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The 187-mile race began with the furious rumble of monster V-8s echoing through the fleet of spectator craft collected off Cedar Point. The field angled east across open water, then cut back toward the collection of lovely islands that dapple Erie's western waters—waters that are surprisingly pollution free, considering the lake's terrible reputation. As the Coast Guard and race officials fretted about a possible mass collision with a 500-boat sailing regatta forming up at nearby Put-In-Bay, Sammy James and Billy Martin broke clear and struggled for the lead.
It was along the western edge of North Bass Island that Erie began to misbehave. The seas swirled into nasty 6-footers, sending the boats porpoising in a series of jaw-rattling leaps. Things began to break. James watched his special Danforth compass vibrate loose. "The thing just sat there jiggling in front of me, and I remembered another guy who got cut in the face with a piece of his compass a few years back. Then all of a sudden it popped free and sort of hovered in front of our eyes. Me and Jack played catch with the thing for a couple of seconds before it just flew over the side. It was sort of funny, until I remembered it cost $280." The loss also left the Bertram crew without any notion of the proper course to the finish, which forced them to fall into Martin's wake and hope that he knew the way.
Satullo and Norris were running easily within striking distance of the leaders when the waves began to rise. "I saw Snapper's boat take this giant jump sideways," said Satullo, "and the next thing I knew, he was flying through the air into the water. Norris is a really big kid—230 pounds—and he made a tremendous splash when he hit." Snapper's abrupt dunking was caused by a steering failure that flung Slap Shot into an 80-mph spin. He scrambled back aboard and returned to Cedar Point at reduced speed. Satullo jounced on for a few more miles before the mounting brackets holding his steering gear broke, and he, too, had to give up the chase.
With the rest of the field slogging far behind, James stalked Martin, confident that he could beat him in a drag race to the finish. "I knew I had more speed than Billy," James said. "That big ol' Cigarette of his was banging and flying around, and we were just coasting along, waiting for the last few miles. I figured we had him beat. Then the distributor rotor on the starboard engine broke." With one of James's special fuel-injected 496-cu. in. MerCruiser V-8s deactivated by a broken piece worth a few pennies, he had no choice but to veer off and head for port.
His horizon now clear of competitors, Martin eased back a bit on the power and coasted Bounty Hunter toward the finish, surviving a brief encounter with a hunk of driftwood to win by nearly 12 minutes over Hal Sahlman of Boca Raton, Fla., piloting an aged, 31-foot Cigarette.
Martin's victory left the U.S. title unresolved, although he would have to win both remaining California races to overtake Norris. Back at the marina, Snapper coolly announced that he is considering missing the events and gambling that Billy can't put together three in a row.
"I guess we caught the lake on a good, day," he said, "but it's still awful tough water—short and kind of lumpy. Our boat's bigger than most of the others. She weighs over six tons. She's like a freight train out there. Last year a 40-footer won on the lake, and we did it again. Maybe Lake Erie is just too rough and tough for the smaller boats. This is water for 40-footers."
For the old mud pond, that's a bare minimum.