Catamaran Sailing
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On the Wire - Humor
Vol 1 - Issue 4 December 1996

World's Fastest Hobie 16
JATO Units: Feeling the Need for Speed.
By Bill Mattson

The idea started back when we were reading responses to our story on using AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on a Hobie for the purposes of PWC "removal". After viewing the results of missile firings, some readers suggested permanently mounting unarmed missiles on the boat for the purposes of propulsion. We considered the idea a bit silly, and very dangerous, since the missiles were in no way designed to propel anything more than the missile itself. However, we also found the idea of rocket propulsion to be compelling, and decided to pursue it using equipment more safe, responsible, and appropriate for the job: JATO units.

JATO (Jet Assisted Take Off) units are solid fuel rocket boosters usually reserved for the short field take off operations of military aircraft. The devices have been used for a variety of applications, from fighters to large cargo aircraft. Picture yourself on that long reach in pitifully mild winds. You have 6 or 7 boats ahead of you, but the calm conditions leave you resigned to the fact you will never get ahead. Technology to the answer. With one flick of a switch, you can be ahead of the pack in very short order.

It's a sunny morning on lower Castaic Lake, and we are on the beach, fitting the JATO units on the boat. It's not immediately obvious at first, but the PWC owners are beginning to come off of the lake, one by one. Considering both the appearance of the JATO units, and our reputation, most of the PWCers take the "better safe than sorry" approach and go home. That missile thing a couple months ago really messed with their heads.

While I and the "ground crew" are mounting the units, "test pilot" Frank Pineau is getting suited up.

"You guys are using the explosive bolt mountings, right?", Frank yells from the van.

"Uh... Yeah, Frank. We're wiring 'em up right now.", I reply.

Earlier, when researching this experiment, Frank became increasingly concerned with the concept that JATO units are actually solid fuel rocket boosters, and cannot be "turned off" if the need arises. The obvious solution was to mount the units with explosive bolts. This way, if things became out of control, the units could be quickly detached. Now, the truth is, we were not able to get a hold of any explosive bolts. But Frank was really preoccupied with them, so we rigged up a big red button near the mast base that said "Explosive Bolts" on it with a little smiley face. It was not wired up to anything. But since Frank is a really good friend of mine, I figured that giving him some piece of mind was the least I could do.

Just as we finish mounting the JATOs, Frank emerges from the van looking ready for action. The wet suit / flame suit combo was impressive looking, along with the crash helmet and parachute. The later being another item that Frank was unreasonably insistent upon.

"Maybe this isn't such a good idea", Frank says as he glances uneasily at the boat.

"Nonsense!", I reply. "We've taken every precaution. Flame suit, helmet, 1/4 inch forestay and bridle... Even that silly parachute your wearing!"

"And the explosive bolts.", Frank adds.

"Yeah, yeah!" I slap Frank on the back. "How did I forget to mention those."

The run up Lower Castaic is about a 2 miles long, and ends at the solid concrete wall of Castaic Dam. We will be propelling the boat up the length of the lake, towards the dam. A lifeguard has come down to the beach to examine our boat.

"Are those what I think they are?", he asks.

"JATOs.", I reply. "Solid rocket motors." I introduce Frank Pineau as the soon to be "fastest sailor in the world", and explain our experiment.

"Which way you plan on pointing this contraption?", he asks.

"That way." I reply. "Up towards the dam."

He glances up the lake. "Every man must make his mark. Look's like Frank's is going to be about 40 feet right of the spillway".

We all got a really good laugh from this remark. Except Frank.

"Maybe this isn't such a good idea."

"Come on, Frank!", I chide. "He was only kidding. You know those lifeguards. Real prudes when it comes to any adventurous stuff." I begin to seriously worry that he is going to back out of this. "Remember the big red button", I remind him. "One push, and those bad boys are gone."

A small crowd gathers as we push the boat off the sand and into the water.

"I sure hope you know what I'm doing.", Frank says.

"Relax. You're about to make history."

As Frank climbs onto the trampoline, I give some last minute instructions. "Sail out to that red marker buoy, then point the boat up the lake. Don't light the units until you are past the buoy. Otherwise, you are going to light up those trees over there and really get the lifeguards upset. Stay to the right side of the lake. I'm not sure how far these things will take you, but if you get to the dam, you are going to need some room to turn around."

"Or I could just use the explosive bolts."

"Well.... yeah.... but I think turning around should be your first choice." Damn the lifeguard. Ever since that remark about the dam I can't help but think maybe I should have really hooked up that red button.

"Here... take this.", I say as I hand him a small two-way radio. "We will want to keep in contact."

Frank cranks in the sheet, then begins to sail slowly out to the launch area.

"First the missile thing, and now this. You guys are crazy." the lifeguard remarks.

"They laughed at Kineival when he was jumping Snake River!", I claim.

"He didn't make it."

"Okay, well... poor example. You can call us crazy, but this is science. You cannot advance science without taking some risks."

"Risks? You're standing here on the beach with a radio and a beer. It's that poor bastard in the silly suit on the boat that is taking all the risks."

I look out to Frank and feel a twinge of guilt.

It quickly passes.

"Okay Frank...", I say into the radio. "Whenever you're ready."

"I'm in position.", Frank replies. "Here we go.."

Frank moves towards the front crossbar to the control panel. A couple of popping noises are heard, followed by an intense roar and bright flash of light. It's show time. The placement of the red buoy was not a very good estimate, as the trees on shore behind the boat immediately burst into flames. Smoke and flame roar from behind the boat,
and the craft begins accelerating at an incredible rate.

Maybe one JATO would have been enough. Maybe 1/8 of one.

Frank comes by the first observation point at an amazing rate of speed. Unfortunately, we had no speed measuring equipment on the boat, but it was obvious he was really "carrying the mail". As a testament to the incredible rate of speed, eye witness accounts and photos suggest that the bows were glowing from friction with the air. (This is something I have yet to see given even the best wind conditions.) Some claim to hear Frank screaming at this point, but this could not be substantiated given the loud roar of the JATOs. Some witnesses at the first observation point reported
seeing Frank pounding furiously on "the big red button", but I can't believe this since the experiment had just barely started.

"I CAN'T HOLD HER DOWN!!!", Frank yelled in his first radio contact.

The boat then began to go airborne.

"A little change of flight plans?", the lifeguard asks.

Apparently, my concern was obvious since I had now put my beer down in the sand. "At least he'll be too high to hit the dam, wise guy.", I cleverly retort.

Once airborne, Frank made some really nice "tacks" from side to side, assuming he had any control whatsoever. There were brief contacts from the radio, but most were unintelligible. I was disappointed in Frank's radio skills, as he was speaking much too loud and fast to be clearly understood. I feel that if you are going 700 or 800 mph on a sailboat in experimental conditions, you should have the courtesy of speaking calmly and clearly into the radio. Just my opinion.

Although we had not planned on the boat leaving the water, I thought Frank was showing very good form in the air. Up until the boat began to break up. The crowd reacted with "oooos" and "ahhhs" as sharp cracks were heard in the sky. Radio contact was lost at this point, and Frank could be seen tumbling along with the wreckage at an approximate altitude of 100 ft. The JATOs continued on their merry way.
I guess the parachute was a good idea after all. I don't believe Frank has ever done any sky diving, but some situations promote a quick learning curve. He hit the water pretty hard, but without the chute it would have been considerably harder.

"Look at all the crap in the lake.", the lifeguard observed. "Your test pilot just deployed the green dye in the water, and you have a bunch of trees on fire.
The Sierra Club is going to be all over your butts on this one!".

He was right. The Fiberglas and aluminum was all over the place. Frank had half the lake looking like lime soda, and the whole south shore was in flames.

Maybe Snake River was not so bad a comparison.

We quickly went out to retrieve Frank. Aside from some scorch marks and a pretty good dent in the side of the helmet, he was in good shape. Once the tanker came through and put out the fire, we spent the rest of the afternoon retrieving pieces of the boat. Frank really had a problem with the explosive bolt "failure", but I pointed out that an electrical fault must have occurred.
"The g forces were incredible.", Frank said. "I wanted to get rid of those bastards from the get go. Once I left the water.... well.... I don't know if I have ever been more scared in my life."

"This whole thing shook me up quite a bit too, Frank. At one point, I put my beer down. If you don't believe me, just ask the wise cracking lifeguard."
Since the purpose of experimentation is discovery, I feel that this exercise was a success. Many things were learned. Most importantly:

  • JATO units are extremely powerful, and should not be used on small sailboats. In fact, they should not be used for anything short of what they were primarily designed for.

  • While Hobie Cat sailboats are exceptionally well built and durable, they cannot be expected to withstand speeds in excess of 500 mph hour, nor the forces transmitted by solid fuel rocket propulsion devices.

  • Regardless of the conditions, it is important to speak clearly and calmly into any communications device if you expect to be understood by the receiving party.

    Some questions remain unanswered, however. How fast was the boat really going? Will I be able to convince Frank to take part in future experiments? But the most compelling question has to be: Where did those JATOS end up?

    On The Wire hereby advises that this article is a parody and that all photos presented are ficticious. Any non-factory modifications to your boat carries the potential of being hazardous, particularly those involving solid rocket propellant. Please do not put JATO units on your boat, get hurt, then blame us for giving you the idea. The whole things a joke. Really.

    Bill Mattson at

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