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Youngstown company to offer jetboat trips through rapids

Don’t worry, it only seems like you’re going to die.

Sure, people have lost their lives attempting to cross through the “impassible” class 6 rapids of the Niagara Gorge. And even the high-powered jetboats that take hundreds of tourists through the class 5 whirlpool rapids each summer stop just short of the churning, roiling waters capable of pulling massive watercraft to the depths below.

But a Youngstown company says it has built a boat so safe, and trained pilots so expert, that it will make passing through the deadly stretch a common occurrence by next summer.

Niagara Jetboat Adventures plans to offer high-adrenaline trips that journey from Water Street in Youngstown, through the class 6 rapids nicknamed “Helter Skelter,” “the Himalayas” and “the Pipeline,” and pausing at the base of Niagara Falls to take in its serene beauty, before turning around and blasting back through the rapids once more.

The danger of the rapids is a big part of the thrill, but co-owner Chris Bohnenkamp, who designed, manufactured and pilots the jetboat, said it’s as safe as “a ride to the grocery store.”

“If it was dangerous, we wouldn’t do it,” he said.

About 20 staff members took a training run Saturday – Bohnenkamp’s 16th trip – as part of a continuous process of mapping the rapids and developing the safety protocols that will dictate future tours.

“Well, it was nice knowing you guys,” one joked.

“We’re going straight into the snake pit,” said another.

With heavy metal music blaring through the sound system and passengers holding tight to the bars in front of them, the glass-enclosed vessel revved.

But instead of powering through the waves – some standing 25 feet tall – and smacking down in a hard belly flop, the boat hugged them, traveling up one side and down the other. At any given point, the nose of the boat pointed up toward the sky or down into the white-capped waves, sometimes sending a wall of water over the entire boat, giving passengers the pulse-pounding illusion of being completely submerged.

Every time the boat made it through another churning channel, throwing passengers up into the air as it dropped for what seemed like forever, passengers cheered and high-fived each other.

At one point, with tall, green waves thrashing on all sides, the boat seemed as if it was stuck in a rut. Passengers searched the captain’s face for signs of worry as he throttled and rocked the boat back and forth the way one does when trying to dislodge a car that’s stuck in the snow. Once he freed it from that spot, he explained that he was merely timing the wave in order to pass over it.

It’s scary, the way a roller coaster is scary: Everyone assures you there is no imminent danger, but there’s always that fear that something could go wrong. Even then, that’s part of the allure.

But Bohnenkamp and co-owner Michael Fox insist that even in the worst-case scenario, passengers are always safe.

The 2,300-horsepower boats that will take tourists into the rapids will have four independent engines, each one capable of pulling the ship out on its own, were the other three to fail. They’ll have fully redundant circuitry and fuel systems. They’ll have manual steering, hydraulic steering and backup electrical steering systems. The boat is designed to right itself under any conditions, the windows are three-quarter-inch, ABS-crash-certified glass, and the bottom is built “like a Sherman tank,” with 6061-grade aluminum.

Saturday’s test run was done on a boat that is about half as tall and wide as the next-generation boats will be that will take tourists out. Two of those boats are being built now in Boise, Idaho, for $2 million apiece. They will be shipped to Youngstown in April, and will make hundreds of practice runs before hopefully taking tourists aboard in June.

The Coast Guard has to sign off with final approval before the company can get up and running, but the owners see no problems passing that hurdle.

The two-hour trip will cost about $165 per person, and passengers must be at least 40 inches tall. Those boats, unlike the ones used Saturday, will have seat belts and stadium seating, for a better view.

Fox said he also expects the jetboat to be a resource during rescue missions, when hikers and tourists find themselves in peril, as has happened with fatal results several times in the past. Right now, the Coast Guard does not have boats capable of passing through the class 6 rapids, and rescues are made from other points of entry, or by scaling the banks of the gorge.

The company already offers tours that pass through the class 5 whirlpool rapids and Devil’s Hole. And though class 6 rapids are the deadliest classification in the world, the Niagara Gorge’s rapids don’t have the same rocky configuration as others in the world, making them safer to navigate, Fox said.

“Growing up around here, you think there are demons in those rapids. You think Zeus is running around and the Kraken is going to come out,” said Fox. “But we’ve taken Mother Nature out of it and put technology in.”