Olsen edges out two-time winner in Fourth of July hydroplane race

The gathered crowd had to tell Karl Olsen, with the first-place trophy, that he had won Friday
The gathered crowd had to tell Karl Olsen, with the first-place trophy, that he had won Friday's race. Olsen is pictured with Larry Fuller.
— image credit: Dan Brown Photo

For The Beachcomber

On a calm Fourth of July morning, Karl Olsen won the annual hydroplane race  around the island, coming in with a personal best time of 40:19.

After passing the finish line, Olsen took a tour of the inner Quartermaster Harbor, and upon returning to Jensen Point, asked members of the 175 or so onlookers, “Who won?” To Olsen’s surprise, the crowd yelled back, “You.”

The winner of the race the last two years, Evan Mattingly, came in second, recording a time of 41:26. Four seconds later, Ty Cristophersen crossed the finish line in third place, and Mitch VanBuskirk came in at 42:08, in fourth place.

But the story of the morning was that of racer Paul Hoffmann. While the hydros were making their 40-minute run around the island, word came back to the spectators at Jensen Point that a hydro had flipped just off the north-end ferry dock. Concerned wives, dads and friends anxiously awaited word of who it was. Word soon arrived that it was Paul Hoffmann, who caught a wave near the ferry dock and flipped his hydro. Hoffmann later explained what happened.

“I went through the front of a wave. The back end of the hydro fishtailed a little bit, and then I went out the front,” he said. “The next thing you know, this thing was pitched around backwards and I was sitting in the water.”

Kimm Shride, an island resident and ferry worker who was working on the ferry dock, caught the flip and ferry service response on video. The ferry Tillikum sent out a rescue boat to investigate. Upon arrival at the scene, it was found that the driver was alright and that the hydros’ chase boat had the situation under control, so the rescue boat returned to the ferry.

The Coast Guard and a King County Sheriff’s Office marine unit also came out to investigate. County police cited Hoffman for not having a Coast Guard-approved life jacket and not having a boater education card. The county deputy read off other possible violations for the driver, including no registration, no sound-proofing device and no carbon monoxide decal.

Hydro drivers have explained that the reason they have not followed all Coast Guard regulations in the past, is that similar hydros in permitted races are not required to comply with all of the Coast Guard’s requirements. Several drivers said that they were going to work to get their hydros to meet those requirements.

The King County Sheriff’s Office, citing safety concerns, contends that the annual race needs to be permitted through the county. Racers have explained that in the 56-plus years the hydros have been circling the island, there has never been an injury, despite several mishaps. The racers say they take many safety measures and the event should not be considered a race, as there is no fee, prize or responsible organization to permit.

The event was stopped by the Coast Guard and county police once in 1973, due to similar code violations.

Hoffman, whose boat flipped, had flushed his motor and had his hydro running again by the afternoon. He will repair the minor damage to his hydro and along with the other drivers gear up for next year. All drivers say they are determined that as long as they can keep their antique hydros running, they will be circling the island every Fourth of July into the future.

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