course and dug a track into a field on the property. “We named it the Field of Dreams because it was our dream to bring a racetrack here,” Kyle says.
One round of races usually lasts less than a minute, and within that time each boat makes 25 to 30 hairpin turns at up to seven g-forces, which can result in a boat running off the track or flipping over. Before he began racing jet boats equipped with roll cages, Kyle participated in much riskier whitewater river racing competitions. “River racing is just insane and dangerous,” Kyle says.
In 2001 Kyle lost his good friend, Bruce Mills, during a whitewater boat race accident on the Salmon River in Riggins, Idaho. While traveling more than 100 miles per hour, their boat hit a wave and flipped, landing upside down in the water. Mills was killed instantly. Kyle was pinned under the boat in 40-degree water for more than one minute while trying to unlock his five-point racing seatbelt. When he finally set the harness loose, Kyle spent 30 minutes struggling to swim to shore against the river’s strong current. “The other racers were trying to get to Bruce as they came down river two to five minutes behind us,” Kyle says. It wasn’t until after he reached the shore that safety crews arrived at the accident. “This has changed the whitewater sport,” Kyle says. Whitewater races are now shorter and have more safety crews stationed throughout the courses so paramedics can quickly reach injured racers.
Kyle says getting back on the water after the death of his close friend was intimidating, but he admits it was only a month after the accident that he tried again. “I made myself go out on a jet ski on the river because I didn’t want to be afraid of it,” Kyle says. A year later in 2002, he took his first ride in a jet boat in Grants Pass, Oregon, and fell in love with the sport.
“We are doing zero to 90 miles per hour in less than three seconds,” Kyle says. “We have a fighter pilot who’s racing, and what I understand is that he likes the boats more than the F-18s. It’s more fun!”
Eric Werner, who works as an Alaska Airlines pilot and Navy Reserve instructor pilot at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, has been soaring on the jet boat racetracks for more than three years. Werner is part of the Jolly Rogers Racing Team and says he adapts skills learned in the sky for his jet boat races. “It helps me think ahead of where we are going, which you need to do while flying,” Werner says. “I close my eyes and visualize from start all the way to finish two or three times before each run. It’s like studying or memorizing, and it takes a lot of mental discipline to do that.”
Although Werner may be used to rocketing at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour in the sky, he still gets nervous when approaching the racetrack’s starting line. “The first run of every race, I still definitely get nerves, butterflies, and shaky fingers,” he says. However, if he manages to finish the first race without penalties or mistakes, he says his butterflies fade and he’s able to focus on the races ahead.
Beyond the adrenaline rush, the speed, and the water, there is another benefit to jet boat racing: “I love the family aspect of it. This is our summer family,” Werner says. “The coolest part of it is your competitors will loan you parts to help you go faster because everybody’s in it together and we just want the sport to grow.”