Offshore powerboat racing, that obsession with driving small boats at high speeds over very large waves, is known to initiates as the Great Kidney Shakedown. The wonderful lunatics who play at it happily shell out $40,000 for a boat without any seats and another $240 to fill it with gas. Then they spend four hours slamming their stomachs, teeth and knee bones loose just to go, say, from Miami to Nassau for a planter's punch. "It is," one of them reports, with a meaningful shake of his head, "pretty expensive torture, but what the hell. We are all—in our wild way—improving the breed."
He was stating a simple fact. Every ocean powerboat race is a seagoing test of hull and engine designs. The surviving boats—retooled with such plush, non-racing additions as toilets, bunk beds and seats—will soon turn up in marinas all around the country. The hull that withstands an ocean race will withstand anything Dad, Mom or Junior can do to it.
The wildest ocean racer of them all, and the chief improver of the boating breed, is a hairy Florida mariner named Jim Wynne. As an engineer, Wynne is the Big Daddy of the inboard-outboard drive, the newest and widest-ranging development in powerboating. As a designer, he is responsible for many refinements of the V-shaped hulls that are in vogue wherever people go boating. As a driver, he has earned a roomful of trophies. During the last fortnight the Wynne touch was showing up all over the world. In Italy, Jim and his crew, Tommy Mottola and Jim Breuil Jr., drove the new 32-foot aluminum Maritime at a record-breaking average of 49.9 mph to win the annual race from Viareggio to Bastia. And almost anyplace there was a stretch of open water you could find a boatload of gorgeous people careening over the water on a hull or in front of a motor the design of which had been either directly or indirectly influenced by the 35-year-old Wynne.
Between races, clad in gray flannels and blue blazer with the Royal Danish Yacht Club emblem on the pocket, Jim Wynne navigates through Miami society, churning up a wake of awakened blondes. Nor does he overlook the brunettes. At Miami's Racquet Club he shows up frequently with a stunning Trinidadian girl, who looks at him with large dark eyes and struggles soulfully through the idiom. "Jeemy," she will squeal delightedly when he teases her, "you are pulling on my legs."
The Wynne of today first appeared seven years ago when he did two things that marked a distinct metamorphosis: he drove an outboard motorboat 3,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean—"It was crazier than you think," he says, "because I was not at all the sort of a guy who would drive an outboard motor-boat across the Atlantic"—and he grew his beard. Before his big adventure, Wynne was the serious one with the standard, college-yearbook face and the large, horn-rimmed glasses—the kind of professorial type who could, and did, write a master's thesis at MIT entitled Performance of a Crankcase Scavanged Two-stroke Engine. This did not set any records as an academic bestseller, but it got him a job with Mercury Motors. Mercury is run by Carl Kiekhaefer, the not-so-jolly giant of the outboard world. Kiekhaefer's corporate motto runs something like, "Well, you wanted a steady job when you came here, didn't you?" and he works himself and his executives punishing hours all day and then punctuates their nights with telephone calls to make sure they are dreaming about boating.
"Advances in outboard motoring under Kiekhaefer were phenomenal despite his explosive personality," says Wynne. "We pioneered such innovations as automatic shifts and starters, underwater exhausts and silencing devices. We merely doubled in such psychiatric sidelines as frustration and exhaustion."
In those days, when he could still stand his independence being invaded, Wynne set up and staged a 50,000-mile endurance test for Mercury outboards, running two boats for 68 days without maintenance—well, without maintenance while anyone was watching. "If the test had failed," he says, "Kiekhaefer would have killed us all." He also helped search out and set up "Lake X," Mercury's mystery testing area somewhere in Florida. The site is still a tightly guarded secret, and even Wynne will not reveal it. But at Thunderbird Products Corp., where Mercury gets some of its boats, everybody looks knowing when the secretary says, " St. Cloud is on the line." ( St. Cloud is a small Florida town somewhere south of Orlando.)
The psyche of the man who would one day replace his spectacles with contact lenses and grow a beard could not long endure another ego as overbearing as Kiekhaefer's and, in December 1957, Wynne left Mercury and went independent. (Like other ex-Mercurians, he still carries an A.O.K. card in his wallet. It stand for Alumni of Kiekhaefer. "An organization," the card says, "of former employees of the Kiekhaefer Corp. banded together to exchange anecdotes of their experiences with the concern and to congratulate each other on the successes enjoyed since severing connections with said concern.") The first thing Wynne did was starve. "I had saved a little money," he says, "and I started free-lancing as a marine consultant. In Miami that can mean anybody who is out of a job. But that's when I began working on my stern drive."
A stern drive is not a drive with a bad temper; it is a combination inboard-and-outboard motor that exploits the advantages of both. To get the power required to push a boat along at a respectable speed—that is, fast enough to shake your teeth and make your eyes water—standard outboards are not big enough. They can be made big enough, but such engines mounted on small boats can cause them to teeter backward; under just the right conditions they will slip quickly out of sight into the sea, leaving the driver treading water. A stern drive has the engine mounted inside the boat, but the propeller linkage looks and behaves like an outboard.
Inventors had been toying with this principle for years. Wynne made it work. "I built a boat in my garage," he says. "I am always building things in my garage. Our house is the one with the cars parked out on the grass. Then I needed a light, compact engine. Something with, say, about 80 hp. I looked around and Volvo had one. When I mounted it in the boat the factory became interested in what I was doing. I was eating mangoes and not making any money and putting their engine into my boat, that's what I was doing. But, anyway, I got some patents cleared on the thing, and in July of 1958 I flew over to G�teborg, Sweden and showed it to the Volvo people. They saw it as just what they were looking for. They seemed to have a vision about it. In two days I had a contract."