Photos by Carson Talbert
“Who’s the sissy that doesn’t want to go out there?” asked the guy in the white polo. “It’s just 4- to 6-foot seas.”
The peacock might’ve had a point. The new high-performance catamaran could definitely handle the sea state, no question. But his delivery needed work.
“That was my call,” said John Clarke, who, as the owner of Jaguar Powerboats, designs every one of the company’s boats. As he walked out of earshot, one of his employees beckoned to the new guy, who suddenly, whether he knew it or not, had a dog in the fight. “Hey, you know he’s a pro MMA fighter, right? You probably don’t want to piss him off…”
One pictures the agitator’s eyes getting wide, and his face turning pale as he takes a minute to compose himself before hurrying over to make amends. The beef was squashed within minutes.
Business is going well for the son of legendary offshore champion Jack Clarke at his facility in High Point, North Carolina. It’s there, in the foothills between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains, where he adapts a racing heritage—air-entrapping tunnels, blower motors, lightweight composites, etc.—for a modern, outboard-centric market. Thanks to pads in the keel and a tunnel so deep they call it a wing on account of the lift it provides, his boats can handle a lot more than 4- to 6-foot seas. Said John, “We were just days out from the Miami boat show, and there was no reason to beat up the boat.”
Beating up challengers, however, is another story. That goes for anyone, especially his naysayers—the internet trolls who think Jaguars are a knock off, or not up to snuff. He reads every comment and responds in kind. Like a pound-for-pound champ needlessly getting chirped, John does a lot of things well, but holding his tongue isn’t one of them.
“So many people are full of shit in this world. If you want to offend me, tell me I’m full of shit,” he said. “That’s such an insult. We’re going to sign a contract and fight when you say some nonsense like that, cause it’s not right. I swear to God, brother, I’ve said that my entire life.” In these moments, it’s not merely the intonation, or his unflinching mien, or his liberal use of the word “brother” like Hulk Hogan that makes you believe each word. It’s the casual bravado only a true cage fighter can muster; a fire smoldering in the dark recesses of his eyes. The same way it’s thrilling to watch a lion stalk its prey from a comfortable distance, you nod along and thank your lucky stars you aren’t on the menu.
It would be easy to dismiss the 5-foot, 10-inch, 200-pound mixed martial artist as a one-dimensional boatbuilder with a colossal chip on his shoulder. But spend some time in his outsized orbit and you quickly find there’s more to him than meets the eye. How else can you explain the devotion he instills in his coterie, a cast of disparate characters, fighters and speed demons, which he fondly refers to as his “racing team.” Each one pledges a loyalty bordering on the fanatical to their fearless leader, like Colonel Kurtz. But that’s where any comparisons to the megalomaniacal central figure of Apocalypse Now should end, according to the waggish, largely unruffled 43-year-old, who believes his heart is filled with light. Consider his steadfast observance of the Liturgy of the Hours, which the Catholic clergy uses to denote the passing of each day, punctuating it with prayer. Even the most devout Catholic you know probably doesn’t do that.
Which means, that’s right—John will smack the Holy Ghost out of you, but then, owing to the type of person he is, he’ll pick you up, dust you off and offer his blessing. I had never met a deeply religious man who knew his way around an octagon, let alone one who swore like a sailor. I should say, I found it oddly refreshing. There was that gravitational force—exerted, in my experience, by only a handful of men and women—that could peel paint off the walls and bend space and time. I found myself quickly getting pulled in.
If you haven’t realized it yet, John Clarke is something of an enigma. When we first met two years ago at the Bahia Mar hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, he was going on about choppers, gardeners and war. In an industry awash in polos and brass buttons, John, wearing his Jaguar fishing shirt, was a breath of fresh air. His hand shake was firm. “I’ve always considered us to be the American Chopper version of powerboats,” he said brightly. “We do custom badass shit.” He compared his father to Paul Teutul Sr. and himself to Paul Jr. on account of how often tempers flared when they worked together. But now, he lives a more productive, peaceful existence—all things considered. That suits him just fine.
“I would rather be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war,” he said at one point. Plans were made to visit his home and facility in High Point. I wanted to see how this warrior tended his garden in the shadow of a giant.
It was 5:30 on a September morning. I was late, and a little lost, but I breathed a sigh of relief when my headlights illuminated an “Our Cats Love Water!” decal on a pickup truck. John met me outside. The exceedingly modest ranch-style home was bathed in early morning blue as we walked up the driveway, past a large passenger van under a carport. In the backyard was a chicken coop, which, for the moment anyway, appeared silent.
White powder clustered along the cinderblock walls of a damp, unfinished basement, in the center of which loomed a storage rack bursting with Lego sets of every color. Efflorescence was responsible for the harmless powder, which had the distinct look of cocaine and caused the faded walls to be streaked in patches of white. A wide, wooden bookshelf occupied the far wall. It was covered in all sorts of knickknacks, including, but not limited to: a pair of black boxing gloves, books, shoes, various figurines, Star Wars toys, a pair of pink boxing gloves, wrestling trophies, racing trophies, bins, baskets, boxes labeled with things like “Tax Returns” and an old desktop computer. In front of everything, as if daring someone to be tossed into this haphazard jumble, was a wrestling mat. Off to the side hung a Puerto Rican flag. Behind it was an inversion table, a punching bag and an air bike—the latter the bane of many a CrossFit athlete. Here, before me, was the spartan quarters of the Clarke household.
Much ado is made of Mark Wahlberg’s exacting schedule, which starts at some ungodly hour in the morning and includes a “cryo chamber” and a lot of expensive equipment. Well, as impressive as all that might be, Marky Mark doesn’t have seven young children. The ages of John and Dawn Clarke’s brood span from one month to 13 years, so everything, from the barracks-style bunks to a pot of oatmeal that can feed an army, necessitates a tight schedule and harmonious balance. And coffee. Lots of coffee. John asked if I wanted any. I declined, since we were moments away from beginning his training regimen and I didn’t know what to expect.
We began with some guided meditation. John’s eldest sons, Elvis and Maximus, were already awake and hesitantly made their way downstairs. “After naming your first child Elvis, you can’t just name the next one Bob,” John would tell me. I could read the excitement written on their faces. John pressed play on his meditation app. “What did you do as a child that created timelessness that made you forget time?” asked a disembodied female voice. “There lies the myth to live by.” Sitting cross-legged on the mat, I closed my eyes and tried to push the clink of Legos in the background out of my mind as I focused on the prompt.
John’s mythos is inseparable from his father. A man of herculean stature, Jack Clarke towered over the competition, even as a young man. In 1984, the Brooklyn-born Irish-American with a signature goatee clamped around his motor mouth took the American Power Boat Association by storm. Racing in a high-performance Chris-Craft, he claimed “rookie of the year” his first go on the circuit, competing against the other mega-horsepower catamarans and mono-hull V-
bottoms — offshore boats capable of reaching speeds in excess of 100 mph. A year later, he reappeared in a 35-foot wooden boat of his own design and construction. “It was crude and people were skeptical, but it was fast,” Jack said. Any undue skepticism was put to rest when he drove it to a national championship.
Jack’s antics on and off the racecourse were buoyed by an aura of invincibility. He and his throttleman barrel rolled the next boat, aptly named Thriller, at 115 mph. (That should’ve been the end of it, but thanks to the catamaran’s low center of gravity and smart placement of the fuel tanks, it righted itself, allowing them to place third overall.) He stopped a pistol-wielding patron at a bar in Miami, disarming him with a glass ashtray and deftly unloading the cartridge like Clint Eastwood. His Jaguars—which he named after the largest American jungle cat, so there was no mistaking his desire to go head-to-head with the British powerhouse Cougar Powerboats—broke the speed record twice. He raced with the lead singer of Mötley Crüe, and even had famed Italian powerboat racer Fabio Buzzi beside himself yelling: “How the f@#$ is that catamaran out-turning my V-bottom?!”
Racing, much like fighting, can bring out the worst in people. Throughout his career, Jack dealt with a series of underhanded setbacks, like discovering a broken broom stick shoved up his water pick-up the morning of a race. It got so bad that one time he slapped another driver across the face in retribution, cracking the man’s glasses in half. But if the skullduggery ever got to him, he rarely showed it. And the competition couldn’t keep up. Thriller was constantly repainted—competing as Coors Light Silver Bullet, Jaguar Marine, Spirit of America, Hawk Power, Ferrari and Toshiba—and winning national and world championships almost as many times. The biggest names in offshore racing contracted him to build their own race boats. He didn’t disappoint, developing a range of 35-, 40-, 46- and 50-foot Jaguars. A lesser person might have crumbled under the pressure. Not Jack.
“Jack isn’t a character. He’s three characters,” said Jose Abella, president of Nova Boats and a longtime friend. Famed offshore racer Allan “Brownie” Brown would agree. “He’s a funny guy. He’s outspoken. He hides nothing,” said Brownie, who lived four blocks away from the Jaguar race shop in Hollywood, Florida. “What you see is what you get. I think he’s a good, honest boatbuilder.”
If Brownie ever stopped by the shop in those days, he would’ve seen a 9-year-old boy desperate for his father’s attention fiberglassing the hard-to-reach areas of the boats. “At that age, I’ve got two choices: hang out with three Puerto Rican women at the house, or get the tooling going with Dad,” said John, whose mother’s family hails from Puerto Rico. “I grew up around a race shop, so I met all these characters.”
Eventually, a young John, with his own goatee in the works, would climb into a Jaguar with his father and compete in 1999. The father-son team’s post-race interview is still out there somewhere: Jack beaming as he rests a checkered race flag on one shoulder, John nearly hanging off the other. “This is my son’s first race here with me,” he said proudly. “I’m glad we delivered a checkered flag.”
“You’re a wily veteran, and he’s followed right in your footsteps,” remarked the reporter.
Looking back, John can’t help but laugh, comparing racing in those high-performance boats to an hour-and-a-half freefall. “Jack screwed me for life, because racing at those speeds, I’m like ‘What can you do to fill that adrenaline?’ There’s very few things in the world that can fill the void of offshore racing.”
It’s difficult, to be sure, but a couple things come close.
For the past 30 seconds, I had been cranking out push-up after push-up. It was midmorning, and meditation would’ve been downright impossible. Dawn came down holding Trinity, their one-month old, and the rest of the children were awake. That meant three adults plus a throng of seven tiny humans congregating in a space not much larger than a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit. EDM blasted through the speaker. The majority of the family was in the throes of high intensity interval training, and standing room on the wrestling mat was going for a premium.
John would call out combinations—“jab, jab, cross!”—and I, along with his trusty pupils, would stride across the mat, jabbing at the air in front of us. We would do that forwards and backwards, belting out a series of push-ups in between. At one point, I could feel my chest getting sore and considered taking a breather. I looked left. Sadie, two days out from her 8th birthday, was making it look easy in a pink dress. When she finished, she rang a sequined bell. “Done!” she yelled.
Eventually, shadowboxing was replaced with full-on grappling. “I don’t think I’ve done my daily duty until I beat myself down a bit,” John said at one point. Be careful what you wish for, I thought, as a hurricane of high pitched voices and limbs encircled him. “Guys, get off the mat if you’re going to start screaming,” said John in a matter-of-fact tone as he quickly dispatched his kin, one after another, with rapid precision. “You know the rules.”
Everyone got a shot at taking down the heavyweight, including Jedidiah, all of 4 years old. Amid the fracas, John would offer advice. “Squeeze! I feel no pressure. There you go. Good job, dude,” he said while receiving an arm bar. Then it was Dawn’s turn. She made sure Trinity was in the watchful care of her older siblings before proceeding to choke out her husband. Therapy might be overrated; you may want to buy a wrestling mat instead. Of course, it’s all in good fun. The high school sweethearts are that unlikely mix of business, marital and sparring partners.
In 2011, shortly after Sadie was born, the elder Clarke invited his son to breakfast at a local diner in Hollywood. “I’m getting up there kiddo. Do you want this shit or not?” asked Jack. “The molds, everything—I’m done.” If his son wasn’t interested, he would sell them to Midnight Express. John was shocked. He had spent the past nine years working on two different South Florida SWAT teams, and before then, with a K-9 unit. He had tendered his resignation with Jaguar Marine right around the start of millennium due to a falling out with the older man seated across from him. In one of their epic brouhahas, Jack had basically told him: It’s my way or the highway. John quit on the spot. He headed for City Hall, where he grabbed every application he could find.
John still remembers a rhyme his father would recite to him as a child. It goes like this:
Once a task you’ve begun,
never leave it till it’s done;
be the task large or small,
do it right or not at all.
That conscientious mentality connects all the different aspects of his life. “It goes for boatbuilding, fighting, SWAT—like if I’m about to kick a guy’s door in, I got to do it right,” said John. “I’m going to make sure I come out of there alive.” The task wasn’t done, but John was going to do it right—on his own terms. Of course he wanted the hulls. Jack agreed to part with them on one condition: “Build whatever size Jaguar you want, just don’t compromise the way these things are built.” John gave his word. He retired that same day, turning over his badge. Sergeant Mark Renner, his instructor at the Ft. Lauderdale K-9 unit, couldn’t believe his friend was leaving the force. “But I know him,” said Mark. “He’s doing his thing where he does it 100 percent or he doesn’t do it at all.” When he was a K-9 trainer, the dogs would tire out before John ever did.
Jaguars had never been exhibited at a boat show before. For a long time, Jack’s order book was strictly race-oriented. He also feared opening the floodgates due to the commitment it took to design each boat. How could they scale up to meet the demand? The first thing John did was sell one of his police canines to pay the entry fee for the Ft. Lauderdale boat show—the largest in-water show in the world. Soon, he was building pleasure boats with the same bottoms as the ones his dad raced on all those years ago. “From the waterline down man, these Jags are proven, championship boats. Now we’re just detuning them like NASCAR,” explained John. “The same Mustang you see on that track, it’s detuned for the consumer. It’s the same thing. You’re never going to run 183 mph. But guess what? It’s built for it. It’s not going to break.”
John’s disparate experiences expand and contract, rippling and reverberating over and atop each other, sometimes to strange, conflicting effect, but mostly in harmony. He feels where he is right now is exactly where he needs to be. After seeing how expensive real estate was in South Florida, he up and moved his family, operations, everything, to the inland hills of North Carolina. He wasn’t going to have his dreams deterred.
“I wanted this more than I wanted to be a UFC fighter, an Olympian, anything. I’ve wanted an opportunity to control our own destiny in the boat business since I was a little kid,” he said. “I always saw my father as a maverick. He just didn’t give a shit. And I respect him [for it]. I always saw he was too over the top to be mainstream. He had to dampen it down and he couldn’t.”
Maybe John couldn’t have either if he didn’t step away for a time. He admits seeing death while in uniform changed something in him. The only time I ever saw his gregariousness dim was in response to the question: Have you ever taken a life in the line of duty? “Yes,” he finally said. “If I never have to take another person’s life again, I’ll be a happy man. I want to be remembered in this world as a builder, not a destroyer. I want people to look at the boats I’ve built and go, ‘Wow, those things are beautiful’—even 35 years later, like Thriller. That’s the legacy my dad instilled in me.” He paused, taking time to collect his thoughts. “I’m a good fighter, I’m a good racer, but I’m a great boatbuilder.”
The nearest saltwater marina to High Point is about 180 miles as the crow flies. That might seem like a strange place to put a Hatteras facility, but it’s there, in what was once the furniture capital of the U.S., where the Carolina sportfish builder constructed a 360,000-square-foot facility. The high rafters suggest a desirable height to accommodate large yachts; now the expansive space is home to all manner of low-slung catamarans. Hatteras might be long gone, but Thriller is there, as is Insatiable, also designed by Jack, the first American diesel race boat ever to finish an offshore course. Boats representing OBX, Backwater Cats, Nova and Pantera are there too. Together, they make up Aquanico, a network of like-minded builders assisting each other with labor and design.
John pointed to a 39-foot boat on jackstands, Jaguar’s original fishing model. “IF ITS NOT A CAT IT MUST BE A DOG” is painted on the transom. The owner was getting it refit and repowered with twin 4.6-liter V8 Mercury Racing 450-hp outboards and replacing the words with “QUAD KILLER.” Subtlety is lost on the macho, high-performance owner. “They’re very proud that they’ve got a boat that nobody else has,” said John.
John is proud too, but for different reasons. Jose Abella had flown in from Miami, and together the two would speak on and off in Spanish. Jose was savoring a memory that stood out at a recent Miami boat show. Together, John and Jose would take prospective clients out for a spin aboard a 30-foot Jaguar in Biscayne Bay. With its 45-inch tunnel, twin V-bottoms piercing the water—“which makes it perfect for center consoles and outboards,” said John—corecell construction to keep the weight down and twin 250-hp Evinrudes, they were blowing away the competition. “We were able to run past basically the same-sized boat with quads,” said Jose. “We whizzed by them. They couldn’t even see the color of our boat with two motors on the back.”
“The boat might have had Costa Del Mar wrapped on it. I don’t want to say anything else,” added John, feigning ignorance. “We we’re going by so fast, I don’t remember what it said!”
The conversation inevitably shifted to Jack. After he barrel rolled Thriller, he gained some sympathy from Al Copeland, the brash, New Orleans race icon and founder of Popeyes Chicken. Copeland’s race crew worked all night, turning wrenches to have Thriller ready for the next race. Copeland was amazed, and maybe a little jealous, of his team’s desire to help Jack win. “You don’t work like that when it’s crunch time for us,” he joked.
“You don’t understand something, Al,” responded one of the mechanics, “when Jack Clarke wins we all win.”
John got choked up telling the story. “Jack was the underdog,” he said. “He was the guy that wasn’t supposed to be there. He came out of nowhere. In ’84 he was the national rookie of the year. By ’87 he’s beating Fabio Buzzi, he’s beating the best guys in the world. No one saw him coming.”
Finally, it was time for the grand unveiling. In the back of the facility, the largest Jaguar ever was under construction: a new 55-footer with a dramatic reverse sheer. “You’re here, Simon, because the timing is right to release this thing. If not, I’d have it covered and I’d tell you we aren’t ready,” said John. “But we’re close enough now; we’re going to be in fairing and finishing very soon. Wait until you see the inside of this thing. It’s massive.”
Massive might have been an understatement. From the waterline down, the 55 Special’s bottom ran 183 mph as Coca-Cola, setting the speed record in 1996. He showed me the 66-inch tunnel, a collaboration between Jack and designer Michael Peters. The scoop in the back was specifically designed to lift four 1,000-hp blower motors in the superboat class, “which makes it an absolute dream for what I’m building with it now,” explained John, who pointed out all the storage in the stern. “This is the third wide-body Jaguar has ever built. The first two were Coca-Cola and Wild Thing. This is the first time this hull is being used for a pleasure yacht.” For all of its massive 11-foot, 11-inch beam and 55-foot LOA, the hull’s displacement will come in under 15,000 pounds, and it will fit on a standard trailer. It was also designed to move, like it’s forebearers, with speeds over 75 mph thanks to twin Mercury 600-hp V12 engines. And on top of everything, it has a stand-up shower in one sponson, and a berth in the other.
When I got Jack on the phone, I asked what he thought of this new direction for the company. The brazen offshore racer might’ve had a difference of opinion with his son before, but that’s all ancient history now. “I told [John], ‘God bless your hands, son,’” he said in his gravelly voice. “He’s doing great. I leave him alone; I don’t bother him.”
We spent some time taking in the 55, but there was plenty left to do, including sparring with his protégé, Kester “The Question” Mark, an up-and-coming 28-year-old MMA fighter whom John is training on the mat and in the ways of boatbuilding. We made our way over to a wrestling mat occupying a far corner of the facility near a two-story-tall garage door. On the wall were various fight banners John had fought under.
As the unmistakable sound of skin smacking against a hard surface began echoing throughout a space he hoped to fill with more orders, I thought back to the promise he made to Jack, and another one of their mottos: When in doubt, rip it out. (Fiberglass, not throats.) Whenever John gets lambasted for going over-the-top with his stringent approach to hand-laying and double-infusion techniques, he gets ticked, but he tries to brush it off. “Well, if you say that, you don’t understand the brand that’s attached to the side of the boat,” he said. “And that’s okay. Not everybody is a Jaguar.”