Photo courtesy Bill Christopher.

Thunder on the Choptank Roars Back to the Bay

Watch powerboats from across the country speed through the water with engines roaring to win the sixth annual Thunder on the Choptank boat races July 22-23 in Cambridge, Maryland. The best place to watch these racers do the impossible is from Gerry Boyle Park at Great Marsh. Take-off begins at 10:30 a.m

The Kent Narrows Racing Association (KNRA), in partnership with the American Power Boat Association, puts on the races, drawing crowds of racing fans to Dorchester County and Maryland’s Eastern Shore for a day of food, drinks and family fun.

“It’s quite a thrill when it when you when you get up to speed, I don’t think there’s anything on earth like it,” Wheeler Baker, president of KNRA, said.

Once a thriving power boating community, Kent Narrows lost touch with the sport and its positive effects, leading a local businessman to form KNRA in 1990, according to the website. The organization strives to restore interest and enthusiasm in powerboating and establish a chance for residents to come together with local businesses in making contributions to the community.

There are 12 different classes of racing in the event with qualifying races taking place on the first day before the finals on the second day. Spectators can get an up-close view of the boats watching from the bleachers or from their own chairs. For those who want to get even closer and have the opportunity to meet some of the racers, a small fee will grant access into the pit. Otherwise, admission is free but there is a parking fee.

Baker said the crowd favorite is always the Jersey Speed Skiffs as the driver and riding mechanic bounce across the water, turning up on the sides of the boat while reaching 80 mph speeds. 

“The guys that drive them are certifiably nuts,” Baker said.

The Dorchester Chamber of Commerce sets up bleachers, manages the food trucks and bars, and supports all other operations outside of the pit. President and CEO Bill Christopher advises spectators to bring their own chairs for comfort, check the weather for any delays and remember that it can get loud as the boats reach 120 to 150 mph speeds.

“So, I think for the folks that come down there there’s a lot of interaction and a lot of community people talking to each other and interacting. It’s not just that you’re sitting in the stands watching cars go by and not being able to actually have an interaction with other people,” Christopher said.

Gerry Boyle Park at Great Marsh is one of the better venues for a race, Christopher said, since spectators are not far from where the boats are lifted in and out of the water and where they pass by in the races. Though the races are long, there is time in between for people to socialize as residents and business owners gather together. The local economy tends to get a boost from travelers coming to the races as well.

Hambrooks Bay, where the races take place, has a long history with powerboat racing since the sport began on the shore 112 years ago and has built a following. The event used to be called Thunder in the Narrows when it was held in the Kent Narrows until the water depth led to a change in location.