Photos by Brad Glidewell
Smoke on the Water
Unsanctioned races and Netflix’s new drama put the Lake of the Ozarks on the map. But is it anything like how it’s portrayed?
The Ozarks get a bad rap, and that ignominy extends to the water. Ozark, Netflix’s drama series, drops the “s” and follows Marty Byrde, a financial planner, and his family to the region. It doesn’t take long before they encounter waterborne thugs moving heroin in hollowed-out Bibles. Sure, it’s fiction. But as the saying goes, sometimes the truth is stranger. Each summer, a riot of thrill-seekers and revelers descend on landlocked Missouri, turning the lake into a high-performance watering hole. Clothing is optional. Alcohol flows freely. Boat throttles are typically placed in the downright position as modern-day explorers with tattoos, lowered inhibitions and adrenaline coursing through their veins move from one crowded bar to the next. Mayhem sometimes ensues. Collisions happen, both with fists and fiberglass. For that reason, infamy seems to wrap itself around this place like a dirty glove.
Or at least that’s what most people have come to believe, myself included. You see, as someone born and raised in the Northeast, I had never been.
Each June, for the last five years, entrants have come from all over the country to attend the Cigarette Owners Rendezvous. Put on by Performance Boat Center, the fun run has been steadily growing in size. And why not? The Lake of the Ozarks’ coves and inlets provide plenty of places to explore or zip right on by. A 30-mph speed limit is only imposed at night. Unsanctioned races have seen speed demons blow well past 200 mph across these waters. But I had some doubts. How true could this misbegotten reputation bestowed on the Ozarks and Cigarette owners possibly be? Even I didn’t want to believe the stereotype that my eyes seemed to confirm: that every Cigarette owner was a gold-chain-wearing, roided-out hardo.
As for the Lake of the Ozarks, though the evangelical billboards that dot the region would disagree, it was dammed—not damned—into existence. Its immense, serpentine shape is a feat of human engineering; at 1,150 miles, it has more shoreline than the entire state of California.
At the Springfield-Branson National Airport, I stepped over the lake. The small-scale replica on the floor looked like spilled ink: its body twisting this way and that, with what looked like legs jutting out in every direction. I stared, trying to make sense of it. Like a Rorschach test, I saw what I wanted to see. My future. A terrible collision. My death. A centipede. Trying to shake such dark thoughts, I rented a car and drove 100 miles north to the real thing. Golf courses and billboards advertising a variety of liquor sprang up on either side of the road. I parked my rental where I would be staying for the next three days—Margaritaville Lake Resort, the most recent edifice dedicated to the parrothead lifestyle. A melding of like-minded philosophies in the Bible Belt’s watery playground, like airlifting Cancún onto Las Vegas.
Outside, the heat was stifling. Nevertheless, business professionals in conference attire stood smoking in front of a giant sculpture of a thong sandal. Families with towels hanging around their necks and flip flops smacking the asphalt walked to and from the pool. In blue letters, on the skywalk above the entryway was a Jimmy Buffett album-title-turned-mantra: “Changes in latitude … changes in attitude.” Soon, like an incantation, I found it everywhere: on an inspirational poster next to the ballroom, adorning random walls and, finally, splayed above my bed in large script.
Buffett had broken me. Twelve hours before the fun run was to begin, I was bellied up at the bar. The NBA Finals were on, and I watched the game with half interest. Clouds of mosquitoes blanketed the air. To my left, a couple took the empty chairs. They had arrived by boat, a Rinker 272, and quickly exhibited that good-natured Midwestern attitude. We exchanged introductions. Originally from St. Louis, Mark and Sandy Beck had bought a house in the Ozarks in 2007. Mark was a chiropractor; Sandy a realtor. I told them the reason I was out here.
Gallery: Smoke on the Water
Naturally, the conversation shifted to the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, and the daredevils who have set records or perished competing. Mark had his own story to share. One of his patients, a former Shootout racer, had recently invited him out on his 2007 Fountain with twin staggered 525 Mercury engines, ITS sterndrives and racing props. After they finished hitting close to 90 mph, his patient asked him if he had any interest in buying one. “I told him ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’” said Mark, “but when I got back to my wife and she asked the same thing, I told her ‘no, no, no.’”
Eventually we said our goodbyes. They couldn’t have been nicer, but they were not the Cigarette owners I was looking for.
In the morning, I watched Jimmy Buffett paddleboard across a languid sea. He vanished. In his place, a beautiful strawberry-lemon sunset stained the horizon. This was not the Ozarks. I was standing in line at Margaritaville’s coffee bar, absentmindedly watching a screen cycle through various tropical locales with Buffett in the starring role.
“What’s your plan for the day?” asked the guy standing in line in front of me. He wore a golf shirt and baseball cap.
“Drinkin’,” came the response. It was from the guy next to him with an elaborate sleeve tattoo. The two fist bumped. On the wall was a sign that read, “Escape the daily grind.” I looked around for the film crew. For a brief second, I wondered if we happened to be in a Bud Light commercial.
I found Performance Boat Center tucked away in a cove on the lake. It was a large, cuboid, 15,000 square-foot showroom with a service center and paint shop, both equally massive. Closer to the water, I recognized its neighbor from one of the stops in the itinerary, the Redhead Lakeside Grill. In the Ozarks, most boaters have memorized places on the water by their mile marker, which is the going measuring tool. Redheads was at mile marker 21. The itinerary was to cruise the 14 miles to Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar & Grill, or Coconuts, at mile marker 7.
When I arrived on the docks, people were already manning their torpedoes. Over a hundred Cigarettes were tied up out front. Ranging in every conceivable shape and size, color and power option, the armada was ready: full of eager owners and their kin. Engines growled and spat and rumbled. Though Cigarette founder Don Aronow, the legendary offshore racer, likely never made it to the Ozarks, his spirit pervades in a flotilla of these machines. Aronow successfully turned Cigarette into the sport’s equivalent of Kleenex or Band-Aid: a brand that enters the public consciousness as a common noun—the same way “Jet Ski” has come to be a placeholder for any PWC. It’s a distinction the company still enjoys today; a fact that must make the longstanding owner and CEO of Cigarette, Skip Braver, very happy.
As each boat idled out of its slip, I climbed aboard War Party, a Cigarette 39 GTS with quad 300s. We followed the pack as they meandered up the inlet to their starting formations. I scanned the crowd. One team was wearing custom shirts that read “We May Be Slow … But We’re Pretty!” (Slow, of course, being a relative term.) Some were shirtless or in bikinis. There were families aboard, couples, young and old at the helm. Like their owners, no two Cigarettes were alike. The range of paint jobs were a kaleidoscope of flames, primary colors, racing stripes, American flags and electric bursts.
From his 38 Top Gun—that would be sold later that afternoon—Brett Manire, co-owner of Performance Boat Center, held aloft a checkered race flag. He gave the signal, which might as well have been pressing a blinking red button in a bunker somewhere far underground. Like a barrage of missiles, the first wave took off. Watching them go, my blood started pumping, my heart raced in anticipation. The screaming of engines had barely diminished before he waved the flag a second time. Suddenly, around 50 of us were in a dead sprint. We were loud, with the fleet spread out as much as possible along the narrow waterway. Each missile finding enough space to maneuver, all aiming for one target. I held on tight to the cockpit seat. It was still early, and oncoming traffic was blessedly minimal. That is, aside from a single, kamikaze-like cabin cruiser that blew past us going the opposite direction.
Dispersing both groups at the right time is key. “We do it to evenly distribute the boat wake. Our lake is not very wide,” Manire told me. “It’s also not much fun to be stuck behind someone.” And the noise level? He waved it off. “When you’re running that fast, the sound is mostly behind you.” Except for the oldest Cigarette in the mix, a 1985 Cafe Racer, and models built in the proceeding decade, which prioritized hush compression engines, dry exhaust and Harley-Davidson levels of reverberation, nobody seems to wear ear plugs anymore. There’s no need. The sound is gone, and with it some of the fury. Stu Jones, the founder of the Florida Powerboat Club, was nevertheless nostalgic. He talked about his first fun run like it was a religious experience. He was 29. It was the late 80s, and he was in Canada of all places. “Back then, the typical offshore powerboat was a sterndrive with headers and stray pipes out the back, and they were loud as s---,” said Jones. “You’d have to wear ear plugs, they were deafening.”
But he also couldn’t say enough good things about what he calls “the power of the group setting.” “With all those engines roaring at one time, it was overwhelming,” remembered Jones. “It was intoxicating in so many ways.” Nowadays, having the loudest boat on the lake doesn’t take precedence. But it was nice to know that almost 30 years later, the feeling of intoxication that came from hearing them move in unison hadn’t changed. At least for me.
You need a good name for your boat if you’re going to be a boater, but you need an identity if you’re going to own a Cigarette. In the mix that day was Repeat Offender, Sweet Energy and Moore Ammo. Each boat seemed an extension of the owner, but not in the way you might expect. Repeat Offender had married, divorced and remarried the same woman. Sweet Energy was the CEO of a large construction company that builds power plants. And Moore Ammo was the owner of an auto body shop and boat repair company in Rogers, Arkansas. His real name was Ben Moore.
I first saw Ben at the third stop, Franky & Louie’s Beachfront Bar & Grill, mile marker 10. It was there that the rowdiness kicked up a notch—or five, or nine. Ben was shirtless, wide-eyed, with a barrel chest, shaved head and sharp features. He had the look of a man who climbed into the MMA Octagon for work each day. A smile hung on his face, frozen there in mirth or delirium or savagery, I couldn’t tell. Shots were flowing, and the group crowded around the packed outdoor bar. Nearby, there were enough kids playing by the beachside to fill a kindergarten class. This was a far cry from Party Cove, the infamous, clothing-optional soirée on the lake that The New York Times described in 2005 as “the oldest established floating bacchanal in the country.”
Nicki Sorenson, who had come on a friend’s Cigarette with Chuck, her husband, came over and introduced herself.
“Do you want this?” she asked after a while. She explained their group had ordered an extra vodka soda garnished with a pink straw. “Is the pink straw okay?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?” I wondered aloud.
“Okay, good. You wouldn’t believe how many egos here wouldn’t be okay with drinking out of one.” I looked around. The shirtless guys in the group were high-fiving, enjoying themselves. They all looked as if they had done a series of CrossFit workouts before the rendezvous. One owner, a mountain of a man, looked like he could flip a truck over with his bare hands. I was calculating the price one would pay for having a big ego—and the inevitable gravitational collusion that would result from meeting this group—when Ben waltzed over.
I assumed he was a restless, wayward spirit. I was wrong. Ben was a good-natured family man. He was here with his wife, Meghan, and the two had been married for eight years. On the weekends, they lived aboard their Carver 430 CPMY, which was currently tied up at Performance Boat Center. On the Carver was their four-month-old and Meghan’s parents, who were babysitting. “Cigarette owners are like a cult,” said Ben, laughing. Reading between the lines, I started to see what he was saying. These were like-minded people, sure, but incredibly friendly if not boisterous, fun-loving and accepting of outsiders, like myself. “We are so blessed to get to do this, it’s stupid,” said Ben. And yet he had worked hard to get to where he was. My mind began its steady recalibration of the typical Cigarette owner.
“Ride with us on the way back,” said Ben.
In no time, the three of us were climbing across the rafted-up Cigarettes to get to Ben and Meghan’s 38 Cigarette Top Gun TS. I watched as they moved like a pair of well-oiled machines, undoing the lines and pushing out to the lake. Ben and Meghan smiled, waving at their compatriots and giving them some good-natured ribbing. I couldn’t help but wonder: Had the secret been cracked by everyone present? You know the one. The secret we’ve convinced ourselves doesn’t exist—outside of diets, workout plans, therapists and odd books. The code to enjoying every fleeting moment, to not stare at a screen, to exhale with peace instead of stress, to be content with yourself and your spouse and your lot in life. Namely, the secret to happiness. Did it involve living fast, dying reasonably old and owning a Cigarette?
“Here, take the wheel,” said Ben. I did, without thinking twice. The weight of anxiety that was projected onto my psyche by this narrow sliver of water dropped immediately from my shoulders. I slid the red kill switch onto my wrist and threw the throttle into gear. We picked up steam and sped up beside some other boats. To our right, one Cigarette got some serious air off a large wake thrown up by a 55-foot Sea Ray. Was the Sea Ray smuggling drugs in hollowed-out Bibles? I doubt it. They were probably looking for a place to tow their kids in this wake-strewn mess.
Wrote Shakespeare, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” Though he didn’t know it, the Bard could have been writing about the Ozarks, too. The good and the ill were what made this place special. The Shootout helped put it on the map—speed on the water being intricately tied to this place. And that immoral, rough-hewn image? That came and went. For the most part, what I saw spanned the wholesome to the strange: young families enjoying a day on the water to swallowing live minnows in shot glasses to rip-roaring good times aboard fast boats.
I’ve known the profound joy that comes with joy rides. Even the classifications, the subsections, the minute things that make each one unique. The first joy ride in a new boat; the one that comes with a heavy dollop of pain; the one you take with a group of friends you’ve known all your life—or merely hours. This one was like that. I punched it, and we jumped up to 80 mph. I had stopped thinking in knots, only speed. I was hooked. Judging by the look on my face, Ben knew it, too. “That’s why you want to work your ass off to get to do this stuff,” said Ben, unprompted. “It’s addicting.”