How to Learn to Drive a Cigarette Boat
Photos by Cy Cyr
Lights, Camera, Action!
Phil Lipschutz doesn’t just sell and customize boats, he makes stars.
There’s something undeniably cinematic about North Miami, Florida. The city of 60,000 is only about ten miles away from the art-deco, cha-cha circus of South Beach, but in reality, it’s much further than that. It feels like the kind of place a hard-boiled undercover cop might come to ply his trade. It’s no stretch to picture Sonny Crockett prowling these weedy, sun-baked streets in a stiletto-sharp Testarossa, his pastel suit hanging as easily from his shoulders as the hard-won bags below his eyes. Because North Miami is the part of the city where life starts to lose its patina of glitz, but the hustler’s pace remains the same. And as I would come to find out, life isn’t the only thing that moves at breakneck speed around here.
Rolling down one of those streets in a drop-top sports car with a lean, crop-haired motorcycle chick—Cigarette PR maven Marilyn DeMartini—stiff-arming the wheel, it was hard to shake the noir-ish vibe. As we ducked into a narrow corridor next to a parking garage, a banshee blast of high-octane horsepower greeted us with a vibration you could feel in your chest. We had arrived at Lip-Ship Performance, Miami’s exclusive Cigarette dealership and the semi-eponymous stomping grounds of former champion race-boat driver Phil Lipschutz. At 58, Lipschutz is stocky and bearded with a sun-toughened face that creases easily into the cobwebbed patterns of a near-constant grin. It’s a mischievous smile that foretells his enthusiasm for, well, just about everything we would come across that day, but especially Cigarettes.
We were introduced in his snug office among an ossified forest of golden racing trophies, but promptly made our way to where the magic happens, Lipschutz’s workshop. There, amidst the clang of machinery and revving of mercilessly loud engines, I couldn’t help but notice a picture hanging on the wall of a younger Lipschutz perched on the bow of a Cigarette next to a show-stopping blonde who smiled ecstatically into the camera. I had to ask about the girl. “Oh her?” Lipschutz shrugged, “She was the Australian Pamela Anderson. In America we had Baywatch, over there they had G’Day Watch or whatever.” I glanced back at the picture. It was signed, “Dear Phil, thanks for the ride of my life!” I took it as a rousing testament to Phil’s skill behind the wheel.
All Cigarettes are custom, but at Lip-Ship, Lipschutz and his team make a boat pop with that extra ten percent of bespoke attention—the perfect engine package, the expertly pitched props, the sizzling paint job that really make her yours. I was there to get a feel for what Cigarette has to offer in terms of customization and performance, and more specifically to see what Lipschutz can do with a boat, both on and off the water. Our test model for the day was an impossibly muscular shard of machine called the Top Gun 39 Unlimited (which has a starting price of $600,000, before power, paint and other personalized touches). While some Cigarettes masquerade (ably) as hybrid fishing boats or particularly athletic all-purpose vessels, the Top Gun series is pure sport boat to the core. In 2011, on request, Cigarette took the hull of their 38 Top Gun and lengthened it by a foot in order to stagger the twin 700-hp super-charged Mercs. This moved the boat’s center of gravity lower and further forward, and also placed the props closer together, which aids in at-speed maneuverability.
After a tour of the boat, I was practically salivating to get out on Biscayne Bay and rip it up. But Lipschutz had other plans. “These boats are a lot of fun, but they’re not toys,” he warned. “People come in here all the time, guys with tons of money, and they want the biggest, fastest thing I have. And I tell ’em straight-up ‘I’m not selling you that 50-footer, you’re gonna get hurt. Start with something smaller and less powerful and work your way up.’ I said that exact thing to [probable Hall-of-Fame catcher] Pudge Rodriquez. Then I started working with him, giving him lessons.” Here Lipschutz paused for a second and nodded ever so slightly, as if answering a question only he could hear. “Now I feel safe driving with Pudge,” he finished softly.
And so we practiced inching the 39 around the lagoons of North Miami until Lipschutz was satisfied that I could handle her in the bay. Even then, puttering away from the docks and towards open water, I could tell the boat was capable of something special. It was a similar sensation to watching an NBA player dribble absentmindedly during warm-ups—lazy movements occasionally punctuated by slick bursts of athleticism well beyond the realm of normal.
Finally we reached the bay and, under Lipschutz’s watchful eye, I nudged the throttles forward into a blustery wind and a consistent two-foot slop. The boat planed nearly immediately and hummed along with gunshot intensity atop the cushion of air created by Cigarette’s famous stepped hull. The wind whipped over the low windshield blasting us in the face as the speedometer pushed forward relentlessly. Sixty mph … 70 mph … 80 mph. With me at the helm we topped out at 86 mph. It felt like I was driving a rocket-powered steak knife across the bay. At one point we crossed the wake of a passing yacht, and I braced my knees noticeably, expecting air and then impact. But there was nothing. The boat cut through the wake like it wasn’t even there. Not even a jounce. You can’t hear anything at those speeds over the howl of the wind, but I’m pretty sure I saw Lipschutz chuckle out of the corner of my eye.
Shortly, the master took the wheel. He paused for a moment to pick his line, and then pushed the throttle forward while coaxing the trim tabs to do his bidding. I filmed what happened next on my iPhone. In the Blair Witch-style video, all you can hear is a rush of air, then a house shoots by on shore, then it’s my face, beaming, the wind twisting my skin back like a demented clown’s. Next you see Lipschutz hunched intently over the throttles. Then the camera comes to rest on the speedometer. It reads 101.
After the run we took the boat into the marina near Monty’s Raw Bar in South Beach where we were getting lunch. Just before docking Lipschutz revved the engines one last time and the big Mercs roared like a lion, king of beasts. At the outdoor bar, patrons looked up from their baskets of stone crabs to gawk. A passing jogger slowed her pace to get a better look, and a tourist whipped out a camera from his fanny pack to snap a few shots. I stepped off the boat and onto the dock. I felt like a movie star.
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.