Howard Arneson

There’s something symbiotic going on between San Rafael’s Howard Arneson and water. In his lifetime, he’s invented, patented and successfully marketed two very different devices that made major marks in their fields. The only commonality is that they each work only in water. In the early 1960s, Arneson, now a robust 87, hit upon the idea of a pressure-operated pool cleaning device that floats on water while tending to its business. “It took three years to get us out of the ‘hand-to-mouth’ stage, followed by 12 years of managing the growth,” he says, recalling those early days. “But the eventual success of the pool sweep business enabled me to pursue my true love—high-speed offshore powerboats.”

Arneson, who has lived in Peacock Gap for 20 years, has been interested in powerboats since he was a boy in Benicia. By the 1950s, he was racing hydroplanes, a pursuit that ended when he went airborne one day at 92 miles an hour, flipping end over end and waking up in the hospital. “Indirectly,” he says, “that led to my developing the pool sweep.” Fifteen years later he was back on the water, this time racing cigarette boats in the Pacific Ocean off Newport Beach.

In the 1980s, Arneson came up with his next stroke of genius: the revolutionary Arneson Surface Drive. Typically, a powerboat’s propeller is submerged in at least two feet of water—but not with the Arneson drive. “The drive is a simple unit,” he says. “One set of hydraulic pistons keeps the prop half in and half out of the water. Another set moves the prop from side to side, which effectively steers the boat.” Because of their efficiency and handling ability, Arneson drive units are now utilized not only in powerboats, but in large yachts, ferries and military patrol boats.

Arneson and the Arneson drive had their 15 minutes of fame in September 1990. “Actually,” he says, “it was more like 12 hours, 40 minutes, 50 seconds.” That was precisely how long it took Arneson, then 69, to pilot a 32-foot Skater catamaran 1,039 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis. “Our time beat the previous record by over seven hours,” he says. A 1,325-horsepower GE turbine that averaged 82 miles per hour—including four fuel stops—powered Arneson’s fiberglass craft. “Several times we reached 110 miles per hour,” he says. “It was like standing in a gale for 12 hours. When it was over, I was black and blue for a month.”

Arneson’s current passions are many. Foremost is Eva, his wife of 57 years. “She’s a great lady,” he says. “No other person would or could put up with my lifestyle. She’s a saint.” Another is his latest powerboat, a 46-foot Skater powered by a 4,500-horsepower Lycoming turbojet engine that he is still testing on runs out of Loch Lomond Marina. “I think we’ll eventually see 170 miles per hour,” he says. “This is the same engine that powers the Army’s Chinook helicopter.”

Other Arneson involvements are digital photography (“last summer, I got great shots of the Blue Angels cutting across San Francisco Bay and the Queen Mary sliding under the Golden Gate Bridge”) and his 2006 gold Aston Martin DB9 coupe, which is capable of doing 186 miles an hour should the opportunity present itself (“I drive that car every day, except when it rains”).

“No one has more fun in this life than me,” he says. “There’s always something I’m looking forward to.”