Going as fast as his ideas will take him
Posted on 01 March 2012
Written by Jim Flannery
Fort Lauderdale native John Connor has built boats that won racing titles and set a trans-Atlantic speed record - Always on the edge of his seat
Working with some of the legends in powerboat racing, John Connor built a reputation for speed and safety
At 3:50 on a summer morning in 1989, the 112-foot Gentry Eagle roared past Bishop Rock, the southwesternmost of Great Britain’s Scilly Isles, giving John Connor a chance to savor the triumph of a very big idea he had helped take from dream to reality.
Connor, a native of Fort Lauderdale and Gentry Eagle’s throttleman and project manager, and Tom Gentry, a Hawaii developer and Eagle’s owner and driver, had set a trans-Atlantic speed record of 62 hours, 7 minutes — a dream of Gentry’s that had eluded him until then. “It’s pretty mind-boggling to think that we could make something that big run 80 mph,” Connor says more than two decades later.
Powered by twin 3,480-hp MTU turbo diesels coupled to a pair of waterjets and by a 4,500-hp Textron Lycoming turbine engine linked to a surface drive, the aluminum-hulled Gentry Eagle was the ultimate warhorse — big, strong, muscular and very, very fast. Connor had been able to push the behemoth to 80 mph — one of the design parameters — on flat water on Long Island Sound, but for the trans-Atlantic course the crew aimed for speed and endurance, averaging 55 mph during the 3,446-mile passage.
Leading the way with fast boats and new ideas, Connor and the powerboat racers he teamed up with through the years — legendary figures such as Gentry and Paul and Betty Cook — risked their lives, their boats and their reputations during an era when offshore powerboat racing was just coming into its own as a sport. Yes, they sometimes failed and failed big, but Connor and his crews also won championships — lots of them — and they earned respect from the racing fraternity for their passion for new technology; for faster, more efficient hull designs; and for their willingness to test it all on the racecourse.
“Offshore racing back then was a much different sport than it is today,” says John Henry Falk, a longtime friend of Connor’s who raced against him and is now a yacht broker. As boats went faster, they broke down more, and crews had to be more attentive to building and rigging them so they could take the punishment.
“John was great with the equipment,” Falk recalls. “He made sure it ran and stuck together. The wins in his career show just how thorough he is and how meticulous he is in what he does.”
And, although he loved to win, he was a stickler for safety. “He wouldn’t do something unless he thought it was safe, even though in racing you’re always taking a chance,” Falk says.
It took two tries for the Gentry Eagle to capture the trans-Atlantic speed record. A year before her triumphant finish at Bishop Rock, the boat raced past New York’s Ambrose Light for England in what the team’s crackerjack forecasters said was a “small storm,” Connor says. “They said we could punch right through it.”
Several hundred miles short of their midsea rendezvous with the refueling boat, Gentry Eagle still was bashing through 20-foot seas. Her navigation system was trashed, a fuel tank was cracked, the turbine was on the fritz and — the last straw — an aluminum strake had torn loose from the bottom in the terrible pounding. “The boat was so broken up we decided to turn around,” Connor says.
Headed for St. Johns, Newfoundland, without GPS and with a radar that was barely working, the Eagle was 20 miles from shore when it ran up on an island in the dark at 42 knots. “I thought we’d hit a ship,” Connor says. “It was so pitch-black. It sounded like a million pots and pans banging together.”
Gentry Eagle had grounded on a rocky beach, nestled between two huge boulders. Had the boat hit one of the rocks, the outcome would have been very different. Eagle’s bottom was crumpled and holed, but “everyone was OK,” Connor says. A barge and crane lifted the vessel off the island and took it to Nova Scotia, where Connor stayed for a year, putting a new bottom on it. A year later, a second record attempt came off nearly flawlessly. Working at the cutting edge, “you take a lot of disappointment, but the rewards kind of make up for it,” Connor says.
His first racing mentor
The Atlantic crossing wasn’t Connor and Gentry’s first exploit together. The two teamed up in 1986 and together — Gentry Racing and Connor Engineering — won two world powerboat championships and set a world Superboat speed record, averaging 148.238 mph in the 48-foot Cougar Cat Gentry Turbo Eagle, which raced with four 1,400-hp Gentry turbo engines that Connor had helped develop.
“Tom was the idea man,” says Connor, now general manager of the New River Marina in Fort Lauderdale. “I was forever getting sketches from him of something on the back of a cocktail napkin or a scrap of paper. He’d ask, ‘Can you build this?’ ”
Odds are Connor could. A California boy with an engineer’s mind and a mechanic’s hands, Connor grew up around boats. His dad owned a fiberglass shop in Newport Beach, Calif. “All through high school and junior college I worked in the [yards] in Newport Beach,” he says. After a two-year stint in the Army, assigned to the motor pool, the 20-year-old Connor returned to Newport Beach in 1967 to open Orange Coast Marine, repairing, rebuilding and rigging marine engines. He also built small fiberglass boats — Flying Junior sailboats for Orange Coast College and a 16-foot Boston Whaler-type powerboat.
By 1975, the shop was building high-performance engines and rigging racing boats for a wealthy California engineer named Paul Cook, a pioneer in radiation chemistry and power catamaran raceboats. An early cat racer with his 33-foot Ron Jones design, Kudu, Cook hired Connor to throttle his boats, tweak them and make them go faster.
“Paul was a very interesting guy,” Connor says. The founder and CEO of Raychem Corp., he developed ways to use radiation to alter the chemistry of materials and create new ones for industrial uses. “He was an R&D guy straight out of MIT. His big thing in offshore racing was developmental vessels.”
Working with Cook and Jones, the leading builder of unlimited hydroplanes at that time, the young Connor became involved in building offshore racing catamarans. Connor and Cook, his first racing mentor, were so far ahead of the curve with Kudu that at one Key West race in the mid-1970s speedboat guru Don Aronow tried to ban the boat from the race because the newfangled catamarans were too dangerous. “He tried to get us kicked out,” Connor says.
Aronow’s USA Racing Team would go on to build high-performance 39-foot catamarans for racing and for U.S. Customs, which deployed the boats to chase drug smugglers.
Working on Cook’s boats “provided such great background and schooling,” Connor says. “He hired department heads from Cal Tech to work with us.” This is where Connor learned to aim high, both on the racecourse and in boat design and engine technology. He passed the same high standards on to his crew.
“I always considered John one of the smartest people I ever worked with,” says Digger Dirgins, a retired throttleman who raced with and against Connor. “I don’t think anyone has walked away from John Connor without learning something.” And yet he is a quiet and thoughtful man who was always willing to listen to his crew’s ideas.
Largely self-taught, the storied throttleman, race crew chief and innovator went on to team up with Cook’s wife, Betty, one of the most successful offshore racers of all time, with two world and three national championships. As her crew chief and throttleman, Connor helped put her on the map as a world-class offshore racer.
An MIT graduate, Betty Cook was competitive, disciplined and a quick study — game to learn the ins and outs of what was then an all-male sport. Like her husband (they later divorced) and Gentry, she had the “drive to develop new product, new ideas, new technology,” Connor says.
As president of her engineering company, Kaama Marine, John Connor helped develop the Arneson and Kaama surface drives and oversaw the sales and manufacturing of the Kaama drive in California and Florida. He holds three patents related to surface-drive propulsion, co-developed the Scarab 38 with Larry Smith and licensed the Scarab design and technology to pleasure-boat builder Wellcraft Marine. Later, as project manager on Gentry Eagle, he worked on early applications of turbines — which until then had been used mainly to power hydroplanes on lakes — in offshore speed runs.
Cat project needs a partner
Connor, now general manager of the New River Marina and president of Connor Marine Engineering, in 1992 helped convert Gentry Eagle into a luxury yacht — the world’s fastest at the time. He also worked on a 185-foot surface-effect catamaran for Gentry that stayed on the drawing boards after Gentry’s 1998 death from racing-related injuries. Connor Marine has designed a 20-foot fishing catamaran and a portable harbor breakwater for the Army Corps of Engineers and worked on Navy surface-effect ships, which ride on a cushion of air.
Connor also put his skills to work as chief instructor for the Wellcraft High Performance Driving School and assisted Formula and Pro-Line in developing step-hull designs. He got into the marina and boatyard business in 2005 when Fort Lauderdale’s Marina Bay hired him to design and install 165 floating docks to replace ones that Hurricane Wilma destroyed. The marina basin, once a gravel pit, was 55 feet deep, so Connor — ever the innovator — designed an anchoring system of crisscrossed chains tied to 10,000-pound cement deadweights on the bottom.
He says he took the New River position to get out from behind a desk and take on the challenge of bringing the yard back from bankruptcy and putting its service operation on a solid footing. It has turned out to be a good, steady job in tough times. Although boat sales sputter, maintenance and repair work never stops.
New River now touts itself as “South Florida’s bottom-paint specialists.” Connor says the pricing on his bottom jobs is among the lowest in the city, even though he uses top-quality antifouling paints. Bottom jobs aren’t sexy, but every boat needs one sooner or later. And when they’re competitively priced and done well, they woo customers and keep them coming back for other work. The company also has positioned itself as South Florida’s “Trawler Center,” specializing in brokering and maintaining trawlers. “We had three people when I came aboard,” Connor says. “Now we’re up to 23 people.”
Connor owns a 48-foot Atlantic motoryacht, Sonrisa, and he lives on it in Fort Lauderdale during the week. On weekends, he drives an hour and a half to Homestead to relax as a “gentleman farmer” on his 3-acre, 125-tree orchard, where he grows lychee, a popular Asian fruit that he wholesales to groceries and restaurants.
Four 7,400-hp Allison M62 turbines — relics from the past — are stored in a shed at the orchard. They were bought to power the 185-foot trans-Atlantic surface-effect cat he and Gentry were working on when Gentry died; the engines were supposed to push the cat to 100 knots and give it a range of 3,000 miles. The Gentry family turned the engines over to Connor, who tried to find a new partner to revive the project.
“You can find people who are interested,” he says. “There just aren’t that many Tom Gentrys in this world willing or able to spend $20 million on this type of project.”
A born tinkerer, innovator, racer and R&D man, Connor says he’d jump-start the project in a heartbeat if the right partner came along. “I’d love nothing more than the opportunity to build it and break the trans-Atlantic record one more time,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the Southern Waters section of the March 2012 issue.