Hurtling up the Hudson with the ‘big dogs’ - Soundings Online

Hurtling up the Hudson with the ‘big dogs’

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A first-hand account of this summer’s NYC poker run from aboard a Cigarette 46 with 2,150 hp

A first-hand account of this summer’s NYC poker run from aboard a Cigarette 46 with 2,150 hp

For a fleeting moment, I can’t help imagining myself an insect getting smashed against a windshield, much like those that meet their end on the windscreen of my Harley Davidson Dyna Wide Glide. The power of the twin Merc 1075s roaring five feet behind me — pushing the 14,000-pound Cigarette 46, American Muscle II, at 110 mph — leave me convinced that a mishap would result in serious pain.

So why was I grinning like a lunatic? Perhaps I just answered my own question.

The New York City Powerboat Poker Run, held June 18 this year, is many things, but it’s easier to describe a few things it isn’t. First, it isn’t for the faint of heart. To run with the big dogs, a need for speed is mandatory. And the start with more than 100 boats on the line can be five of the craziest minutes you might ever spend on the water.

It also isn’t a race, though you wouldn’t know that by the actions of those involved in this National Powerboat Association event. Checkered flags, trophies, high-performance engines, and some the biggest, sexiest speedboats certainly create the aura of a race. And pre-race smiles and laughter yield to serious game faces once the boats are pointed in the same direction, speeds and intensity climbing.

Technically, participants play a hand of poker where speed plays no part, but that subtlety was lost on a novice like me. Winning $5,000 for the best hand is a drop in the bucket to someone who has plunked down $500,000-plus for a boat that would get you a serious speeding ticket if you could drive it on the interstate. It may not be a race, but these guys were certainly racing.

Ticket to ride

How I came to be hurtling up the Hudson River on a beautiful June day was a function of my involvement with Soundings magazine and lack of shame, rather than with my owning a go-fast boat or even having any performance powerboat experience. An offhand comment made to Soundings editor Bill Sisson about a certain wish of mine led me to Marilyn DeMartini, public relations and licensing director at Cigarette Racing Team in Opa-locka, Fla., who got me on a Cigarette during the Miami International Boat Show last February. I jumped when she offered to get me into a poker run. Given a choice of events, I went with NYC.

Come race morning I hadn’t laid eyes on my skipper, Tony Mondazze of Parkland, Fla., who owns American Muscle II, his fifth Cigarette. Mondazze is 39 years old, married 18 years to his high school sweetheart, Mona, and with his wife’s help has built a plaster and concrete business successful enough to allow him to entertain some of his hobbies.

Tony claims the Cigarette as his favorite hobby, and AMII is the flavor of the moment. AMII was one of the boats Cigarette displayed at the Miami show and represents the builder’s greatest accomplishment to date: 46 feet of fiberglass and horsepower, with wild graphics and upholstery to boot — a magnet for just about every guy who passes by. Certainly worked on me. Perhaps Mondazze, too, because shortly after the show he bought the boat to replace what I suspect was an equally impressive Cigarette of a slightly older vintage.

Ready to rumble

I scan the tent and docks looking for someone I have never met. I know where AMII is berthed and keep a steady eye on her. DeMartini had mentioned that Tony owns most of the Cigarette clothing, so I scan the crowd for someone sporting the iconic Cigarette logo. Unfortunately, lots of people were.

Then I spot two guys wearing the same crimson zip-up shirt DeMartini sent me, and I figure this looks promising. Bingo.

We make introductions, and I learn that the other guy is Tony’s longtime friend, fellow Floridian and Cigarette owner Keith Stuart, who will be part of our crew. The three of us head to the driver’s meeting to hear the rules. There weren’t many: don’t hit anything, best hand wins, don’t hit anything, stay behind the pace boat until the George Washington Bridge, don’t hit anything. Then we’re off to the boat to get ready to rumble.

At the boat, I meet the rest of the crew. Pierre Gaudreau of Hideaway Marina in Pompano Beach, Fla., is the dealer from whom Tony bought AMII. Hector Rodriguez is a Cigarette mechanic. I’m delighted to have no role other than to stand behind Tony and not get in the way.

The docks are electric! The sights and sounds leave me mesmerized. I spot one guy carrying a crash helmet followed by a beautiful woman in a flowered sundress and high heels. The two appear headed for very different activities, yet both board a nearby boat. I ponder my shirt and shorts wardrobe and speculate what safety gear is required. I soon learn that none is, and that I am actually overdressed when Tony instructs me to stow my shoes below.

I immediately forget about clothing when Tony turns a key, pushes a button, and brings to life two of the biggest gas engines I have ever seen: 557 cubic inches of big-block iron in a V-8 configuration generating 1,075 hp each. Throw on a Lysholm twin-screw supercharger with multiport fuel injection, not to mention immense outdrives, and the package is complete.

Right next to us and going through the same motions is American Muscle III, identical to our ride except for its paint job. They pull out first, and I learn that the loudest place to be is behind one of these boats. Straight exhausts ported straight back. I think the appeal of these boats varies with the individual, but for me the sound is a big part of what gets me cranked. I was cranked.

Tony engages the engines, and we cast off — to immediately encounter what I considered a significant challenge: getting out of the slip. At 46 feet American Muscle II is in tight quarters, and this puppy won’t turn on a dime. Or so I thought. Much like any twin-screw powerboat operator, Tony works the controls, indeed turning her on a dime, punches the throttles, and we are under way.

We depart the marina and join the parade that was supposed to go at a 10-knot pace up to the George Washington Bridge, where the speed run would occur. At least that was the plan, and for perhaps 20 minutes that plan was more or less adhered to. The fastest boats, including AMII, are in the first tier, followed by two other groups consisting of smaller and slower boats, finishing with the cruisers.

We head up the Hudson at a slow lope, a half-dozen helicopters overhead shooting footage. A police boat is to starboard, along with the pace boat, an orange 39-foot Outerlimits owned and piloted by Mark Jameson of New Jersey. I ask Tony if he knows many of his competitors. He turns, grins, and says: “They all know me.”

My smile widens. I came here hoping for serious speed, and Tony’s comment assures me that I had come to the right place. My desire to see how it feels to do 100 mph in a boat, I deduce, will soon be satisfied.

The pace picks up to 15-plus knots, not quite planing. Everyone is getting edgy. The bridge is still miles upriver, but I begin to understand the comments about the crazy start. The big boats are bunched off to port, with a few others to starboard along with the pace boat. Many are staying toward the New Jersey shore because it is supposedly free of floating debris.

The group to port is getting well ahead of the pace boat, perhaps 200 yards. We are spread across maybe a mile of water with New York to starboard. I am snapping photos when I notice a dozen smaller boats from the second tier moving up quickly to join our general space. Things are getting crowded now.

The pace quickens, and we begin to pull away from the pace boat, while the bunch to port remains ahead of us. Tony is looking all around, surveying the scene. We are all on plane now, and everyone wants to go. The pace boat is still attempting to get us at least past the cruise ships docked along the New York side before surrendering control. We almost make it.

About this time, it seems to me that Tony said to himself, “It’s time to go.” I sensed he didn’t want to be passed by the smaller boats that would create obstacles for him to get around. Clear water is prized in these events, and I think Tony felt it was fast running out. He also, no doubt, didn’t want the pack to port to get too far out.

I missed any discussion Tony might have had with Keith, but the next thing I know those 1075s are roaring and we begin to pick up speed, slowly at first but gaining with every second. The boats near us apparently hear them, too, and pin it. Roostertails begin to fly. To hell with the pace boat — let’s ride.

Passing lane

It doesn’t take long to pull even and pass the bunch of boats to port. They don’t hear Tony get on it until a few seconds later, and that gives American Muscle II just enough time to really get cranking, as 70 mph quickly goes to 80, then 90. The engines sound awesome; the wind noise is deafening. Everyone is flat out now, but I think we’re out in front and yielding no ground to anyone except a jet-powered boat that blew flames and could eat all of us for lunch.

We top 100 mph with a helicopter to port filming us. I try to take a picture but decide this is beyond pointless. I stuff the camera into my pocket and hold on with two hands. We pass under the G.W. Bridge, the helicopter and the fleet in tow. Tony works the throttles aggressively, a technique Hector says is proper for performance driving. He jams them full forward, but if the boat acts at all squirrelly or if we hit a wake and take air, he throttles back then jams them forward again. Tony is a powerful guy, and his strength is evident as he drives with his left hand, throttles with his right, and keeps his balance as the boat bangs and lurches.

We pass a tug and barge steaming right into the high-speed flotilla. Tony throttles back as we hit their wake, but we still take major air at perhaps 90 mph. Then he hammers down the throttles as we run up the relatively smooth wash of the barge. Somewhere a mile or two north of the G.W., we hit our maximum speed of 115 mph. We’re flat out pinned, and I am loving it. I want to go faster still. The boat feels very tight, in control, solid.

Tony and Keith are engaged in some form of communication, born of many hours spent at high speeds in one Cigarette or another. Pierre and Hector are concentrating but seem otherwise unaffected. I guess the novelty of going this fast can wear off, but I hope I never lose the adrenaline rush of hitting this kind of speed for the first time. I begin to think about those bugs on the windshield but push that thought out of my mind.

Speed bump

Tony throttles back a lot. There is a high-pitched noise — an alarm is going off. Pierre and Hector stick their heads forward and huddle with Tony and Keith. The engines sound good to me, but what do I know? I read the gauges and see that water pressure on the starboard engine is low.

Tony slows to 50 mph, and the huddle continues. Boats pass us. The alarm keeps sounding. Eventually I learn that the low water pressure is the culprit, a function of a water intake system that doesn’t work as well as it needs to at top speed. We need to come to a complete stop, turn off the engines, and reset an on-board computer.

We do this in the matter of a minute, but many boats pass us. We get back on plane, and Tony brings us to 80 mph but doesn’t push beyond that. More discussion. I wonder if that is as hard as Tony wants to push. Though 80 isn’t exactly limping along, I felt bad for Tony as smaller boats passed.

We approach Ossining, the checkpoint to get our first playing card. As we near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, we encounter a flotilla of boats anchored in the middle of the river to watch us pass. The problem is they are really in the middle of the river. We and our fellow competitors pass any which way we can, but I am uneasy at how close we need to go. The risk of collision seems high; there isn’t much time to react at these speeds. However, we all seem to get through fine, and no doubt the waving spectators get great photos.

We cross the Hudson in moments, throttle back, and join a long line of contestant boats moving at headway speed into the Ossining Boat and Canoe Club harbor to receive our first playing card. Great boats are all around, but I don’t see many of the larger tier one boats. Clearly we are out of the running with them. I resign myself to having a nice run up the Hudson on a beautiful day in a cool boat. We get to the head of the line and receive our card off the end of a 10-foot pole manned by NPBA staffers working on a dock.

Card in hand, we head back upriver toward the second checkpoint. Tony has us cruising between 70 and 80 mph again, but I could tell the engine issue had lessened some of the excitement on board. With the second checkpoint being the point where the contestants turn back toward Manhattan, we begin to see the leading boats heading downstream. This was tough for me to take, but must have been killing Tony. Boys need their toys to perform; yet AMII wasn’t up to the task today. Or so I thought.

Two thoroughbreds

As one more of the big boats roars past, Tony throttles back and puts AMII into a sweeping port turn. Two boats following us are clearly confused, slowing and trying to figure out what we are doing. I wonder the same. We are nowhere near shore or any possible checkpoint. Tony and Keith are speaking; I look to Pierre, who shrugs. I guess a winning poker hand isn’t Tony’s top priority. We are headed downstream now, forgoing the poker game in favor of being able to run with a number of the big dogs again. The water seems smoother in this direction and Tony pushes the speeds back toward 90 mph. Alarms sound once more. The same process of shutting down, resetting the computer, then starting once more ensues, this time with Keith at the wheel. AMIII screams past just as we are getting up on plane. Recognizing us and thinking we are in trouble, they pull a 180 and come back upstream. We hand signal as we pass with thumbs up, no distress, so AMIII comes about again and we head downriver together. In moments we are back at 90 mph then over 100, two thoroughbred racehorses that don’t know the meaning of a trot. Keith demonstrates the same aggressive throttle action that Tony used, as speeds approach 110 mph. AMIII is about 150 feet to port, leaping out of the water as her engines shriek. Only her aft third seems to touch the surface, throwing amazing spray, yet seeming to rise above the water at the same time. I hope someone outside of our two boats was able to witness this display of speed and power, perhaps even noticing the guy in the back with the gigantic grin.

I don’t know why the water pressure issue doesn’t reoccur, but it doesn’t, leaving the two of us to assert our dominance over every other boat in sight. We pass other competitors with ease, leaving no doubt as to the league in which these boats belong.

One hundred mph seems to be a line of demarcation, above which few boats can go. The thrill I felt at going that fast and being able to watch another boat keep pace is hard for me to explain. I think I understand why people spend so much time and money, risking life and limb, in pursuit of speed. Simply said, there is nothing quite like it.

Peter K. Mitchel is general manager of Soundings. He grew up sailing on Long Island Sound and more often than not satisfies his need for speed riding his Harley.