The wind was in full cry and the seas were stacked overhead, angry waves with white claws curling down from their tops. Her Scarab had been thrashing along for some 95 miles when suddenly, after leaping off the top of one wave, the boat drilled the next one. Inside the wave there was a flash impression of a perfectly quiet green world. But the impact had slammed the driver's head back against the hatch and now, upon coming out the other side, her head was whipped forward into the wheel. A few moments later the inside of the face mask of her crash helmet was being coated with a strange red fog—she was exhaling blood from several cuts inside her mouth. She tried to hold her head still, but it started nodding uncontrollably from exhaustion, as if she were greeting each wave. Despair was closing in; winning the race would be nice, she figured, but getting the hell out of all this would be better. And it was at that moment, from high atop another crest, that the last check boat and the harbor came into view.
That kind of adventure is called offshore powerboat racing, and this episode occurred off Key West on a particularly lousy November day in 1977. The racing nuts who were standing on the dock that day, waiting for the boats to come home, swear that there were whitecaps inside their glasses of gin and tonic and that the beer was sloshing back and forth in the big paper cups. They say this with great glee. The nastier the weather and sea, the more offshore fans love it. And so, as the 38-foot Kaama came bubbling up to the dock, they toasted a woman who was still too wobbly to climb out of the cockpit. They watched her tug off her crash helmet and nodded approvingly at her swollen mouth.
"Where is everybody?" Betty Cook asked.
Good question. Race officials yelled to Cook that she was the first one in; the other boats were still out there in the murk. They also noted that she was now the new open-class world champion, having averaged a surprising 54.9 mph going over, under and through that wild sea. In fact, the next boat didn't finish for another 21 minutes, and after that only three more of the nine starters in the top class came in, seven of 19 in the entire fleet. This was considered a near-perfect climax to a miserably perfect day. At the cocktail party that evening, the racers turned out in bandage and sling—the formal wear of this sport—hugging each other and hollering and whooping while their bruises deepened into rich purples. Betty Cook included.
Looking back on it now, a little over two and a half years later, one can see that it was the being included that was important. Not that Betty Cook had suddenly become just one of the guys—she is far too crafty and feminine for that—but winning that 1977 race was a graduation day of sorts. It established her as a force in the sport; none of this sweet-little-old-me-against-great-big-you stuff, but someone to be reckoned with as an equal on a hull-to-hull basis. Offshore powerboat racing hasn't been the same since.
After all, here was a sport that relished its pure-guts, masculine image, an activity populated by boats carrying gritty names like Thunderball and Villain and Intimidator and Bounty Hunter. And what was this? Kaama? A boat named after an African antelope? As if that wasn't bad enough, apparently a lady African antelope. The boat's fore-deck featured a stylized creature with long, graceful neck, nicely curled horns and, well, eyelashes. And beneath that a red heart, you guys. The racers could only nod mutely when Cook explained that she had picked the name from The New York Times crossword puzzle and that she had picked the logo simply because she liked it. Any more questions, fellas?
A necklace encrusted with diamonds in the shape of an anchor now commemorates that 1977 victory; Cook wears it constantly, along with a small gold pendant spelling out Kaama and another gold chain punctuated here and there with more diamonds. An oval diamond ring on one finger could be used as a sea anchor in an emergency. With every little move Cook sends sharp beams of light into the dark corners of rooms. All of this is combined in the best possible throwaway manner with over-the-counter blouses and faded blue jeans and beat-up boat shoes.
Yet nothing is overdone. In fact. Cook's attire is conservative. Offshore racing is an exotic sport full of folks who are restlessly brave and wealthy and like to prove it to each other. The men tend to talk in capital letters and bold italics, and most of them wear more jewelry than Cook. If dropped over the side without a life jacket, many racers would sink without a bubble.
"Well, it is an exuberant sport," Cook says. "Ocean powerboat racers seem to vibrate with life. They operate in a dangerous element, and they come back full of a special verve. You can't merely shake hands with a boat racer; they're touchers. They grab and hug. It's strange; we've found that we can't stage a typical sit-down awards banquet with these people. They won't sit down, and they can't sit still. They're constantly up, pounding on each other and shouting. A speaker has a hard time being heard over the din."
These conversations, carried on at full voice across crowded rooms, contain also a biting camaraderie: