A mere decade ago ocean powerboat racing was a romantic, Barney Old-field kind of sport, awash with socialites and water rats in leather helmets riding cantankerous wooden hulls that leaked a lot. The Miami-to-Nassau race, first of the big offshore affairs, was often as much a test of survival at sea as a competitive event. Engines were lumpy, unsophisticated brutes, and in the beginning preparation for the race consisted of little more than slapping a number on the side of a boat and tossing a jug of water into the bilge.
Now consider this month's Miami-Nassau, which was won at a record speed of 64.91 miles an hour by today's leading Oldfield-assassin, the millionaire boat building genius, Don Aronow. With his superscientific 32-foot Cary craft, The Cigarette—no part of which would have embarrassed an Armstrong, Aldrin or Collins—he defeated the nearest boat by 20 minutes and consigned the sport's romantics to the nostalgic deeps.
Delayed four days by surly weather, a field of 14 finally started from Miami's Government Cut in a long, confused swell that had boats walking on their tails, although, for the most part, it was not to be a rough race. Aronow had said he would be at a disadvantage in rough water, The Cigarette having been set up for light to medium going. Once across the Gulf Stream, light to medium is what he got.
Out through the Stream, Aronow kept a tight rein on The Cigarette's twin MerCruiser engines and let the more impetuous competitors take a ride on their transoms. "You know," he said later, "there are some boats that you don't want to ease up on the throttles when they get out of shape on a wave, but a lot of drivers do just that. There's only one way to find out if the treatment's right. That's to try it. I'll tell you, though, it takes guts to push those throttles forward when everything tells you you should slow up. At other times you do have to ease off—otherwise you might swap ends."
Driving without the aid of power steering and working both the wheel and throttles without help from his two crewmen, Aronow opened up on the glassy banks beyond the Stream. By the time he reached checkpoint two the race was all but over. Second at the finish was Bob Magoon's Andrea, powered by four huge Mercury outboard engines, and third, not far behind him, Jerry Langer's Dog Catcher, similarly powered—an excellent showing by the outboards.
Afterward, Crewman Knocky House, who has been racing so long he can scarcely remember when he began, added up the elements of victory: Aronow's technical skill and marvelous touch on the controls, the meticulously tuned engines, "the little, tiny things" that might occupy him, Aronow and fellow crewman Barry Cordingley for as much as three weeks before a race.
"Let's face it," said House. "Racing isn't fun like it used to be." Cordingley, who timed his leaves during a two-year Army hitch in Vietnam so as not to miss the Miami-Nassau, said amen, as did Aronow himself.
"I'll tell you what the difference is now," said Aronow. "You never relax anymore. Relax for a split second with the boats we have now and you go end for end."
What really started the kind of modern ocean racing Aronow was talking about was that now-famous breakthrough in hull design made—to the everlasting disgust of powerboat men—by Ray Hunt, a designer of sailboats. It was in 1960 that Hunt's deep-V hull appeared on the Miami-Nassau winner. Owned by Miamian Dick Bertram, a man distinguished in both sail and powerboat racing, Moppie revolutionized the sport. To gauge the impression made by this "sailboat hull trying to be a motorboat," as someone scathingly—and prematurely—called her, one had only to look at the bottoms of the Miami-Nassau boats for 1969. All owed more than a little to Moppie. (Hunt, becoming irritated, recently alarmed the boatbuilding industry by bringing suit against a shoal of builders for what he views as illegal copying of his V concept.)
Meanwhile, as hulls improved so did the engines. It is notoriously difficult to prepare an engine for a race car, still more difficult to breed an engine to run agonizingly rough, wet ocean miles without breaking down. As engine manufacturers glimpsed the publicity value in ocean racing, their power plants got better—and the sport's structure changed from essential amateurism to factory-supported professionalism. Stock boats were soon made obsolete by prototype hulls, some capable of a thrilling 50 mph. Today Aronow can nudge 80 and he says 100 mph is on the horizon if turbine engines coupled with catamaran hulls are let into the sport.