An admitted slow-boater joins a high-octane poker run down the Keys — sans gold chains, of course
An admitted slow-boater joins a high-octane poker run down the Keys — sans gold chains, of course
Lots of people have gone to the mountain top. Some have gone because they’re politicians. Some have gone because they’re in the Bible. Some have gone because they’re tourists. When I was growing up, I knew some who went because that’s where the still was. Since I don’t fall into any of those categories (except maybe one) I’ve often wondered whether I’d ever get there, or whether I’d even know it if I did. Well, I’m here to tell you that I just went. And I knew it.
I knew it when I looked at a GPS and saw that we were going 85 mph. And we weren’t in a plane. We weren’t even in a car on Alligator Alley. We were in the luxurious back seat of a boat, heading down Biscayne Bay toward Islamorada in the Florida Keys. The last time I was in a boat heading down the Florida Keys, I was making about 6 knots. I was having fun at that speed, but I was also having fun at 85 mph. The transition from one to the other came about rather strangely.
Read the other story in this package: It’s all in the family for Outerlimits
I had written an article on romance at sea for the August issue (“Is it easy if you’re queasy?”). Not having much firsthand experience, I utilized my observations of others. Among the “others” were the guys I’ve been noticing over the years on what we slow-boaters call “go-fast” boats. I’d developed a bias that go-fast boats were largely populated by large guys wearing large gold chains and that there was a corresponding relationship between the number of gold chains and the number of buxom lady passengers on board.
“Wait a minute, there’s a lot more to this type of boating than that,” I was informed by a member of the go-fast tribe.
My first reaction was, “Well, what more could you possibly want?”
“Why don’t you come see?” was the patient reply. Always up for a boat ride, I quickly signed on.
I’ve spent most of my life in very slow boats. From my perspective, to go fast on the water has been akin to high-speed cow milking. I had seen the machines that can do it, but, personally, I’d only used my hands, one slow bucket at a time. The motorsailer I live aboard, even with its new engine, can churn along at up to 10 knots. The first time I roared up the coast at this awesome clip the phrase “faster than a speeding bullet” kept running through my proud mind. Little did I know I was going to take another leap not over tall buildings, but in boating experience.
The first leap was learning you don’t call them go-fast boats; they are high-performance offshore powerboats. In the past when I heard the term “high performance” used for something on the water, I thought it referred to a rock group from the ’60s doing a gig on a barge. But a new day was about to dawn with a very different ride, and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, the stage already had been set.
Around eight years ago we took Chez Nous to Rum Cay. This small Bahamian island, lonely in a huge ocean, is far southeast of Nassau and well off the beaten track. So we were surprised one day to look out over the surf breaking on the reef and see, in the rough ocean beyond, huge plumes of flying spray surrounding a powerfully moving, mean-looking, gray U.S. Coast Guard vessel. To our amazement, it slowed and began heading in through the dangerous reef.
There’s no room to stray from the narrow winding pass and, if you do, the coral and pounding sea are merciless. As the boat approached, it became obvious this was no ordinary vessel. It looked like something that had been built to go at speed up Niagara Falls without anyone aboard getting hurt. It came into the dock, and its commanding officer told the startled dockmaster that he wanted to take on fuel and spend the night.
This might not sound unusual until you realize that we really were in the middle of nowhere and that the Coasties were delivering this new boat from New Orleans to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with many fueling stops in between. The vessel, a self-righting 47 Motor Lifeboat, was tough and Spartan like its six-man crew, a machine specifically designed to run at speed (20 knots) through huge seas and surf. It was not built with creature-comfort accommodations.
As the commanding officer stood shaking out his bones for a few minutes of relaxation, I struck up a conversation, eager to learn about this impressive boat. He was a nice guy, very knowledgeable and the officer in charge at the Coast Guard station in San Juan. We talked for a while, two seamen with very different perspectives. We’d both reached that island by traveling long distances in extremely different boats. But we were both standing on the same hill overlooking a wild and beautiful ocean.
The Motor Lifeboat eventually was off again through the reef, disappearing from view in the flying spray, heading for its destination some 700 very rough miles away. I returned to my slow-boat world in the same motorsailer in which I sit today. At the time (before a new engine) it could max out at just fewer than 7 knots — in good sea conditions.
Fast forward to Feb. 21 this year, and my wife, Mel, and I are outside a large ballroom in the Marriott Biscayne Bay overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in Miami. It’s just before 8 p.m., and people are beginning to arrive for a captain’s meeting. I’ve been to plenty of captain’s meetings, but they’ve all been for sail or trawler events in which an underlying issue often was getting to where you were going before the end of the day — or week or maybe month.
This captain’s meeting was for the Miami Boat Show Poker Run, sponsored by the Florida Powerboat Club (www.flpowerboat.com ). This event is for high-performance offshore powerboats, and the first day was to be a run of approximately 80 miles down to Islamorada. Because of seas offshore, we would make the run inside. Actual running time was expected to be only a few hours, which included traveling at slow speed through many areas, a brief “stop” at Coconut Grove to pick up cards for the game, and a long stop for a leisurely catered lunch at Gilberts on Key Largo.
Mel and I were standing in the hallway, feeling a bit like two peas in a carrot patch and wondering whether we should go inside, when out comes this guy who looked vaguely familiar. We started talking. Being considerably younger than me (and probably a lot more “with it” regardless of respective ages), it didn’t take long for his gray matter to make some connections. “I’m thinking Rum Cay,” he said. “I’m thinking a few years back. You were in a sailboat, and you write for some magazines.”
It was Brad Schoenwald, who had been running that Motor Lifeboat. He’s retired from the Coast Guard, but he’s still into safety at sea and high-performance boats. In fact, he’s an instructor at Tres Martin’s PerformanceBoatSchool (www.performanceboatschool.com) and was the safety officer for the poker run. We followed Brad into the meeting.
I learned that when you’re making a high-performance run with this group, there are safety rules and procedures I’d never dreamed of. Brad’s safety presentation was a common sense, no-nonsense, no-compromise, this-is-the-way-we-will-do-it laying down of the law.
I learned that everybody quickly throws his hands up in the air if the boat comes off plane, which helps alert the operators of boats behind that you’ve suddenly slowed. I learned that if you’re going to exceed certain speeds in certain boats — they use miles per hour instead of knots — you aren’t allowed to have anyone in the back seat. I learned that the boats are required to take off one at a time, with a slow count to 10 between each start, and are supposed to remain in a relatively single-file formation, keeping a distance of at least three boat lengths for every 10 mph of speed.
There is zero tolerance for alcohol consumption by those responsible for running the boats, who must wear yellow wristbands. If anyone sees an operator drinking at the lunch stop or elsewhere before the end of the run, they should report them. I learned that life jackets aren’t an issue; you wear them. I was really impressed with the concern for safety and steps taken to assure it.
There were other aspects of the event that impressed me. It wasn’t about a bunch of high-performance boats running amok around the neighborhood. The event was very well organized by the Florida Powerboat Club down to the last detail. There were three groups, organized according to speed, and each had a pace/lead boat. Routes were planned in advance, as were dockage and shoreside activities. Backup and mechanical support were available on scene, and transportation was provided between the participating marinas in the Keys.
The poker run had been issued a marine event permit by the Coast Guard, the procedure for which includes coordination with local law enforcement and other stakeholders. It also was insured. The organizers and participants took this all very seriously, as one should when making a run at such high speeds. However, the underlying reason for doing it was fun, and this hardly slipped between the cracks.
Brand loyalty among the boat owners and crews led to plenty of good-natured and sometimes hilarious kidding. Brad during the safety lecture: Why am I showing you this picture of this boat upside down in the water? Answer from a participant: Because it’s an XYZ (substitute brand of your choice). Underlying everything was a pervasive excitement of accomplishing a goal in beautiful, natural surroundings while using and controlling an incredibly powerful machine. And also underlying everything throughout the event was a sincere willingness to help each other. This is common with most boating people, but it seemed to be especially so here.
There are certain misconceptions that many boaters have about go-fast boats, and I’ve been as guilty as anyone. But how was I to know? To me, going fast on the water means barely being able to get out of the way of my own wake — before I slow down. And I’m so tight (read: poor) that I measure fuel by the jigger instead of the gallon. And when I think of sitting on custom-made, form-fitting seats,I’m thinking of sitting on an upside-down bucket with the bottom busted out.
But the next day I found myself standing out on the dock at the Sea Isle Marina at 8:30 a.m., surrounded by what seemed like enough brute power to run an aircraft carrier and enough high-gloss color to pale the Fourth of July fireworks in New York City. The rows of long, slender boats made me feel like that 90-pound weakling at the beach with eyes full of sand. I must confess I felt a little shy.
Then I started meeting some of the folks. They came from far and wide — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Norway (more than a dozen people), Great Britain, Canada. A cross-section description would probably be that of successful businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals. There was a 46-year-old residential construction contractor from New York, a 40-year-old aviation parts manufacturer from California, a 45-year-old dental surgeon from Atlanta, a 39-year-old pharmaceutical distributor from San Antonio, a 52-year-old scrap-metal dealer from Pennsylvania, and a 45-year-old performance-boat dealer from Tennessee. There also was an NFL player, husband-and-wife teams (including a couple in their 70s), and families with youngsters. And to my disappointment, I only noticed one gentleman wearing gold chains — discreetly and with amusement. So much for my hopes of borrowing a set.
On the family boats, we noticed more involvement by wives than we sometimes see in slow-boat events. On at least two boats, the woman “wheeled.” (To wheel is to steer, I learned.) Some boats had one of the team at the sticks and the other at the wheel; some had one person doing both with the other navigating. Running boats like this requires close teamwork.
There also was a large support group. Some owners had their own service people standing by, and some builders were there to support owners if needed. Outerlimits had its service manager, a team of service technicians, and an 18-wheel 53-foot NASCAR-style transporter with office and workshop at the event. Nor-Tech had a complete parts/hospitality trailer set up in the poker run village on Islamorada with four service technicians on duty.
There were 92 participating boats, some having left the day before. In a poker run, the boats all head to a preplanned destination, with designated stops along the way to pick up cards in sealed envelopes. At the end of the run, the envelopes are turned in and opened, and the best hand wins. With dozens of high-performance boats jockeying to come alongside to get their cards — many with one-off, personally designed, multicolored and megabuck high-gloss paint jobs — the trick’s a bit different.
The pickup points were staffed by guys in color-coded shirts and wielding long poles with red boxing gloves attached to the end for pushing the boats off the dock if they came too close. The envelopes also were secured to the end of long poles, which were held out over the water so a designated crewmember could grab the card without the boat stopping.
Our ride was aboard Bada Bing, an Outerlimits 39 Quattro. The owner, Joe Amoroso, and his navigator, Nick Suriani, are from Long Island, N.Y. They’d flown down the evening before, retrieved the boat from storage in Fort Lauderdale, trailered it to Miami, launched and fueled it, docked it at the marina, and were ready to run. (These boats often are trailered to cruising areas for the season.) They were out for fun, but were very serious about what they were doing and about running safely.
The majority of boats in this event were Outerlimits, counting in at 16, but other builders also were well-represented, including Nor-Tech with 11 and Cigarette with 10. Among the larger boats was the new Outerlimits 50-foot catamaran, which had been tested at speeds of 164 mph with its Mercury Racing 1200 SCi engines. The fastest boat may have been a Nor-Tech 5000 Roadster named Canada Thrust, powered by twin Lycoming 2,000-hp turbines. It is said to run up to 180 mph, although not at this event. (This was not a race, and top speeds weren’t relevant as a part of the poker run.)
We traveled in the midrange of the three speed groups. Bada Bing proved to be a good boat to demonstrate to an uninitiated slow-boater what this is all about. I was surprised that they’re not just mean machines. Most have luxurious accommodations beneath their mile-long foredeck (no, you probably don’t use the head running at speed), and the cockpits are designed for comfort. Some have canopies that hydraulically close over air-conditioned cockpits, and many have headphone and speaker sets tied in to the VHF to facilitate communication.
When you step off the dock and aboard a slick boat you figure can do 100 mph with ease and you’re accustomed to going a rock-solid 8 mph with difficulty, you have a preconceived notion that the boat is going to tip and send you sliding into the water. So it was with a bit of delicacy that I stepped aboard Bada Bing. As it turned out, the only thing I noticed on the boat that I would call “delicate” was the digital difference on the GPS display between stop and fast. It didn’t seem to take any time at all to get from one to the other.
After a short on-board safety briefing, I heard a quiet whir, and the entire aft deck of the boat started coming up. Joe had pushed a button in the cockpit, and the hydraulic rams had quietly lifted the engine hatch. I was amazed by two things: the size of the engines and the relative amount of space down there to work on them. They were side by side, but one engine was placed somewhat abaft the other, giving better weight distribution and more clearance. Joe quickly checked things out, and we were ready for takeoff.
Wanting to help, I tried to untie the aft starboard dock line until I realized it was spliced to a chromed protrusion on the boat. As I was trying to figure out what they were going to do with that line flopping about in the breeze (I didn’t think they were going to cut that beautiful splice), Joe stepped up and pulled out the protrusion. “Pushpin cleats,” he explained. You pull out the protrusion, which is really the end of a stainless rod that fits deeply into an enclosed hole, and the line and cleat are free for storage below. The boat returns to pure streamlined form, with no clutter on deck and no extra windage. OK, now how was I supposed to know that?
I figured I’d best sit down and avoid showing more ignorance, if possible. “Uh, this seat won’t fit,” I said. But then I saw that Mel had quickly discovered how it fit. The seats are essentially wrap-around. You don’t just settle back into them; you lower yourself from the top. Your legs are protruding as with a normal seat, and you can get straight up if you’re so disposed, but you can’t readily fly out forward should there be a sudden loss of momentum or downward plunge. Pretty cool, I was thinking, settling in and ready to rumble.
As we and others pulled away from the dock to get into the starting lineup, an old motorsailer nosed into the end of the pier in front of us, its skipper apparently oblivious to the rumbling engines and the color-coordinated profusion of boats already under way and streaming out of the marina. Its crew, apparently having no clue as to spring lines, secured the bow line to a pile, missed a line tossed from the dock, and the boat commenced to hang out on the wind blocking the passageway between the docks. (Could this have been me?)
The words “million dollar paint job” popped to mind, as well as a few other choice words one might expect. But the poker run operators managed to handle it, without a scratch, and without an unkind comment.
The first part of the run was just my speed. We were in a no-wake zone, and the boats just coasted, a low, powerful rumble purring from under the wide deck aft. When we got into open water we sped up slightly, smoothly slipping through the small chop. I figured we were making probably just less than 10 knots until I looked at the GPS. It was around 30.
While I was contemplating this, Joe called back something to the effect, “OK, it’s time to go.” Just as I was thinking, “We’re already doing that,” we went. It was like a controlled blastoff, but it also was comfortable. I felt like I had enough power under my tail to fly to the moon, and it felt good.
I’d once gone around 120 mph in a friend’s racing hydroplane, but it was for only a few minutes, and the last word I’d use to describe the experience would be “comfortable.” The ride on Bada Bing was comfortable as well as fast. I did have to make a few adjustments, like removing my glasses to keep them from blowing off my face. The guys at the control didn’t have much wind because of the windshield.
I realized, however, that I was missing something. I’ve been hearing these high-performance boats for years, but as our speed climbed to 50, 60, 70 and beyond, I wasn’t hearing what I expected. Much of the noise was left astern. I turned to look back to where the sound must have been and saw only a magnificent rooster tail rising and finally falling back into what was hardly a wake. Small wonder. Not much of the boat was in the water.
I then heard a definite roar off to starboard, looked up, and saw a helo sharing our airspace. It was hovering alongside, within what seemed to be almost touching distance, a cameraman hanging out and filming.
We ran at high speeds through open water and leisurely, slow speeds through winding mangrove channels. By late afternoon we were heading for the docks at Holiday Isle Resort at Islamorada. To watch this many boats come into a small marina was something you don’t forget. It must have looked spectacular from shore, because at both the lunch stop and here crowds gathered to watch. There was a fleet of around 50 boats rafted off the docks at Gilberts for the lunch stop. Interestingly, with all hands helping each other, we didn’t notice a single ding or bump.
No, I haven’t bought a high-performance boat, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to go low flying on one again. If I had enough money to buy all the boats I wanted, I’d definitely have one. But you can’t have everything, and I still love my go-slow motorsailer.
As I write this, we’re rolling around in a safe harbor, snug and secure, listening to gale winds in the rigging and tornado warnings on the VHF. It feels good. When I have a hankering to go fast I get in my ugly old aluminum dinghy or in my 1985 center console Mako (when I can afford the gas). Neither of these comes close to the thrill of that day on Biscayne Bay, and there’s certainly no comparison as to comfort and luxury. But they’re boats, and they’re mine, and I love them, too.
The good news is that I’ve learned that I can still learn, at least when shown the way. And once again I’ve seen that there’s more to boating than “my” kind or “your” kind. We too often judge a group by a few.
I remember the “few” I’ve seen in high-performance boats randomly careening across Chesapeake Bay at top speeds on a pretty Sunday afternoon without regard to the wall-to-wall boats between Annapolis and the Eastern Shore. I also remember the “few” I’ve seen in sailboats slowly sailing across shipping channels, thinking those huge, lumbering container ships should yield because they’re under sail — or taking off down the coast in forecast gales, putting at risk teams of Coast Guard personnel who must fly out and pluck them to safety. Then I remember the boaters of all types who don’t do these things, who are having fun and going the extra mile to be safe and good neighbors.
We boaters have a lot in common, even though we’re in different boats. We share a great experience, even though we have different rides. It’s good that we salute our differences and appreciate our common loves. They bring us to the same island. Which reminds me — I’d still love a set of gold chains.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at