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A Conversation with Some Legends of Boat-Racing

Michael Peters

Sightlines - December 2014

Offshore History

What can we learn from the pioneers of modern powerboats?

A year before Don Aronow was murdered, I was meeting with him in his upstairs office on 188th Street in North Miami Beach, and I averted a crime that he was about to commit. Sitting next to his desk was a cardboard box of old drawings that he was obviously getting ready to throw out. In that box were the original drawings and only surviving prints of the early Formulas, Donzis, Magnums, and Cigarettes. When I told him I wanted to keep them, he complained, “Who the hell is ever going to care about that old stuff?” But I recognized those drawings as part of boating history.

Donzi Blue Devil 1967

The lineage of most high-speed boats today can be traced back to boats of the 1960s. Pleasureboat development had stalled because of World War II, and when it picked up again most powerboats were still based on prewar designs. Over an incredible period starting in the late 1950s, there was a confluence of invention and technologies that brought about the biggest changes in powerboat history. At that time the first fiberglass boats were being built, Ray Hunt invented the deep-V hull, and the stern drive was introduced. These technologies began to be stirred together in a frenzy of experimentation that resulted in boats much as we know them today. The test mules for those rising technologies were offshore race boats.

The recent restoration of a 1969 Bertram 31 race boat by my friend Nick included an exhaustive search for parts, drawings, and the history of the boat. The famous men of offshore like Dick Bertram, Don Aronow, Carl Kiekhaefer, and Ray Hunt have all been dead for more than 20 years, but what about the more anonymous drivers and engineers that worked and raced with them? Some of these guys are still around and hold the unwritten history of offshore racing in their heads.  

In an effort to record the missing history of these boats, Nick contacted as many of these guys as possible and invited them to swap war stories at the Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club this past October. Some of these men are now in their eighties and couldn’t make the trip. Boat designer Walt Walters couldn’t make it. Bob Magoon, retired eye surgeon and driver for Kiekhaefer, wasn’t in town. Odell Lewis, winner of the first Bahamas 500, couldn’t be reached. Four guys showed up. Sammy James, head of Bertram Racing in the ’60s and ’70s made it. Harry Schoell, marine inventor and designer, made it, along with racer and designer Allan “Brownie” Brown. Richie Powers, Kiekhaefer’s favorite throttleman and seven-time world champion, also came. I got to tag along.

These old guys spent more than four hours talking about everything from angle of attack to 500-mile open-ocean races. Offshore racing sounded more like a war than a sport as these men told stories of broken boats and bodies. A short race back then was 220 miles, around some island and back, and promoter Red Crise would ignore storm flags to insure the roughest race possible. Harry talked about his primitive “stomp test” for choosing fiberglass laminates and Brownie reminded everyone he once raced with the legendary Gar Wood. Sammy laughed about changing props off the Bahamas with sharks circling the boat, and argued his Bertam 38 was still the best boat ever. They all got into a debate about deadrise and strake locations and could never agree on where the standard of 24 degrees deadrise came from. These were the guys that ran them and broke them and changed them and perfected offshore boats as we know them. A couple of guys showed their age and started to doze off, but not before a glimpse of their history got recorded. 

What they did back then represented the leading edge of boat development. To borrow a quote from Billy Wilder, “You are as good as the best thing you have ever done.” These men led the way for the boating industry and were certainly the best at their game. They ran the races and established the records and set the standards we follow till this day. They represent a significant part of boating history and I feel privileged each time I can sit and listen to them talk about the early days of offshore. I care about hanging on to that old stuff.

What figures from boating history had an influence on the way you enjoy your boat today?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.