When the red flag dropped and the 23 boats roared to full throttle for the start of the 185-mile Miami-Nassau Ocean Power Boat Race last Wednesday, clouds were scudding through the tops of the palms that line the shores of Government Cut. A late-season northeaster had kept small-craft warnings flying until noon the day before, and the wind had diminished little overnight. "The most rugged ocean race in the world," the official bulletins of Nassau's Coral Harbour Yacht Club had said, and the weather bureau was cooperating to make the boast come true.
In Government Cut the water lay smooth. Aboard Dick Bertram's Moppie I was slammed back into my chair as Skipper Sam Griffith gunned the engines, the fleet dropped astern and the wake stretched like a wide white road back toward our nearest competitors, a road that grew steadily longer. Dick Bertram and I looked at each other in amazement as the gap opened. We grinned. We had believed other boats would be faster in calm water and based our victory hopes on the performance of our V-stern Hunt design in the heavy seas of the open ocean and the punishing chop of the Bahama Bank.
Among our rivals was Forest Johnson in Tooky, latest of his Prowler creations, powered by twin 325-hp Crusaders, which dockside gossip credited with speeds approaching 60 mph. There was another Prowler, Black Caesar III, with nearly as much power and speed. There was
Miss Palm Springs
, a stripped-down Abbey, and two water jet-powered Buehler Turbocraft. We had assumed that these boats at least would take Moppie on the flat.
After a mile Moppie hit the first ocean swell beyond the breakwater. That ended our verbal enthusing. We pulled on the skindivers' face-masks, brought as protection against flying spray, and held on tight. As a sailboat sailor I was not hep to the ways of the high-speed-and-power world. "It's like parachute jumping," Sam Griffith had told me before my first ride the previous Saturday. "You don't need much experience."
And, in truth, I felt like an astronaut practicing in his three-dimensional merry-go-round: loop, circle and spin all at once. We suffered an astronaut's weightlessness. Objects not fastened down—like myself—repeatedly hung suspended in space. Each re-entry brought the suspended object back on the deck of Moppie with a solid smack. Some shocks were severe enough to bounce the face mask from eyes to chin. The tubular aluminum chairs aft disintegrated rapidly under our weight, and we threw them overboard. The two nonsteering members of the crew adopted a variety of positions which had nothing to do with human dignity or comfort. The problem was to find a way to hold yourself both up and down—at the same time. The spray from the bow wave jetted out like water from a fire hose, fanning sheets of water 50 feet to either side that blew off to leeward like heavy smoke.
ENJOYING THE RIDE
My sailing colleagues may doubt this, but as soon as I was convinced Moppie would land right side up after each succeeding sea, I began enjoying myself. Even to one unfamiliar with the type it was obvious she was a wonderful sea boat: 30 feet over-all, built to designs by C. Raymond Hunt of Marblehead in the yard of Richard H. Bertram in Miami by workmen only recently from Havana, Moppie's underwater form was unusual—V-shaped not only forward but all the way back to the transom. General practice is to rely on a flat stern to gain planing effect which lessens drag and adds speed. Our hull also had a series of longitudinal strakes designed to help lift the boat onto a plane and to contribute stability by lessening the tendency of the boat to roll.
In the Gulf Stream a steep, confused sea was running, and Moppie immediately came into her own. Within minutes the fleet had dwindled to dots wreathed in spray. Long before the skyline of Miami Beach dropped below the horizon the rest of the boats were out of sight astern. The twin 275-hp Interceptor engines alternately roared and purred as Sam Griffith nursed us over the biggest seas, careful not to let the propellers come out of the water. We had a pair of soft-metal propellers. Bertram had been unable to get any of the specially hardened props designed to stand the stresses that occur when they pop in and out of the water. Watching Sam steer and handle the throttles, I realized that as much delicacy of touch and sense of conditions was required here as in taking a 12-meter sailing yacht to windward.
Meanwhile, a number of the other boats were in trouble.
Miss Palm Springs
had barely cleared the breakwater when both engines began to pull away from the hull mountings, and she withdrew. Five competitors returned after sampling the offshore seas. Two needed Coast Guard escort. Three Hearts Jr. made 15 miles before needing a tow back to port.
Aboard Flica, a Hunt design built under license by Fairey Marine of England, Driver Charles Compton smelled smoke when he was 15 miles west of Cat Cay. Compton lifted the engine hatch to investigate, and he was blown overboard by a tremendous explosion. His crew jumped after him. Both were picked up 20 minutes later by the cruiser Merry Jane, which was in the predicted log division of the race. They were landed and flown to the hospital in Nassau while Flica burned to the water and sank.