A local boat that can fly seeks wallet of an angel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was proposed over a beer in Lightning Jack's bar in Pasadena and developed over crabcakes in Glen Burnie's Seaside Crab house.

The two venues say a lot about the campaign to win a national powerboat championship for a Baltimore boat.

It is a purely local effort, financed with local money, fueled by local enthusiasm, and finessed with local expertise. And what better foundation for a Baltimore initiative than beer and crabs?

So successful has it been that the boat is undefeated in its first season of local ownership. Its 4-0 record means that, for all practical purposes, it already owns the 2000 Superboat International Modified Class national championship - even with three races to run.

This weekend, the devil-red and banana-yellow speedster named "how Sweet it is" will be in the Bahamas, racing 10 times around Paradise Island, a 120-mile course through azure seas, aiming to show the rest of the fleet its wake - again.

At the wheel, steering the boat at speeds up to 125 mph, will be Severna Park resident Jim Anselmo, who runs ABS Automotive in Annapolis.

Beside him, on the throttles to keep the boat's pitch as close to perfect as possible, will be Butch Kaminski, of Pasadena's Affordable Marine Center.

And watching them set the pace will be George Stone, Millersville property developer and chief bank-roller of the big-bucks project.

Let's turn the clock back almost 20 years. In the early 1980s, Stone, in his late 30s and already a successful builder, was a water-speed enthusiast with his own "cigarette" boat. He started organizing power-boat races off Tilghman Island that became a fixture on the racing calendar, attracting top national talent to the Chesapeake Bay.

But as the years rolled on, Stone found his reactions and his enthusiasm waning. In 1984, Bob Wilson, of Mear's Point Marina, at Kent Narrows, took over the bay races.

The competition stayed there for several years until power-racing became more professional and the Chesapeake Powerboat Association started to stage the annual Chesapeake Challenge, most recently raced last month in the Inner Harbor.

Stone kept powerboating from his waterfront home on the Magothy River but this year finally changed from a Fountain 40 performance boat to what he calls "a kind of slow" Magnum 40 sports cruiser, with air conditioning, a queen-size bed, and a top speed of 40 mph.

While Stone was decelerating, Kaminski was speeding up. During the Tilghman Island years, he was happy just to be around the racers, even to wash Stone's boat. Soon, he was racing a 24-foot Skater catamaran, then a 30-foot vee-bottom boat powered by twin 450-horsepower engines.

He was a regular on the powerboat circuit, where he kept bumping into Stone. His ambition was simple: to go ever faster.

At one meeting two years ago, he asked Stone if he were interested in funding a boat, but Stone replied he was going to invest in a stock car rather than a power boat.

"It did all right," Stone said. "I was just kind of the money guy. I went to the stock car races, but it wasn't as much fun as boats. In stock cars, you go down to these dirt tracks. You get all this dust."

He also admits to missing the beachside bars and the bikinis.

Meanwhile, Kaminski, still pursuing speed, saw "the perfect boat" for sale in California. It was a 1993 catamaran, a 32-foot Douglas Skater with twin 800 horsepower engines. It had racked up a slew of championships and held the class kilometer speed record at 134.99 mph. The asking price was $300,000, including a truck trailer, spare engines and parts.

He thought of trying to raise the money himself.

"I wasn't involved with anybody," he recalled. "It was something I was going to do by myself, or I was going to build a house. I decided to build the house, instead. It was a smart move, I guess."

It was then that Kaminski again bumped into Stone in Lightning Jack's, where he had popped in for a steak dinner.

"I just asked him if he was interested in doing something with boats this year," Kaminski recalled. "I told him, 'You know you don't like stock cars.' "

Stone replied: "Find the right boat, and then talk to me."

Kaminski quickly assembled a dossier on the California boat and presented it to Stone the next time they met at the bar.

Stone agreed to buy the boat, on condition it tested well. Kaminski immediately headed west to put the boat through its paces.

"I knew the boat was going to run good," he said. "I just didn't know how good it was going to run. I have never been in a boat that balanced."

While Kaminski gave the boat an A-plus, Stone put together a financial partnership but ensured that he kept 51 percent control.

"I don't want to argue with anybody," Kaminski said.

He enlisted his old friends, Daryl Wagner, of Wagner Builders, Millersville, Mike Buclous, of Top Line Construction, Millersville, Mert Onal, of Z Best Limousines, Glen Burnie, and Kaminski.

They got the boat for $200,000 and do most of the work on it themselves, frequently helped by Kaminski's girlfriend, Pam Harris, a buyer with Peake Technology, of Columbia.

The partners formed how Sweet it is, a limited liability company named after their boat, which had been sponsored under previous ownership by Domino Sugar.

Stone says he contacted Domino Sugar to see if the company would renew the sponsorship under local ownership but got no response. Rebuffed, the Baltimore partners, at one of their Seaside Crab house sessions, considered dropping the sugary name but decided that the boat was already so well known that a name change would have been counter-productive.

Under their stewardship this year, the boat has strengthened its reputation as the fastest in the fleet, winning all its championship races in Point Pleasant, N.J., Deerfield Beach, Fla., Baltimore, and New York.

In Baltimore, virtually within the shadow of the Domino Sugar plant, it totally outpaced the opposition to win its class in the Chesapeake Challenge.

It costs between $150,000 and $200,000 a year to keep a boat like how Sweet it is racing. An engine rebuild costs $25,000 for each engine. And how Sweet it is has four. An oil-change leaves little change from $8,000.

To win a $2,000 prize might cost the owners $8,000 or more in entry fees and travel expenses. That's a lot of money, even for George Stone and his friends. So they are looking to line up a major sponsor.

"We have to be No. 1 before they will put up their money," Stone said. "It's like racing cars. If it wasn't for the sponsor putting up $5 million a year, no one could afford it.

"We will be back next year. All these gentlemen that I know will be willing to kick more money in, because they know the boat's going to do well. We are going to make it for the first year or so and then get a sponsor. But the first thing is to show them what we can do."

So today, Kaminski will head down to the dock to check out the boat as soon as he lands in the Bahamas. Tomorrow, he will take how Sweet it is for a spin round Paradise Island, checking out the water on the course before Saturday's race, when he plans to set the pace again.

"I like to know what the water looks like, any shoals, any spots where I could run into anything," he said. "When you go to the races and you know your boat, from A to Z, is ready to go, and you have confidence in the boat, you can race the boat, and you don't have fear of anything. The boat is really safe. I feel really secure in it.

"I can make the boat sit in the water, or I can make it fly."

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