When last we left Dr. Bob Magoon, the young Florida eye surgeon was the national outboard ocean racing champion. He also was restless, full of vague yearnings. Could he find true happiness and new thrills racing the big in-boards? Now, as we join him again, he is bobbing crazily along, six miles off Key West. He is driving a powerful 35-foot twin-engine inboard, so new that it has barely got its bottom wet. One hatch cover is gone. One engine is dead. Below deck the mechanic is fooling with faulty wiring, trying to make it run again. The boat is making maybe 30 mph and a rival is closing fast, at maybe 80. Is Young Dr. Magoon happy? Are ocean racers crazy?
This is the way it was last week at a bash called the Hennessy Key West Race, the decisive event of the season for the madcap Union of International Motorboating. The idea was to dash 162 nautical miles to the Dry Tortugas and back, all of it through angry water. Twenty boats answered the call to race, only 12 made the finish line and the span of open sea between was sown with cripples, strays, a fire-gutted hulk and a ton of fillings shaken out of teeth.
Which is routine, but this was more than just the usual ocean race. There were all these little subplots. On the night before the race there was the traditional party, highlighted by the traditional fist-fight over a woman. That was customary. But wait. One of the race entries was that eminent British sportsman. Tommy Sopwith, whose dad won World War I fame by building a fighter plane called the Sopwith Camel. Another was the fiery Italian, Vincenzo Balestrieri, aboard the boat he calls the Black Tornado. There was what can best be called tension between them.
Sopwith had won the Miami-Nassau race last month, first having thoughtfully attached superchargers to the 475-horsepower engines of his Avenger, Double-O-Seven. Balestrieri had finished second—and there was a protest over the superchargers. The race promoter tossed out Sopwith's victory, moving the Italian up and thus putting the two in a virtual tie for the season's championship. The Key West race would decide it all. At the start the two eyed each other with frosty glares.
Then there was the fact that another of the entries was the crusty old Carl Kiekhaefer, longtime race-winning president of Kiekhaefer Mercury (marine engines) until his retirement a year ago. It turns out he had not retired at all, but had submerged into the boating world and was now popping up with his own new firm, Kiekhaefer Aero Marine, and his own new boat. It was a 35'10", low-profile monster designed and built by racing champion Don Aronow and outfitted with Kiekhaefer's engines, each 475 horsepower and each purely stock, since Kiekhaefer has this thing about not souping up engines.
"Reliability rather than pure speed is the thing," the old man said. "It's a case of the tortoise and the hare." He avoided the obvious and named the boat Aeromarine I, also painting a commercial K.A.M. I on the side. And he signed young Dr. Magoon to drive it.
Away they raced, streaking past the throng of spectators at Mallory Square, out into the Straits of Florida and toward the first checkpoint 8.5 miles off. Sprinting into the lead were Sopwith's Double-O-Seven and Balestrieri's Black Tornado, both hammering along at some 70 mph from wave to wave. But then, as they say in ocean racing, along came Magoon. At the first checkpoint he was out in front, zinging along with Mechanic Gene Lanham and Navigator Tom Otto, who was pointing the way with what looked like sharp karate punches at the air.
Aeromarine lost the lead to an old warship called Mama Maritime near checkpoint two, then regained it on the loop through the Dry Tortugas. And now the big drama was astern.
Off Rebecca Shoals, Sopwith's Double-O-Seven suddenly erupted into flames and a black plume of smoke painted the sky. Life-jacketed captain and crew bailed out to bob helplessly in the water. At least one racer churned past the three men without stopping to help. But not Balestrieri.
The Italian whipped alongside, stopped and picked up the Sopwith crew while the race went on around them. "Bad, very much fire," Balestrieri said later. "You understand—those men maybe 100, maybe 50 feet from the boat. If she explode...." He waved his hands in true Italian fashion and looked heavenward. The rescuers took Sopwith and aides to the nearest checkboat.