When the red flag dropped and the 23 boats roared to full throttle for the start of the 185-mile Miami-Nassau Ocean Power Boat Race last Wednesday, clouds were scudding through the tops of the palms that line the shores of Government Cut. A late-season northeaster had kept small-craft warnings flying until noon the day before, and the wind had diminished little overnight. "The most rugged ocean race in the world," the official bulletins of Nassau's Coral Harbour Yacht Club had said, and the weather bureau was cooperating to make the boast come true.
In Government Cut the water lay smooth. Aboard Dick Bertram's Moppie I was slammed back into my chair as Skipper Sam Griffith gunned the engines, the fleet dropped astern and the wake stretched like a wide white road back toward our nearest competitors, a road that grew steadily longer. Dick Bertram and I looked at each other in amazement as the gap opened. We grinned. We had believed other boats would be faster in calm water and based our victory hopes on the performance of our V-stern Hunt design in the heavy seas of the open ocean and the punishing chop of the Bahama Bank.
Among our rivals was Forest Johnson in Tooky, latest of his Prowler creations, powered by twin 325-hp Crusaders, which dockside gossip credited with speeds approaching 60 mph. There was another Prowler, Black Caesar III, with nearly as much power and speed. There was Miss Palm Springs, a stripped-down Abbey, and two water jet-powered Buehler Turbocraft. We had assumed that these boats at least would take Moppie on the flat.
After a mile Moppie hit the first ocean swell beyond the breakwater. That ended our verbal enthusing. We pulled on the skindivers' face-masks, brought as protection against flying spray, and held on tight. As a sailboat sailor I was not hep to the ways of the high-speed-and-power world. "It's like parachute jumping," Sam Griffith had told me before my first ride the previous Saturday. "You don't need much experience."
April 24, 1960
And, in truth, I felt like an astronaut practicing in his three-dimensional merry-go-round: loop, circle and spin all at once. We suffered an astronaut's weightlessness. Objects not fastened down—like myself—repeatedly hung suspended in space. Each re-entry brought the suspended object back on the deck of Moppie with a solid smack. Some shocks were severe enough to bounce the face mask from eyes to chin. The tubular aluminum chairs aft disintegrated rapidly under our weight, and we threw them overboard. The two nonsteering members of the crew adopted a variety of positions which had nothing to do with human dignity or comfort. The problem was to find a way to hold yourself both up and down—at the same time. The spray from the bow wave jetted out like water from a fire hose, fanning sheets of water 50 feet to either side that blew off to leeward like heavy smoke.
ENJOYING THE RIDE
My sailing colleagues may doubt this, but as soon as I was convinced Moppie would land right side up after each succeeding sea, I began enjoying myself. Even to one unfamiliar with the type it was obvious she was a wonderful sea boat: 30 feet over-all, built to designs by C. Raymond Hunt of Marblehead in the yard of Richard H. Bertram in Miami by workmen only recently from Havana, Moppie's underwater form was unusual—V-shaped not only forward but all the way back to the transom. General practice is to rely on a flat stern to gain planing effect which lessens drag and adds speed. Our hull also had a series of longitudinal strakes designed to help lift the boat onto a plane and to contribute stability by lessening the tendency of the boat to roll.
In the Gulf Stream a steep, confused sea was running, and Moppie immediately came into her own. Within minutes the fleet had dwindled to dots wreathed in spray. Long before the skyline of Miami Beach dropped below the horizon the rest of the boats were out of sight astern. The twin 275-hp Interceptor engines alternately roared and purred as Sam Griffith nursed us over the biggest seas, careful not to let the propellers come out of the water. We had a pair of soft-metal propellers. Bertram had been unable to get any of the specially hardened props designed to stand the stresses that occur when they pop in and out of the water. Watching Sam steer and handle the throttles, I realized that as much delicacy of touch and sense of conditions was required here as in taking a 12-meter sailing yacht to windward.
Meanwhile, a number of the other boats were in trouble. Miss Palm Springs had barely cleared the breakwater when both engines began to pull away from the hull mountings, and she withdrew. Five competitors returned after sampling the offshore seas. Two needed Coast Guard escort. Three Hearts Jr. made 15 miles before needing a tow back to port.
Aboard Flica, a Hunt design built under license by Fairey Marine of England, Driver Charles Compton smelled smoke when he was 15 miles west of Cat Cay. Compton lifted the engine hatch to investigate, and he was blown overboard by a tremendous explosion. His crew jumped after him. Both were picked up 20 minutes later by the cruiser Merry Jane, which was in the predicted log division of the race. They were landed and flown to the hospital in Nassau while Flica burned to the water and sank.
Moppie was still plunging along, and we began looking for Gun Cay light. Surprise! And an unpleasant one: another boat became visible to the northward slightly forward of the beam. Sam quit nursing the propellers. If one boat could have sneaked past, hidden by flying spray, there might be others. We caught up with the unexpected competitor quickly. It was Aqua Hunter, a 23-foot version of our hull built by George O'Day Associates and powered by twin 80-hp Volvo inboard-outboard Aquamatics. Not having to worry about his propellers, Driver Jim Wynne was pushing his craft to the limit. He had designed the unique shaft and prop assembly and knew how much they could take. His little vessel was coming off crests, leaping clear with sky showing beneath the entire length of the keel. Moppie promptly ran away from Wynne, because of our greater over-all length and advantage in horsepower.
Thundering up to the dock at the Cat Cay check point at 9:50 a.m., we were nine minutes ahead of Aqua Hunter. Getting clearance into the Bahamas and taking aboard a drum of fuel occupied exactly two minutes. Then we were off across the Great Bahama Bank, with 62 miles to go to the Northwest Light, our next check point. We had anticipated smooth water on the bank, but the seas were still steep and lumpy.
By now the wind had freshened above 20 knots. Dick Bertram took over the wheel while Sam and I refueled. A fine spray of high-octane gasoline wafted into eyes, nose and hair as we transferred fuel from drum to tank with siphon and pump. From then on we slowed only to allow the compass to stop oscillating so we could get a bearing on the sun and the angle of the seas on the bow. At 12:35 Moppie passed the anchored race committee vessel. We had picked Northwest Light dead on the button in spite of a 10° compass error we discovered early in the race.
Nature divides the 160-nautical-mile course into three convenient and almost equidistant legs: the first across the Gulf Stream from Miami to Cat Cay, the second across the shallow Great Bahama Bank to Fraziers Hog Cay, one of the Berry Islands, and the third to Nassau.
A turbulent sea greeted us beyond Northwest Light. We abandoned the direct course to hug the edge of soundings, avoiding reefs by checking the color of the water—true Bahamian pilotage.
At Frazier, approximately 15 gallons of gasoline were taken aboard in four minutes, and Moppie was on the last leg. The ocean was as rough as I had ever seen it from the deck of any craft. Wind velocity reached approximately 30 knots. Even the most hardened sheath-knife ocean-racing sailor would have conceded conditions rugged. Yet Moppie pushed steadily through. At times the effect was something like diving from a second-story window into a neighboring cellar piled with bricks, but neither engines nor hull faltered, nor did Sam Griffith lose his touch at the wheel.
Griffith had won two of the three previous Miami-Nassau races and has held numerous world powerboat racing records. Around Miami Griffith is a legendary figure. "A wild man," friends had warned me before the start. Among Griffith's exploits were surviving a jump from a bomber in the war when his parachute didn't open, finishing a powerboat marathon while driving with one hand and scooping water aboard with his helmet to keep a cockpit fire under control. Nothing bothers him. Sam has the stoic tolerance for discomfort and punishment necessary to success in all racing where endurance is a factor. Further, he is always superbly in tune with his machine. A lead-footed driver at the wheel can cause an early breakdown in this kind of marathon racing.
SHAMBLES TO SHIPSHAPE
I remembered the shambles in Bertram's yard a few days before the start: engines dismantled, workmen swarming all over the hull. I remembered Sam's care in the midst of it all as he prepared for this test. It was paying off. He was taking no chances now on equipment failure, driving the boat to the utmost, yet with discretion.
Now he was peering through sheets of spray for the outline of the New Providence shore. Much depended on the accuracy of our landfall. I kept glancing at my watch but said nothing. According to my rough calculations we still had a chance to break the existing course record of eight hours four minutes. Then I sighted the familiar silhouette of Goulding Cay over the bow exactly where we expected it. "Sam," I bellowed across, "you can break the record." He stared at me through his face mask and shook his head, "No chance." But Goulding came rapidly closer as the minute hand moved around the dial.
Suddenly I was sure and yelled again. This time he believed, and he began to drive with fury. Moppie accelerated to a speed where spray stung my raw face like flung shot. Sunburn cream was less than seven feet away, but I had gone over seven hours without being able to reach it. With smoother water under the lee of the land Sam opened the throttles wide, turning up 4,100 revs on both engines. Moppie literally flew, skittering over the crests at 50 mph. I looked from the second hand of my watch to the shore and back again. I must say, it was one of the most exciting climaxes of my competitive career. I was gripped by the elation of sheer speed. We flashed across the finish exactly at 3 o'clock: eight hours to the minute from our start in Miami.
We had set a new record. Aqua Hunter came in two hours 25 minutes later, second over-all despite the fact she carried less than half the power possessed by other competitors. It was a remarkable demonstration of the efficiency of the Hunt design in rough water.
The rest of the fleet did not do as well. Three boats gave up for the night and tied astern of the committee boat at Northwest Light. Seven reached Fraziers Hog Cay and decided to stay there. The driver of one Turbojet found he would not have enough fuel for the run from Cat Cay to Frazier and turned back. The other came on and ran short of fuel off the Berry Island. It had to be refueled at sea.
Squall King had engine failure approaching Northwest Light and sank after being taken in tow by a passing freighter. Only Bob Cox in the Johnson outboard-powered trimaran Scout continued through the night, leaving Frazier at 1:15 a.m. to cross the finish four hours later, third over-all as well as winner of the outboard division for the second consecutive year. Asked about leaving the snug harbor of Frazier to push across the dark and turbulent Tongue of the Ocean, he shrugged: "Hell, the coffee there isn't very good anyway."
Critics may feel such a race is only a stunt, but having completed the course I am convinced it serves the entire sport of boating. Before the official time limit of the race expired at sunset Thursday, 13 of 23 starters had finished and not only had lessons been learned from the design of the winners but also from those forced to turn back. Just as road racing has improved the stamina and performance of the family automobile and offshore yacht racing has brought about healthier cruising sailboats, so this race of the powerboats across the open ocean from Miami to Nassau has resulted in more seaworthy and dependable family craft, able to get safely back to port if caught by a storm. Theories are one thing, the test of the sea another.
Fingering my bruises and sitting tenderly as I write, I think of a comment by Dick Bertram, my shipmate on many another passage: "Ocean racing in a powerboat will never replace sailing, but it's a lot of fun." Amen, and pass the liniment.
WINNING FORMS IN THE RACE
FIRST PLACE: TWIN INBOARDS
Hull of winning boat Moppie (large drawing above), designed by C. Raymond Hunt, has four underwater strakes on each side of bottom which resist rolling action plus a sharp V-shaped hull from bow all the way back to stern. These innovations produce much softer ride than conventional hull with flat stern sections. Twin propellers (above) from inboard engines power boat.
SECOND PLACE: OUTBOARD-INBOARD
Stern view of second-place boat Aqua Hunter, which is also a V-bottom design by Hunt, shows how outboard-type Aquamatic shaft and props were mounted on boat. Power for props comes from Volvo engines inside hull. Advantage of design is that shaft will snap upward if it strikes underwater object, thus avoiding damage to propeller. Prop shaft units turn to steer the boat.