SI Vault
Bob Ottum
May 22, 1967
Before the new Bahamas 500 powerboat race, drivers agreed the idea was terrible. Most of them—who exploded, sank, swamped or burned up—were right. Winner Lewis (opposite) said he was pushed by fear
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May 22, 1967

A Wild Dash To Sea

Before the new Bahamas 500 powerboat race, drivers agreed the idea was terrible. Most of them—who exploded, sank, swamped or burned up—were right. Winner Lewis (opposite) said he was pushed by fear

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These crazy ideas come to Promoter Sherman F. (Red) Crise in the middle of the night—he sits right up and dictates them into a handy bedside tape recorder. "Why not," he mumbled to himself one midnight, "stage an ocean race all around the Bahamas? Call it the Bahamas 500 and con the world's best motor racers to come down and break their spleens on some of the most treacherous water anywhere?" Next morning, when he thought it over, Crise's notion still sounded insane enough to work, and last week it became a reality.

It was not so much a race as a high-speed Happening. Sure enough, the best-known racers in the world showed up, revving some of the most expensive engines in the world's wildest boats. There were monster inboards with foam-rubber-padded cockpits, a chorus line of outboards and—glory be—two 40-foot houseboats, complete with kitchens, living rooms, toilets, sun decks and vastly more power than any respectable houseboat ever ought to have.

There were 63 boats in all. Before the race almost every one of the drivers insisted he could never make it. Practically all of them protested they should not even try, and the future proved them right. In various little dramas all across the sea, 47 conked out. Three boats sank outright. Another caught fire and burned to the waterline. One outboard went down so quickly that its driver, Bob Nordskog, was tossed into the sea with just a life jacket and a flashlight.

Another outboard—slamming through the black Atlantic night at top speed—plowed into a shoal and flew inland. The driver radioed his plight to race headquarters, and he was solicitously asked if he could get enough foothold on the bottom to push his boat off the reef.

"Foothold, hell," he barked. "I can get right off and walk all around the boat—I'm 20 feet up on the beach."

At the end only 16 boats survived, and for being the toughest of all of them, the winner, Odell Lewis, got $25,000, which will buy a lot of liniment.

As he roared along in a new 30-foot Bertram-Nautec with 1,000 hp, Miamian Peter Rittmaster's eyes were caked half-shut with salt, his lips were burned raw and his hands were so swollen he could not close them. Through the last two hours, in a sort of hypnotized trance, he kept himself awake through the pain with only one single, driving thought. He was going to finish, tie up his boat, then walk up the dock and punch Red Crise, the guy who dreamed up this torture, right in the mouth.

But neither Rittmaster nor anybody else punched Mr. Crise. And when the whole gaudy affair was over, some even conceded that he had given the world of ocean racing a new event that promises to be the winging, absolute backbreaking daddy of them all.

The course began off Lucayan Beach near Freeport, dashed off around Bimini almost 50 miles away, cut across the Bahamas Bank to Chub Cay just north of Andros, went down to Nassau (and once around New Providence Island for a little extra touch), swung over toward Eleuthera and through a reef-studded alley called Current Cut, wound back up to Great Abaco Island and led home to Lucaya via Sweetings Cay. The "500 miles" in the name was as unreal as the rest of it—the actual distance was more like 570 miles, if you wanted to steer clear of the reefs along the route. Outside of being the longest, it was the richest ocean race ever, with a $91,000 purse. But never mind all that money: there is every indication that ocean racers care only for danger and kicks. They are all slightly daffy. But they also are the last of a splendid, gutty breed, and if someone sets a course to the Sea of Okhotsk and tells them they don't dare run it, they will try.

From a start soon after dawn Winner Lewis, who piloted a 32-foot aluminum Maritime armed with three 427 Mercruisers, made it around the course in 12 hours, 36 minutes and 20 seconds—coming home at 8:06 p.m., about the time the sun was going down. He then opened a can of cold beer, looked out at the world through a pair of bloodshot eyes and summed it up handily. What had made him run so fast and finish while it was still light?

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