By Joanna Bastian
Wood shavings softly drift to the floor of Dale Burnison’s woodshop, just as snowflakes quietly fill the crevices of Murray Canyon in the upper reaches of the lower Methow Valley.
For years, Dale sat in the pilot seat of hydroplane boats, some with jet engines and others with race car engines. When he wasn’t racing, he worked as a boat mechanic. Today, he is in his woodshop, building a vintage hydroplane from scratch. The design was created by Ron Jones Sr., of the famous Jones family boat builders and designers. “Ron said, ‘If it is fun, do it,’ so I’m doing it,” explained Dale with a smile.
The beginnings of the vintage style hydroplane sit propped up in his woodstove-warmed shop, the underside of the boat rolled upward like a dog waiting for a belly rub. I can’t erase this image of puppy love as Dale runs his hands over the surface and recalls his early days of racing.
Growing up in Seattle’s Rainier Valley along the shores of Lake Washington, “I knew I was going to be a hydroplane racer,” he said. As a boy he watched hydroplanes skimming across the water, the engines roaring, the same engines that propelled WWII fighter planes. “The hydroplane races would come on TV and I ran down to the lake to watch those guys,” he said.
Inside Dale’s house, a few trophies perch on an old roll-top desk. “I’ve a got a box of them somewhere, but these are the ones I like to keep out,” he said.
Among them is the Expo Championships Seafair 1963 280 Hydro, 1st Place — one of his first races. Another engraved trophy is from the 1975 Heidelberg Inboard World Championship, 2nd Place.
For years, Dale raced in the 7-liter class with his boat, “Country Girl.” He stopped racing when he and his wife had kids, as it was a dangerous sport.
“In the old days it was all open and you just hold on,” he said with a chuckle, describing the open-top vintage hydroplanes. The boats would reach speeds of up to 150 miles per hour and one day Dale found himself ripping along under a flipped boat. That adventure required nearly a year of physical recovery, but it didn’t stop him from loving the sport.
When his kids reached their teen years, Dale had another opportunity to race, so he propositioned his kids, explaining that it was possible that he could die. Typical teenagers, they were all for it, so Dale re-entered the world of death-defying speeds in an open-top boat, fueled by the engines of fighter jets and race cars.
When Dale moved from the west side of the Cascades to the drier east side, he was instrumental in bringing the hydro races to Pateros. He worked with the chamber of commerce to start up the initial races in the early 1990s.
Nowadays, the sport is much safer, with closed tops and pilots strapped to the seats. Dale tried that method and found it to be sensory depriving — “I like to look around.” So Dale has moved from the pilot seat to the carpenter shop, planing and laminating the curved edges of a sleeker, more aerodynamic vintage hydroplane.