This year things will be different," clarioned autocratic Race Director Sherman (Red) Crise, as he mailed out entry blanks for the seventh annual Miami-Nassau Ocean Power Boat Race. "A wind of at least 10 miles must be forecast or we don't start." But when the race got under way last week the 184 miles of ocean between Miami and the Bahamas were once again mirror-smooth, just as they had been last year and the year before. "You could take a high-powered canoe over there today," said one contestant of the race that is promoted as the most rugged test of ocean-going powerboats in the world.
If the sea was as calm as it was the year before, however, the tempers and tongues of most of the assembled boatmen were considerably rougher. Of the few who seemed content when the announcement came that the race would start regardless of the wind, one was Johnny Bakos, the winner of last year's race, who stood waiting to repeat the feat in a 32-foot Memco powered by two hyped-up 310-hp MerCruiser engines. Bakos knew that his boat could hit an easy 60 mph in a calm, but in a seaway it would lose speed to the slugging power of the cruising boats for which this ocean race ostensibly was designed.
As the announcement came, the roar of motors tuning up along the Miami docks was matched by the growls of the big boat men who had spent a year pointing their craft for this test. "These engines cost $25,000 apiece," grumbled Jim Martenhoff, with a glance at his diesel-powered, 40-foot Allied GX. "We've worked for months to get them ready for rough water."
"This proves conclusively that the race is being held at the wrong time of the year," snapped the usually discreet Dick Bertram, whose deep-V hulls with their runnerlike bottom strakes have drastically changed rough-water powerboating.
Later on in Nassau, Crise tried to defend his decision with bland excuses. "Every place on the island was filled with people waiting for the race," he said, and he painted a sad picture of their disappointment. "If the weather people had said, 'Maybe there'll be a change,' it would have been different, but they didn't. Besides," he added, "I'm a very unusual fellow. I can smell weather when it's going to change. I couldn't smell a thing."
In Miami before the race, however, another very unusual fellow, four-time Miami-Nassau winner Sam Griffith, the elder statesman of powerboat racers whose seamed features are shown at right, bore the disgusted look of a man who could smell quite a lot. Sam has spent 34 of his 53 years collecting scars by coaxing the maximum out of powerful engines on land and on the sea. As an Air Force navigator in World War II he survived a parachute jump over the Atlas Mountains in which the parachute did not open. Now he was at the helm of a souped-up 31-foot Bertram and still hoping for the rough run he had been denied last year. He was as disgusted with Crise's decision to go off in a calm as the others, but when some of the big boat men made as if to quit the race altogether, Sam suggested they all cruise the pond to Nassau just for the ride, then organize their own race back to Miami when the wind picked up.
In the eyes of Promoter Crise, this suggestion amounted to open rebellion. Nevertheless, it served to channel the grumbling for the moment and to keep the fleet together for the start.
As the 52 powerboats, ranging in size from 18 to 43 feet, moved out toward the starting line some two miles offshore, the water in their wake was the color of a well-churned vanilla milkshake. But ahead of the first boat it stretched out to Nassau like a slick of oil under the dead air. In these conditions, about the only boat given a chance to beat Johnny Bakos' 32-foot Sterndriver was a sleek 25-foot Bertram powered by two 310-hp MerCruiser engines and driven by a fiery, black-eyed young test driver named Odell Lewis.
Bakos' boat was lying at the south end of the starting line. As the time for the start approached, he pushed his wax earplugs in tight to mute the roaring song of his pipe-organ exhaust pipes. Four boats over, Odell Lewis was revving up. At two minutes after 10 the pace-boat flag went down. A red flare shot into the sky. The starting cannon boomed, and some 22,000 horsepower—the combined total of the fleet—exploded into thundering life.
Instantly Bakos leaped ahead. After 10 miles, content with his lead, he backed off the throttle to rest his engine. Then he looked back. Lewis was closing the gap. Bakos rammed his throttle forward. Slowly the gap opened again, but just before the first check point—at Cat Cay, 40 miles out—Bakos' tachometers told him that his 5,600 rpm had fallen to 5,100. A tiny crack somewhere in the exhaust was throwing soot across his sparkplugs; salty spray aggravated the condition. Two cylinders of one engine had been short-circuited. But, miraculously, the rpm did not fall lower, and Bakos started moving out again.
"I thought at the time, 'Them knuckle-heads are playing with us,' " Lewis said later. But, said Mabry Edwards, Bakos' navigator, "We weren't playing. We were praying." At Cat Cay, Bakos swung into the dock to pick up the required Nassau entrance papers and then shot away as Lewis cut his throttle, spun his boat in a tight bank alongside the dock and snatched his own papers. "We hadn't even cleared the dock before we were opened up full again," he said after the race. "There was nothing to do but catch that boat."
At Sylvia Light, the second check point, Lewis was 200 yards behind. The toolbox, the spare propeller, the spare fire extinguisher, the anchor, even Lewis' navigator, Bill Steele—every movable object that would add weight—all were moved aft for ballast. By the next check point, Northwest Light, Lewis had started to close on Bakos and, going into the harbor at Frazier's Hog Cay, only 40 miles from the finish, he had narrowed the gap to 200 feet.
"I was churning up inside," Bakos said. "Just wishing to hell the thing'd start firing on all eight."
At the head of the harbor was the check-point buoy, which had to be rounded and, as Bakos went into his turn, he made his only mistake of the race. He came around in a wide, sweeping semicircle. Lewis, riding his wake, cut sharply inside on the turn and gained precious feet. The two boats sped out the narrow, treacherous channel to the sea almost side by side. "We were so close we had to move over to give him water, or he'd have run aground," Lewis said, and smiled grimly. "We gave him some, but not much."
"He didn't give me any," grumped Johnny Bakos.
Well past the harbor mouth, Bakos made his left turn for the run into Nassau. Lewis looked out at a dangerously shallow stretch of water over a coral shelf off Bird Cay. "Can we make it across there?" he shouted to Steele, but the navigator could not hear. Lewis pointed. Steele scanned his charts, then, looking back at Lewis, he nodded. Lewis threw the wheel over hard, cut Bakos" left turn short by 100 yards and skipped into the lead with a grin. "You follow a guy as far as I followed him and then pass him," he said, elated, "and man! that's an achievement." The passed guy never caught up. Just three hours, 20 minutes and 21 seconds after the cannon for the start had fired, Lewis' pink Bertram flashed across the finish line, beating Bakos' record of last year by 22 minutes and beating Bakos himself by a scant minute and 31 seconds.
Characteristically, before the victory in this ocean classic of confusion and contention could be made official, there was a protest, but the race committee threw it out on the grounds that so many rules were broken it would be silly to pick on just one.
As for the rival race back to Miami, it was hastily called off. "We decided," said Sam Griffith, "there had been enough controversy already."