Donnie "The Terminator" Brown - Boating Magazine Article
May 16, 2006
"The Terminator" Boating Magazine - June 2006 By Jeff Hemmel. Photo by Fresh Air Photo The fisherman first notices the leaping object in his peripheral vision, a telltale glimmer of spray with shimmering silver and blue. With small-craft advisories keeping most of the yahoos ashore, this one will surely go in his box. So he changes his heading to cross its path and settles in. He's never seen one leap so often or so far. It's a monster, maybe a recordbreaker. But when it finally gets close, the letdown is crushing. There, launching from a wave, are the telltale body markings: M-A-S-T-E-R-C-R-A-F-T. It's a skiboat with some idiot on a suicide mission jumping off six-foot walls. When the boat flies past, the guy driving offers an improbable line, almost lost in the breeze: "Nice day, isn't it?" "Nice day?" the angler says to the others onboard. "You couldn't pay me enough to bang around in a little boat on a day like this." But the guy in the ski boat obviously has his price. It's another day at the office for test technician Donnie Brown, also known as "The Terminator". Saddled with the enviable task of thrashing somebody else's toys for pay, Brown gets the latest boats, takes them out in the worst possible conditions and then does the exact opposite of what your owner's manual warns you not to do. "I got my job playing ice hockey," chuckles the boyish-looking 52-year-old, who by chance happened to be playing in a Knoxville league with a couple guys from MasterCraft. "The company had just developed its Saltwater Series and wanted to have the Crusader engines tested for 500 hours in the ocean. But they didn't have anybody with saltwater experience." Knowing that Brown, a former marine electrician at Rybovich Spencer who had also lived in the Bahamas, now had time on his hands, MasterCraft floated an offer: How would he like to do the testing? After Brown signed on, the suits said they could ship the boat anywhere he wanted. "I told them to just put it in the lake by the factory," says Brown, "and I'd take it from there." Lake Tellico connects to the Tennessee River, which leads to the Tenn-Tom Waterway, which ultimately deposits you in the salty Gulf of Mexico, at Mobile, Alabama. From there its east along Florida's panhandle, down its west coast, across the state through Lake Okeechobee, and out into the Atlantic. It is the ultimate shakedown cruise. "It took me eight days to do 1,600 miles," explains Brown with a grin. "And I had a ball doing it. I knew then that this was the job I was meant to do." Needs Salt: Recognizing the inherent value of regularly subjecting its boats to these conditions, MasterCraft soon made Brown's short-time gig a full-time job. By the end of 2005 he had tested five new models, each enduring the punishment and salty conditions you can only get in the Atlantic. "On the lake, you might be able to pound the boat for a little while in small stuff," explains Brown. "But in the ocean, as long as I'm willing to take the abuse, I can pound the boat all day long." Surviving the beating may be the first lesson Brown can teach us. While most boaters don't intentionally go out when it's rough, you can get caught - and take a terrible beating. As MasterCraft engineers have discovered, even one wave can take a brutal toll. They have recorded hits of up to 18 Gs in the lake, and as high as 33 Gs offshore. That's why Brown always wears a PFD with the kill switch lanyard attached. To lessen the abuse he has to take when heading upwind, he avoids charging directly into waves. Veering away by only 10 or 20 degrees can make a big difference. he heads off to port for a while, then to starboard. In effect this zigzagging increases the distance between wave crests. You don't take as much of a pounding, and you may be able to go fast enough to make up for the extra distance traveled. Brown also suggests taking a lesson from offshore racers and getting your legs into the act to save your back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and keep your hands on the wheel. Seats with flip-up bolsters are best as they give you something to brace your butt against. This lets you hold yourself in a position and still use your knees for shock absorbing. If your seat doesn't flip-up, increase the seat's height with a cushion or two to give you something to lean against. And watch the throttle. The shock of rough seas can vibrate the lever forward, increasing speed without your realizing it. Don't, however, hang onto the throttle; you can accidentally jam it forward when coming off a large wave and lose control fast. Natural Selection: Of course, when Brown "breaks" a boat, the product is ultimately better for it. When an engineer grabbed the windshield frame for support (as many of us do), it broke free from the deck. The company now adds more screws to the windshield base. After Brown noted that most people put their cell phones in a cupholder, which tend to fill with water when they take a splash over the windshield, MasterCraft experimented with cargo-net pockets under the helm - one of the few dry places on a runabout. Salty conditions also reveal problems that might never be discovered in freshwater. For example, some of the stainless steel cupholders were stamped out with a steel die at the factory. This left steel dust on the edge of the holder that eventually left a rust ring on the boat. MasterCraft changed suppliers. Much of what's tested lies below the surface, in areas we'll never see. After Brown is through with a boat, it's taken apart. One of the things MasterCraft has learned from this is to trust glas-reinforced Marelon shaft logs, drain plugs, and through hull fittings, an interesting change from the more traditional bronze or stainless steel. The program also allows MasterCraft to test construction methods. Brown points to one recent example where a vendor pitched a new lightweight material that promised increased strength. With a potential savings of several hundred dollars per boat, the manufacturing people wanted it tested. So Brown ran a one-off prototype. "It took me about an hour to totally destroy the boat with a cracked hull and deck," laughs Brown. "I'm always trying to push things to their limit. That's where it gets interesting...and revealing." From this he has learned what to look for on any boat and notes that wiring is particularly vulnerable. Wires must be bundled together and fastened so they don't move and chafe. There must be no hanging wires under the dash or other compartments. Brown also suggests not trusting the manufacturer or dealer to make your boat ship-shape. "When you get a new boat, go over it with a wrench and screwdriver. Tighten everything," he suggests. And periodically check those fasteners. If you find something that's constantly coming loose, even if it seems minor, immediately tell the dealer to fix it. On a boat, small problems can escalate into big ones all too fast. Brown found that out the hard way. Never wait, fix it now. Rain or Shine: Brown's biggest problem isn't keeping his kidneys in one place - it's dealing with the weather. Routinely going out into the ocean means getting caught in less than ideal conditions. So he's learned to read the forecaster's signs. Static on an AM radio is an indication of far-off lightning and an approaching storm. When a storm cloud's outer edges seem to be moving in the same direction, the storm will probably miss you. But if the edges are spreading apart, like opening arms, prepare for the worst. A lot of rain before the wind hits means a long blow. But if there is a sharp gust followed by rain, it will be over shortly. The one good thing about a small, fast boat at sea is that you can go around a storm. Last summer, Brown found himself in the crosshairs of an afternoon Florida boomer coming at him from land to the west. As it came closer, he could see the storm was tending north so he headed south in an easy beam sea. If the storm had been coming along the coast, he would have headed ofshore to let it pass between him and the beach or run in the opposite direction to look for an inlet or shelter. Storms can travel at 20 to 40 mph, so it's usually better to go around one than try to outrun it. Weather is only part of the game, and despite his youthful appearance, Brown admits the abuse is taking its toll, making it a little harder to get out of bed after a particularly brutal day of testing. As he's finding out, boats can take a lot more of beating than the human body. Overall, however, it's still one hell of a job. "I try to get out when the sun's coming up over the ocean, then settle in to running the boat and taking notes," says Brown, displaying the contented look of someone who enjoys his work. "I have lunch at a nice restaurant along the waterway, then finish my run and watch the sun set over the city. Just another day at the office."