Modern houseboats being what they are—sinfully luxurious is what they are—it ought to be enough to run them lazily around back rivers and bayous. The last thing anybody really needs is a national championship houseboat race. Such a contest can only lead to an inconclusive end, with the racers sunning themselves in their padded chairs along the way or, heaven forbid, drinking cold things from their on-board refrigerators. This is racing?
Absolutely. Houseboaters are a special breed anyway, and after the first-ever championships staged off Fort Lauderdale, Fla. last week, the winner turned out to be nicely representative. The new American championship boat comes with a stereo, couches that convert into beds, carpeted decks and a crew that is no more and no less crazy than anybody who houseboats. The pilot, for example, spent part of the race steering his craft with one foot as he leaned out a window, and the chief mechanic thought it would be a dandy idea to drop a stick of dynamite into the gas tank for a little extra kick. They relaxed, and they won by a mile.
When Promoter Sherman F. (Red) Crise set all this up, it was to be a spotlight feature of his Florida Ocean Race Week. First came the more or less serious Sam Griffith Ocean Classic, with genuine ocean-racing powerboats skipping 200 miles downcoast to Miami, around Biscayne Bay and back. Then, Crise promised, all the best houseboats in the country would have at it. The Griffith race came off well enough, although weekend waters were too flat for a suitable test. New Yorker Bill Wishnick ran his 32-foot Boss O' Nova to a winning world speed mark of 70.284 mph over the course. He beat 13 other offshore racers, most notably Floridian Don Aronow, who had jumped off early in the season to an impressive pace in world title points but who has collected a devastating array of injuries in mishaps along the way. Aronow's boat broke down halfway, but he pointed out, "Even if I had run the whole course, I couldn't have beaten Bill today anyway." And after that serious high point, Florida Ocean Race Week began to come apart at the caulking.
Despite Crise's insistence that he was serious about the whole thing, ' "all the best houseboats" turned out to be seven or eight, nobody seemed quite certain. Some of the big-name houseboat manufacturers—among them Chris-Craft, Thunderbird and Nauta-Line—decided not to enter the race, having a good deal more to lose than to gain.
Most determined of the surviving entrants was a mariner from Roswell, Ga., Dee Spring, who set about preparing his 43-foot Capri XL Avenger, as if he were houseboating to the moon. Owner-Designer Spring equipped the Capri with a pair of Chrysler 260s, conceded to be somewhat larger than the stock engines that usually come with the boat, and chose 37-year-old Bob Storer, who is a movie mogul, as his driver. He added a gentleman named Marcus Brooks as riding mechanic. Brooks, Spring kept insisting seriously, "will steal the teeth right out of your head while you're standing there. He is the world's biggest liar and he has been fired six or seven times, but for all that I love him dearly." Spring claimed further that, apart from souping up dragstrip cars, Mechanic Brooks' chief talent was in preparing "ridge runners." hot cars that could outrun revenue agents.
Promoter Crise had ruled that if this was to be a true championship houseboat race the entrants had to run regulation houseboats. "So this is a regular houseboat," Spring said, waving his hand around at the appointments. The Capri had all the comforts of an English Tudor on the Philadelphia Main Line: a stereo, air conditioner, fancy curtains, kitchen sink, refrigerator, couches and a full dinette. "I ain't gonna do nothing to it," said Spring. But back aft, guarded by a Chrysler engineer who had been sent to make sure nothing went awry with the engines. Brooks was not satisfied. He had in mind dynamiting the gas tank, an old ruse of ridge runners. It was a great additive, he said, that would produce 300 to 400 additional revolutions per minute, "providing, of course, it don't blow up." But the owner and the Chrysler man wouldn't hear of it.
Meanwhile, if there was a prerace favorite, it had to be the mother-daughter ocean-racing team of Rene and Gale Jacoby (SI, May 22, 1967). Together, they had raced more miles over more ocean than anyone in this particular contest and, indeed, they had won the houseboat division of the first Bahamas 500 powerboat race in a 40-foot Thunder-bird. (Two houseboats had entered; the Jacobys managed to finish, thereby winning first in class.) The ladies were signed to race another Thunderbird, but when that company backed out Galleon Industries offered them a new 42-footer with a sort of splendid Spanish Provincial interior design and powered by a set of Chrysler inboard-outboards. The entrant almost did not make it.
The Spanish Galleons are built in Pell City, Ala., which is not much closer to the ocean than it is to the moon. Loaded on a trailer for Fort Lauderdale, the boat ran afoul of Florida laws restricting wide loads on highways. It took some frantic calls to Florida Governor Claude Kirk, who is something of a houseboating buff, to clear the Galleon. Finally it came trundling down the road, occasionally with a police escort, just in time for the race but not in enough time for the Jacobys to get any practice.
Figuring he had the favorites pretty well beaten, Spring then took a house-load of friends out for a trial run and promptly ran into another shock. He had figured his smooth-riding Capri was capable of 42 mph and could outrun anything in the race when—look: there was a cheeky little 31-foot Gibson called Sun-coast with an obvious mile or two an hour on him. Mechanic Brooks started to talk about adding the dynamite again. No. Well, then, "I understand the Gibson is pretty much stripped down to its engines and fuel tanks," he said, wondering bemusedly why the Capri couldn't do the same thing. Cap'n Spring agreed. "If they want to play that game," he said, "so can two."
They docked, and out through the front window went the refrigerator. The dinette table followed; out went one snuggly couch and in came portable gas tanks. And, despite the staggering heat, the air conditioner was dismantled to lighten the Capri. Worse than that, Driver Storer said they would race with all the windows closed to reduce air turbulence around the cabin. Captain Spring disagreed. A better idea, he suggested, would be to open the forward windows and then open the back porch door and let the air fly in one side and out the other. But Storer convinced him, and they sealed the windows.