Offshore powerboat racing, that obsession with driving small boats at high speeds over very large waves, is known to initiates as the Great Kidney Shakedown. The wonderful lunatics who play at it happily shell out $40,000 for a boat without any seats and another $240 to fill it with gas. Then they spend four hours slamming their stomachs, teeth and knee bones loose just to go, say, from Miami to Nassau for a planter's punch. "It is," one of them reports, with a meaningful shake of his head, "pretty expensive torture, but what the hell. We are all—in our wild way—improving the breed."
He was stating a simple fact. Every ocean powerboat race is a seagoing test of hull and engine designs. The surviving boats—retooled with such plush, non-racing additions as toilets, bunk beds and seats—will soon turn up in marinas all around the country. The hull that withstands an ocean race will withstand anything Dad, Mom or Junior can do to it.
The wildest ocean racer of them all, and the chief improver of the boating breed, is a hairy Florida mariner named Jim Wynne. As an engineer, Wynne is the Big Daddy of the inboard-outboard drive, the newest and widest-ranging development in powerboating. As a designer, he is responsible for many refinements of the V-shaped hulls that are in vogue wherever people go boating. As a driver, he has earned a roomful of trophies. During the last fortnight the Wynne touch was showing up all over the world. In Italy, Jim and his crew, Tommy Mottola and Jim Breuil Jr., drove the new 32-foot aluminum Maritime at a record-breaking average of 49.9 mph to win the annual race from Viareggio to Bastia. And almost anyplace there was a stretch of open water you could find a boatload of gorgeous people careening over the water on a hull or in front of a motor the design of which had been either directly or indirectly influenced by the 35-year-old Wynne.
Between races, clad in gray flannels and blue blazer with the Royal Danish Yacht Club emblem on the pocket, Jim Wynne navigates through Miami society, churning up a wake of awakened blondes. Nor does he overlook the brunettes. At Miami's Racquet Club he shows up frequently with a stunning Trinidadian girl, who looks at him with large dark eyes and struggles soulfully through the idiom. "Jeemy," she will squeal delightedly when he teases her, "you are pulling on my legs."
August 1, 1965
The Wynne of today first appeared seven years ago when he did two things that marked a distinct metamorphosis: he drove an outboard motorboat 3,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean—"It was crazier than you think," he says, "because I was not at all the sort of a guy who would drive an outboard motor-boat across the Atlantic"—and he grew his beard. Before his big adventure, Wynne was the serious one with the standard, college-yearbook face and the large, horn-rimmed glasses—the kind of professorial type who could, and did, write a master's thesis at MIT entitled Performance of a Crankcase Scavanged Two-stroke Engine. This did not set any records as an academic bestseller, but it got him a job with Mercury Motors. Mercury is run by Carl Kiekhaefer, the not-so-jolly giant of the outboard world. Kiekhaefer's corporate motto runs something like, "Well, you wanted a steady job when you came here, didn't you?" and he works himself and his executives punishing hours all day and then punctuates their nights with telephone calls to make sure they are dreaming about boating.
"Advances in outboard motoring under Kiekhaefer were phenomenal despite his explosive personality," says Wynne. "We pioneered such innovations as automatic shifts and starters, underwater exhausts and silencing devices. We merely doubled in such psychiatric sidelines as frustration and exhaustion."
In those days, when he could still stand his independence being invaded, Wynne set up and staged a 50,000-mile endurance test for Mercury outboards, running two boats for 68 days without maintenance—well, without maintenance while anyone was watching. "If the test had failed," he says, "Kiekhaefer would have killed us all." He also helped search out and set up "Lake X," Mercury's mystery testing area somewhere in Florida. The site is still a tightly guarded secret, and even Wynne will not reveal it. But at Thunderbird Products Corp., where Mercury gets some of its boats, everybody looks knowing when the secretary says, "St. Cloud is on the line." (St. Cloud is a small Florida town somewhere south of Orlando.)
The psyche of the man who would one day replace his spectacles with contact lenses and grow a beard could not long endure another ego as overbearing as Kiekhaefer's and, in December 1957, Wynne left Mercury and went independent. (Like other ex-Mercurians, he still carries an A.O.K. card in his wallet. It stand for Alumni of Kiekhaefer. "An organization," the card says, "of former employees of the Kiekhaefer Corp. banded together to exchange anecdotes of their experiences with the concern and to congratulate each other on the successes enjoyed since severing connections with said concern.") The first thing Wynne did was starve. "I had saved a little money," he says, "and I started free-lancing as a marine consultant. In Miami that can mean anybody who is out of a job. But that's when I began working on my stern drive."
A stern drive is not a drive with a bad temper; it is a combination inboard-and-outboard motor that exploits the advantages of both. To get the power required to push a boat along at a respectable speed—that is, fast enough to shake your teeth and make your eyes water—standard outboards are not big enough. They can be made big enough, but such engines mounted on small boats can cause them to teeter backward; under just the right conditions they will slip quickly out of sight into the sea, leaving the driver treading water. A stern drive has the engine mounted inside the boat, but the propeller linkage looks and behaves like an outboard.
Inventors had been toying with this principle for years. Wynne made it work. "I built a boat in my garage," he says. "I am always building things in my garage. Our house is the one with the cars parked out on the grass. Then I needed a light, compact engine. Something with, say, about 80 hp. I looked around and Volvo had one. When I mounted it in the boat the factory became interested in what I was doing. I was eating mangoes and not making any money and putting their engine into my boat, that's what I was doing. But, anyway, I got some patents cleared on the thing, and in July of 1958 I flew over to G√∂teborg, Sweden and showed it to the Volvo people. They saw it as just what they were looking for. They seemed to have a vision about it. In two days I had a contract."
Some contract. Volvo had originally planned to produce something like 500 stern-drive units. So far they have sold more than 25,000—and for every one that comes off the line Wynne collects a royalty. But before he collected a cent he got so punchy with success he agreed to go home from Scandinavia the hard way—by driving an outboard motor-boat across the Atlantic.
"A guy named Ole Botved caught me in a weak moment," says Wynne. "I had met him back in 1955 when we were both racing in the Miami-to-Nassau race, and we had both run into trouble and spent the night on a lonely cay. Ole was a hustler and he was building Coronet boats. You ever hear of Coronet boats? That's the idea: Ole needed something to draw them to public attention and get sales going. 'I got one great idea,' Ole told me. 'Let's prove how great the boat is by driving it across the Atlantic. Great, huh? What do you say?'
" 'A marvelous idea,' I told him. 'Splendid. Except that you're nuts.' We had discussed it earlier and it was just cocktail party talk. You know how cocktail party talk goes: 'Shay, baby, lesh drive across the goddam ocean.' Like that. Then I saw this guy operate.
"Ole got all the sponsors in one day. He called the Johnson outboard people and told them, 'Well, So-and-so is going to sponsor it, and they think the idea is just wonderful.' And then he immediately called someone else and said, 'Well, Johnson is going to sponsor it and they think it's all right.' That way none of the sponsors had the chance to double-check with each other, and before I knew it the trip was set up. The whole thing was crazy.
"Ole picked the middle two weeks in July because the Atlantic is always calmest then. The plan was simple enough: We were to follow this freighter, the Clary Thorden, which was going across anyway—although her captain was considerably less than wild about the idea. He gave us instructions not to bug him, or words to that effect, and warned us that he couldn't stop if we got into trouble. And away we went.
"Naturally, less than one day out of G√∂teborg we were hit by the worst damned storm in 30 years. 'Unusual, having a storm this serious,' Ole yelled through his teeth at me, and there we were—out in the ocean in a 22-foot outboard. First we tried moving in the wake of the freighter. But the seas were too bad. The wind was screaming, and the waves were up to 25 feet and higher. We had a radio on board, and we called to the Clary and asked them to slow down. They radioed back something comforting like 'See you around, mates,' and pulled away from us in the dark.
"I thought for sure we had had it. PROMISING YOUNG INVENTOR DROWNS IN OCEAN WITH OUTBOARD MOTORBOAT. I saw the headlines. But finally the freighter slowed down and we came tossing up to her. There we were, alongside this big freighter in a 35-knot wind, with the seas towering up blackly on all sides of us.
"They dropped a cargo hook to us and—whap! The first thing it did was crash right through our deck. Just great. On the next rolling bounce we got our boat hooked up, and on the freighter the bosun threw the cargo winch into gear. Then the ship rolled one way and we rolled the other.
"Swoosh. The thing snatched us up like a big scoop and we went hurtling up into the rigging. We hung there, swinging back and forth. Then—splash! We were back down in the ocean like a yo-yo. One minute we would be 30 feet above the deck of the freighter, and the next second we were down somewhere under the water looking back up at the deck. The captain was pretty annoyed by all this nonsense. I wasn't too keen about it myself.
"It was a little like the time I won that nine-hour marathon—without the help of a relief driver. There I was with all these spectators, and I pulled my boat in and climbed out on the dock and they were ready to give me the trophy, and I had to say, 'Excuse me, gentlemen. First I have to go to the bathroom.' And I left, then and there.
"Anyway, we finally got our boat secured aboard the ship, and we stayed on board for 30 hours until the storm blew itself out. Then back into the old ocean again. Oh, boy.
"I finally found the trick of it, though. We put our boat right on the first wave in the wake of the freighter. A nice, fat swell of water about, oh, say, 40 or 50 feet astern, and we surfed our way to Boston. We had to watch out, though. On each side of the nice, fat wave we were riding was an eight-foot drop into boiling waters. If we went into it we would broach and sink for sure. Nice feeling. During the daytime we got to be very good at this, however. Surfing and grinning at each other and changing sparkplugs and boating our hearts out. But at night, man, we were steering by the seat of our wet pants.
"Then, off Nova Scotia, another storm hit. It was the sister of the first one. And the captain hove to, and alongside we came. Back on the winches and—pow! He plucked us out of the water again and up into the rigging. I got to feeling like Burt Lancaster in those damned movies. This time we stayed aboard 26 hours and then put back into the water.
"We finally pulled into the 79th Street basin in New York City, and here I was with this 12-day beard and I was feeling pretty salty. The people came around and took a lot of pictures of us, and I saw myself and I thought, 'Well, the beard stays. From now on, it's Jim Wynne, the hairy mariner.'
"I still get calls," says Wynne, "from adventurous young kids who have heard about that trip and want to cross the ocean in a pair of shower slippers with an outboard motor on each heel and want my advice. What should I do, Mr. Wynne? My advice is always simple: You shouldn't go, that's what you should do."
Wynne recalls the next few years as busy ones. "I stopped starving, for one thing," he says, "which will do a lot for a man's career." He also began expanding in all directions: racing from Miami to Nassau in boats powered by bubbling Volvos, racing in the Orange Bowl marathon, designing boat bottoms in collaboration with Walt Walters, who still works with him today. "In 1959," Wynne says, "it took us 17 hours to race from Miami to Nassau. By 1961, with a deep-V hull of the kind inspired by the great Ray Hunt, we had cut it to 10 hours."
While designing big boats to go faster, Wynne also was churning a wide wake in his 17-foot runabout, the Wyn-Mill, which is the Lotus chassis of the boating world, regardless of what kind of engine one puts into it. The 1962 model won its class in the Miami-Nassau race and the Miami-Bimini run. In 1963 Wynne and Walters teamed up with Builder-Racer Don Aronow and turned out a 23.3-footer for Aronow's new Formula Marine Co. They called it—naturally enough—the Formula 233. The 17-foot Wyn-Mill then became the Formula Junior. Aronow sold the mold to Thunderbird, and now the Juniors appear all around the country, each one with the Wynne-Walters bottom. Thunderbird outfits the topsides with fancy, snap-on padded plastic seats and dashboards flashier than the consoles of new kitchen stoves. The seats curve around the cockpits like cocktail-lounge chairs. "It is," says Wynne, "the kind of a little old boat a man could take a honeymoon in."
Having sold his boat molds to one company, Aronow promptly formed another, this one called Donzi—and Wynne and Walters designed an entire new line of bottoms. The end result is that almost all the good boats racing the offshore circuit now show Wynne-Walters touches. Last year Wynne-Walters hulls won the world racing championship, firmly establishing that name as a threat, and Formulas won every class they entered.
"One race," says Wynne, "will result in an advance of 10 years in pleasure-boating design. It is a stepped-up rate of evolution. If a customer wants to spend $3,700 [for a Thunderbird Formula Junior, the all-padded wingding] to $16,000 [for a 29-foot stern-drive beauty that will sleep four people and sing and dance a little], he wants to know he is getting a boat that will stand up. He wants a boat that has been tested under the most severe conditions.
"Nowadays you can't buy a bad car. Right? I mean, American carmakers are all producing trustworthy automobiles. But you can buy a bad boat. The country is full of bad boats. People copy and steal designs and think they're improving on them. They're not."
Last January, Ohio's Alliance Machine Co. sought out the bearded mariner at the New York Boat Show and asked him to design an out-and-out ocean racer. "You know," said Wynne. "Nothing fancy. Just something big and gutsy and all aluminum and designed for rough water. It did not have to be a world-beater or anything like that. Just so it beat everybody in the world, that's all.
"Walters and I started in February with the design. The factory started building it in March. Man, what a boat! Thirty-two feet long, a straight inboard with a pair of 400-hp Daytona engines just crouching down in there, sort of slavering like wild animals. We ran it to Nassau and—wouldn't you know it?—the weather was easy and calm. We finished second."
But on Memorial Day, while Scotsman Jimmy Clark was coolly outrunning his competition on a calm day at Indianapolis, the weather came up properly rough off Florida. Wynne took off with 38 other boats in the Gateway Marathon—a 180-mile run from West Palm Beach to Lucaya-Freeport in the Bahamas and back. "The seas were marvelously rough," says Wynne. "Great. Just what we were designed for. About 10 miles out on our way back, we came skipping past Aronow in his Donzi. And were his hands raw! We made that run in one hour 56 minutes and 25 seconds. We were averaging 51.6 miles an hour through those seas. That's about the equivalent of...mm, about 199 miles an hour on land."
The new boat—Wynne calls it the Tin Goose and affectionately slaps it on the flank, poing, poing—probably will not revolutionize boating, but Wynne has other plans that may. He recently teamed up with another Kiekhaefer escapee, Charles Strang, and John D. Gill, onetime professor of engineering at the University of Miami, in a partnership called Hydro-Mechanical Development, Inc. "Actually," says Wynne, "it is a sort of James Bondish operation. We have a new place on a river, with the boatbuilding facilities upstairs and the office downstairs. That way, when a friend comes in to visit, our secret projects will be out of sight and he won't be forced into that embarrassing position of saying, 'Uh, what the hell is that thing you fellows are working on over there?' We will launch our boats by an overhead winch into the river—who knows, maybe under cover of the night?—and test them that way."
The new Hydro-Mechanical Upstairs at the Downstairs is working on a hydrofoil project—a big one—and is whipping together a proposal at the request of a foreign government to apply the 32-foot aluminum-boat principle into a sort of poor man's PT boat. "You know, maybe a high-speed patrol craft with a few gun mounts here and there, the kind of thing that can cut circles around the presidential yacht and gun everybody down who comes near," says Wynne. "Maybe we'll put gas turbines into the thing, and it will go tearing around at a frightful clip. It is small for a PT boat, but then it is a small foreign country. You see?"
And over at his mother's garage—while the two family Volvo automobiles sit outside in the sun—the prow of another boat sticks out into the driveway while its body vanishes back into the darkness. Wynne has been ordering parts from all around town—so nobody can tell exactly what he is up to there—but every day an assistant comes and shuffles back into the darkness to work on the stern of the boat. "It is an improved marine propulsion system," says Wynne mysteriously. Meantime, his eyes seem fixed on the next race.
"The funny thing is," he says, "I should be getting out of ocean racing. It takes up so much time and we have so many projects going we can't afford it. But we're caught up in this thing like everyone else who does it. Boating is a tremendous thrill, a sensation of power. Man! First, the noise is overwhelming, with those engines in full scream and the wind and sea howling all around you. You hit the throttle and the boat...leaps out of the water and it just floats there—sometimes for what seems like a couple of hundred feet through the air.
"Sometimes the propellers come out of the water and they scream: eeeeeROW, eeeeeROW, eeeeeROW! And then the boat comes down, slam! You never know how it will hit, because the ocean pitches and changes under you. Sometimes you never feel it; the thing just eases its way back into the water. Sometimes it pitches you right out of the cockpit. Or knocks out all your front teeth.
"If you're driving the boat correctly, it is like riding a greyhound from wave to wave. The boat seems to gather itself under you for the next leap. Do it incorrectly, and it is like riding a dolphin. That's bad.
"Somewhere over there—over the horizon about 180 nautical miles—lie the Bahamas. You can make it in something like three hours and 19 minutes of torture. Will you win the race? Are you on the right course? Ye gods, what if you're off course and you find yourself at the Great Isaac Light, which is the last stop before England? Does it matter if you win? Sure it does, but not all that much. Because you're out there racing on the ocean and looking through the green water and you are surrounded by good men and true. All these offshore racers are good men—plus a few hardy women. They are people with sore ribs and raw hands and guts.
"And there will be dinner and dancing and drinks in Nassau, and maybe when it's all over we'll take the boat and just sort of tool leisurely down to the out islands and fish and skin-dive a little and get our noses red in the sun. I mean, what the hell. Right?
"This is the good life. First, you starve a little. It is good for your soul. Eat a few mangoes. You design boats and then take them out and prove them yourself. You build a reputation as a designer and you find some talented associates to throw in with. Then you get to eat regularly. If eating regularly is what does it for you."
Then Wynne relaxes, by sections, a wild man temporarily at rest. "There are things a man should and should not do in life," he says, with a sudden burst of steady white smile. "He should race boats. He should not cross the Atlantic in an outboard. And he should—he definitely should—grow a beard."