ROXBURY, N.J. – New Jersey’s largest lake is a nice place to visit for a lazy day on a state park beach or for slowly paddling a kayak. But that’s not why you should go there this weekend.
The reason to make the trip to Lake Hopatcong this weekend is to witness the opposite. For a couple of dollars, you can watch – and hang out with - drivers of powerboats in the New Jersey State Powerboat Championships.
These aren’t the types who go to lakes for peaceful hours of fishing. The racers you’ll meet Saturday and Sunday are all about horsepower, speed, danger and excitement.
They don't fear much of anything. But blazing across the water at speeds of up to 150 mph, there is one thing they loathe: A gust of wind.
The same rush of air that feels nice when you’re doing chores in the hot sun can kill a powerboat racer, said Roxbury Township resident Katelyn Shaw, vice president of the Lake Hopatcong Racing Association. The non-profit group is hosting the Championships, a sport Shaw loves despite the risks involved.
“We can race in some rain … but if there’s a gust of wind, it’s pretty likely the boat will go over,” Shaw said. “It’s the most dangerous water sport, but we have many safety devices in place.”
The upcoming weekend of racing will be the nation’s biggest powerboat event of the year. Racing out of Lake Hopatcong State Park will be about 100 teams from across the country and Canada, Shaw said.
She said the race returned to Lake Hopatcong last year after a decade hiatus. “We held the race for many years,” Shaw said. “Unfortunately, we were unable to come to an agreement with the state park for some time, but we had somebody new take over the park last year.”
Last year’s race drew about 68 race teams, Shaw said. “Everybody liked the site and the water was great. We have a lot more Canadians making the trip this year as well as race teams that weren’t able to make it last year because of the late notice that the race was on.”
The inboard-engine hydroplanes fly across the water at 90 mph to 150 mph. They follow a mile-long circular course, racing “deck to deck” for five laps, said Shaw.
Although there is a little bit of prize money involved, the powerboat races are primarily a hobby, albeit a highly-competitive one, Shaw said. Teams compete for points and bragging rights.
“It’s really a family atmosphere,” she said. “Most of us are closer to our racing family than we are to our actual families. It’s nice to travel all over country and see competitors. There’s the adrenaline of speed and the danger of the sport that makes it fun. It’s sort of like an addiction I would say.”
At the end of the season, the racers gather for a big banquet. Those with the most points get trophies.
Shaw, 28, said she “was born into racing” powerboats. Her father, David, began powerboat racing in 1973. He told Shaw and her siblings that they would get a boat, when they got old enough, if they made the honor roll.
“I didn’t want to race at the start,” said Shaw, who grew up in Succasunna. “I wanted to be an official and I was an official for a long time. I started driving two years ago.”
Shaw said her twin brother, John, is currently the nation’s points leader in the 1.5 liter stock engine class. If he does well at the upcoming race, he could claim the national title, she said.
Visitors can see the boats up close by buying $10 passes to the racing pits at the state park. Or, for a $5 “parking donation” spectators can watch from the hill overlooking the lake, Shaw said. There will likely be a “spectator fleet” of boats watching from the Bertrand Island area, she added.
While in the area, visitors can explore the lake’s ample selection of restaurants and taverns. Many, including The Jefferson House, Mason Street Pub & Marina, The Windlass and Patrick’s Pub are on the water, so a good number of patrons arrive via boats.
If the call of the water becomes too much to resist, Lake Hopatcong’s jagged shoreline is dotted with businesses offering boat rentals, including Dow’s Boat Rental, Bridge Marina and Lake’s End Marina.
Those wishing to make a weekend out of it can stay at several hotels and motels, including the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in Mount Arlington, the Courtyard Rockaway-Mount Arlington and the Quality Inn in nearby Ledgewood.
To get to the races from the east, aim for Hopatcong State Park by taking I-80 west to Exit 28. Continuue on Landing/Ledgewood-Landing Road to Lakeside Boulevard. The state park is at 6 Lakeside Boulevard, Landing, NJ 07850.