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Learning the boat business from the legendary Don Aronow

Michael Peters

Sightlines - February 2017

Don Aronow: The Legend in My Corner

How the offshore racer and boatbuilder helped shape a career—mine.

Don Aronow

Don Aronow was a larger-than-life personality the likes of which the boating industry has never seen before or since, equal parts tough offshore racing legend and notorious womanizer. Standing 6-foot-3, with Hollywood good looks, Aronow was the creator of a string of famous boat companies including Cigarette, Magnum, Donzi, and Formula. He was the swashbuckling embodiment of offshore racing in its earliest and most glorious years. He was my childhood hero.

By late summer of 1978 I was working for Halter Marine in New Orleans, which had recently purchased the Cigarette Racing Team. I had towed my 20-foot stepped prototype Maelstrom out from California and Halter had agreed to take an option on my invention. Don Aronow, was coming to town for the Ali-Spinks fight and he was going to personally test run my boat. Aronow ran the boat with me for a few minutes on Lake Pontchartrain, then casually declared, “Nice boat, but don’t waste your time on this kid.” With that one sentence he drove a spike through all my dreams and pronounced my invention dead. My years of hero worship were over in an instant. I wanted him dead, dead in the worst way.

Later that year I began to design for Cigarette and had several meetings with Aronow. He told me he still had the six Mercury racing outboards built for Bob Magoon’s transatlantic record attempt. I struck a deal to buy two of them for my new stepped-hull race boat, but I needed to raise the money. Several months later, I was back in Miami and told Aronow I was ready to buy the engines. He said, “They’re gone.” I went ballistic. I swore at him and called him every name imaginable. He just sat back and laughed his head off. What an asshole!

On one trip to Miami, Aronow invited me to ride in his Bell Jet helicopter to watch an offshore race. Halter sponsored Billy Martin’s 39-foot Cigarette Bounty Hunter and we were tailing it for the first part of the race, then bam, an engine blew and the boat was out of the race. Immediately Aronow told the pilot to take us home. This was my first offshore race from a helicopter, so I started yelling that the race had just started and I wanted to watch the whole thing. Aronow says, “Are you paying for this or am I?” Strike three! To think this guy was my idol….  

I left Halter after three years with a contract to design and build a racing catamaran called Innovation. The first race for the boat was in New Orleans and Aronow was in town as a guest of Halter’s. Harold Halter, Aronow, and I were standing together out at the lakefront as Mike Drury drove into the race pits towing Innovation, which looked ten years ahead of its time. As the boat passed us, Harold said to me, “I should send you a bill for everything I taught you.” To which Aronow blasted back, “Shut the f--k up, Harold, the kid did good!” I stood there flabbergasted.  

Aronow became my first client when I opened my office in Sarasota in 1981. He had sold Cigarette again and had a non-compete clause, so we designed the 39-foot Blue Thunder catamaran, by splitting a Cigarette down the center. He liked my styling, but never thought I was very good at hull design. He once asked me why he got along with me better than all the guys he’d worked with before, and I answered, “Because I always knew you were an asshole.” I had learned you could not stand toe to toe with him or he would crush you, but if you gave him respect and didn’t challenge him head-on, he would support and mentor you. He liked the underdog and I was his struggling protégé.

Later, when I got divorced and was having a rough time, Don offered me a job to help me get back on my feet. “Imagine what we could do together,” he said. I hesitated for three months before moving to Miami, because it was all straight out of Miami Vice to me. 

I moved over on a Monday and met with Don for an hour on Tuesday. He walked out of my office and was shot dead minutes later, on February 3, 1987. Thirty years ago, Don Aronow stood by me in my darkest days, and died a real friend and a hero to me.  ρ 

Read more about Don Aronow here. ▶

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.