Everything went wrong at once as the old 31-foot sport-fisherman slammed through the churning seas off Florida. The engine box lids were not fastened down, and they were rattling. Then the wooden framework around the battery shattered, and the battery began to skitter around. Mama Rene got down on her knees with a hammer and nails to pound it back into place. While she was doing this, one of the box lids blew up and crumpled back into the port engine. As Mama started to wrestle with it against the wind, Gale kept steering into the open ocean at top speed. The buggy-whip radio aerial on the starboard side was all rigged to call the Coast Guard for help if needed, and Mama was about ready to use it when the wind snapped off the aerial and blew it into the other engine. She looked at it, then swung back with hammer in hand just in time to see the lid blow off the stuffing box, exposing the drive shaft. She reached to replace the lid, and a length of rope fell off a hook and plopped down into the hole. Before Mama could grab it, the loose line spun itself around the shaft and ripped a three-foot hole in the bottom of the boat. The water started surging in, and when Gale glanced back over her shoulder Mama was already up to her shins in light-green seawater, trying to hammer, hold, fix, patch, mend and bail. The two Jacoby girls looked at each other for a long moment, then—"Unh, better head for shore," said Mama Rene. "We're sinking."
They sank. Miss Amazon went to the bottom right off the combed and manicured beach in front of Hollywood's luxurious Diplomat Hotel, as wealthy vacationers watched from the comfort of their chaise longues.
What the big spenders on the beach saw was one quick chapter in the day-to-day racing life of Rene Jacoby and her daughter Gale, an irrepressible duo who are bringing a sort of glamorous mayhem to offshore powerboat racing. Ocean racing is a frenzied enterprise in any case. These girls make it wilder. They don't win races; they run through them—leaving a trail of high-octane perfume behind and scaring the bilge out of any man, red-bearded or otherwise, who ever thought that blue water was the last outpost of rugged manhood.
But to get back to the day their boat sank off Miami. As a final touch, Rene and Gale went over the side with the anchor line. They tried to tug the bow around into the surf so it wouldn't pound them to pieces. Then they got the line tangled around the propeller shafts. By the time Forest Johnson, who built the boat, arrived, Mama Rene and Gale were debating, hands on hips, whether to give it all up and go into the Diplomat for cocktails.
February 14, 1966
"Well, everyone was upset, of course," says Mama Rene. "But you know what they had the nerve to tell us? They said, 'You're just two women. That's all you are, really. Just two women.' "
Rene and Gale Jacoby are not the only women in offshore racing, but they are easily the best and probably the prettiest. Mama Rene is a brown-eyed, expensively dressed, reddish blonde who presides over a serene home and can barely reach the brake and gas pedals on her pale-green Cadillac convertible. Daughter Gale, 24, is somewhat taller, teaches school and used to be a blonde herself until one day her parents looked the other way and she turned up with blue-black hair, dyed to match a little poodle she had received as a gift. Both women are tanned to the color of a coffee malted and both can paralyze a man across a crowded room with their smiles.
Harry Jacoby, husband, father and financier of this odd racing team, does not—will not—race boats. While Rene and Gale are out on the water he paces up and down the dock, chain-smokes, frets, pretends to read the paper and looks frequently at his watch. He also reflects on a situation—this one—that he created nine years ago.
Harry bought their first boat just for fishing. He named it Miss Amazon for his own Amazon Hose and Rubber Co., which earns him a great deal of money. "I don't know," he says. "Buying a fishing boat is the sort of thing one does in Miami. It fills in those terrible, lonely gaps when Hialeah and Gulfstream are not operating." In those days Rene Jacoby used to get deathly seasick and Harry had to coax her aboard a boat. By the time she got over that, Harry himself was bored with Miss Amazon. His theory is: once you've caught some fish, you've caught some; why keep going back and doing the same thing all over again?
In the years that followed, Harry occasionally would move the boat from one dock to another, but most of the time he would just look at it and yawn. "For a while there I considered buying a big boat," he says. "I mean a big one with a captain on it. But I kept getting the idea that once we had the thing we would be aboard it a couple of days and then everybody would look at each other and say, 'Well, what do we do now?'
"Besides," he says, "by that time Rene and Gale had a lot of little boats, speedboats, that they were racing around in, and that kept them busy and happy."
Happy, indeed. While the big boat grew barnacles on her bottom, mother and daughter were churning up a storm in speedboat competition. By the time she was 15, Gale was expertly wheeling a 17-footer around as Rene hung on smiling gamely.
In 1956 the late Sam Griffith, a grizzled powerboater acknowledged to be the father of offshore racing, cornered the Jacobys in an unsuspecting mood at a cocktail party at the Pelican Harbor Yacht Club. "Why don't you enter the Gold Coast Marathon?" he asked Rene.
"Not on your life," said Rene.
The Marathon, a race Griffith invented, runs from Miami to West Palm Beach along the Florida coastline, where the water is rough. The entrants who make it to West Palm are subjected to a cocktail party that is the pride of the Southland, and the survivors who make it beyond that event are then required to race back to Miami the next morning. Some people call it the Hangover Classic.
"Besides," explained Rene, "I can't navigate. I couldn't find our way to West Palm Beach."
"There are markers all the way," insisted Griffith. "You follow them. It's easy. You don't stop for gas; you simply pour in more gas opposite Boca Raton."
"But," Rene protested, "I'm not strong enough to pick up a big gas can."
"I'll fix that," said Griffith, and he showed her how they could rig up a plastic hose apparatus so that even Rene could pour in more fuel off Boca Raton—wherever that was—and so, almost before they knew it, the Jacobys were in their first ocean race. So were 214 other boats, but Mama Rene and Gale finished 15th and were the first women entrants to cross the line.
That was 1956, and Gale and Rene entered the Around Miami Beach Race that same year. The water was so rough that one man came jouncing along close to shore and jumped right out of his boat. He swam to the dock, climbed out of the water and made an important announcement. "The hell with this," he said with finality. But Rene and Gale Jacoby hung on and finished eighth overall against the men.
About this time Harry Jacoby began to get the feeling that he had, like Dr. Frankenstein, created a monster. There was nothing to do but feed the beast and try to keep it happy.
In 1958 the girls turned up for Miami's nine-hour endurance race with a little runabout all fitted with flowered-chintz interior, the kind of rig that makes men groan and slap their foreheads. But when the nine hours were over, the girls had broken the world record for their class and placed 14th overall in the field. "It was a pretty little boat," Rene recalls, "with that lovely flowered design. But in 1960 a prop broke off in a race, came up through the bottom, and we sank it. We were kind of glad, really, because we needed a new boat anyway."
While the girls were racing their little speedboats, Harry had new kickers installed in the 31-foot Miss Amazon. The new engines, twin 427 Interceptors, made the old boat sort of like a jet-powered Stanley Steamer. "Well, girls," said Harry one night over dinner. "It's become a pretty fast old boat. I have—uh, I have entered it for you in the Miami-Nassau race." It was Harry's way of saying, "I surrender, dear."
"The next thing I knew," says Rene Jacoby with wide eyes, "it was June of 1963 and we were racing for Nassau. We didn't know our way. Daddy had never let us play with the big boat before. Gale couldn't dock the thing, and neither could I. We could barely run it. But there we were. So we ran like wild and finished 25th."
The Jacoby girls have been running like wild ever since, and the end of it all is inevitable. They have a new boat now—a deadly 32-foot Prowler with a planing hull and a pair of new 400-horsepower Interceptors pushing it along. The engine box lids, the battery, the radio antenna, all the pieces of equipment are firmly fastened down and unlikely to break loose as they did that day off Miami. Moreover, the girls have a new glint in their eyes that seems to say the last fortress of virile manhood will soon fall. The Jacoby girls are going to beat the men at their own game.
The rough-water men have seen this coming; they watch it with hypnotized fascination. Retired Racer Jim Meyer, a muscular man who is built along the lines of the 79th Street jetty, saw it coming in the Miami-Key West Race two years ago. "I mean to tell you it was rough out there," he says. "Savage, hammering seas. The kind of weather that shakes the fillings right out of your teeth and knocks you silly. Boats were scattered all over the ocean and a lot of the drivers were dropping out. I was churning ahead as best I could. Frankly, I was not entirely sure I could survive it. But so help me, here came the Jacoby girls past me. That old boat of theirs was standing first on one end and then the other. I glanced over at them in my misery to see how they were making out, and—honest to God—they were both hanging on to the overhead cabin struts and swinging back and forth like monkeys, going to beat hell."
In that race the Jacobys placed third overall. In the Miami-Bimini race that same year they finished 11th (they were leading the pack on the second leg, but one engine conked out); they were 11th in the Around Miami Beach Race, with a first in their class.
If there were those who still doubted, the handwriting on the boathouse wall became still clearer last July. Italian Boatmaker Sonny Levi, clearly smitten, asked the Jacobys to drive his 24-foot Settimo Velo Speciale in the Viareggio race. With just half an hour of practice in the boat, Rene and Gale blasted it across the sea to a marker off Corsica, wheeled it around smartly and finished second overall and first in class—almost scaring the winner, Jim Wynne, out of his beard (SI, Aug. 2).
Over their jolting, bouncy career the Jacobys have been in 11 major speedboat and 16 ocean races. If they don't sink (which has been an ever-present possibility), they finish. In their two races with the new Miss Amazon Rene and Gale finished third in last November's Miami-Key West run and fifth in the glamorous new Hurricane Classic off St. Petersburg Beach.
Two weeks from now they will be heading out in the Sam Griffith Memorial Race, running a torturous course from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, to Bimini and Cat Cay and back to Miami. The affair is happily billed as the world's roughest ocean race, taking the contestants around 360° of the compass and twice across the choppy Gulf Stream. The race is always punctuated by calls to the committee boat from lonely racers that begin, "Where the hell are we?"
Always being faced with fierce male competitors is an unnerving business in itself, but the Jacoby girls provide some crazy touches of their own to keep the rest of the field jumping. When they began racing, they would often tie a red rose to the top of their aerial. Then, after one grinding race in which one man was stricken with a heart attack and several others came in with broken ribs and bleeding hands, the Jacoby girls climbed out of their boat and did a little cha-cha-cha step up the dock. They turned up at the post-race cocktail party in matching Chinese silk dresses and furs and danced the night through.
"Men who race boats are tough," Meyer explains. "But these girls are something else again. I can't understand it. Nobody can. We don't give them any special treatment, no favors. In racing they are just one of the boys. And one of these days—for sure—they're going to beat us all. And then what are we going to say?"
They can say the heck with mechanical engineering, for one thing. Racing boats are delicate pieces of floating equipment, for all their sturdy bulk, and most of the men who run them are master mechanics. Not Rene and Gale. Rene carries a Ping-Pong paddle on every race—"Everyone should have a Ping-Pong paddle aboard," she says brightly—to hold the engine's starter mechanism in place while she tightens it with the other hand. It seems to make wonderful sense when Rene explains it, but true mechanics blanch. On one race to Nassau, with Gale driving, Rene looked into the engine boxes, and "I could see red oil spurting out of those little things that pulsate," she says. (Translation: Someone had forgotten to put the stacks on the transmission breathers, and they were throwing out oil.)
"Well, we couldn't have that sort of thing going on," says Rene. "And there we were—out at sea—about 37 miles from Nassau. But I found that if I put my finger down over the hole, it held the oil in. So I squatted there beside the engine, holding first one finger and then another over that little hole—it was awfully hot oil—until we finished the race. It worked beautifully."
"Of course, her fingers are all a little shorter now," says Gale. And Rene, after 37 miles of kneeling over a blasting engine, was totally deaf for 24 hours after the race.
In the 1964 Sam Griffith race the seas were so rough that it was impossible even to lurch back to check the engines. So Rene sat down and slid along the deck, checking things and adding oil. It proved to be a dandy system, except that when they docked at Nassau, Rene had worn the seat completely out of her pants. She strolled up the dock with a towel wrapped around her waist, sarong fashion.
"Oh, we're a great team," says Gale. "In the Hurricane Classic, I had to overcome all the goofy elements. First, my nose was running like mad, and my eyes were watering. So I wrapped a towel around my face. Then I had put oil on my face to protect it, but I got some of the oil on my eyelashes. So every time I blinked it would make fuzzy little trails on the inside of my dark glasses and I couldn't see. Then I dropped—or kicked—my purse into the bilge. I'm always getting my purse into the bilge. I had left my diamond ring back at the hotel, thank God, but now I'm the girl with the smelliest purse in town. And we've got the only racing boat with a tube of orange lipstick knocking around down there somewhere in the bilge."
And Rene, who needs glasses to check charts close up, is always dropping things—her glasses mostly—into the bilge. "It's not so much buying these $25,000 boats that gets expensive," says Harry, "as it is buying all those new glasses for Rene."
Other women, understandably, cannot understand the fascination rough water has for Rene and Gale. To get to the Hurricane Classic, Rene took the new Miss Amazon out into the ocean and around the tip of Florida, inviting San Francisco Society Matron Alma Long along for the ride. First thing they ran into a slashing storm.
"My dear," says Mrs. Long, "you simply cannot imagine it. It was beyond belief. The boat was bouncing around on that ocean, and the water was simply pouring in over the bow. I couldn't understand why the windshields were not giving us any protection—until I found that Rene had told them not to put any glass in the windshields, because it might slow down the boat.
"We were soaked to the skin and hammered until we were all a little dazed and groggy. I began to think—somehow hysterically—about the clothing I had stored up in that tiny forward space. Finally I could think of nothing else, my dear, nothing. And I had a lovely new Givenchy coat that I had bought in London. The thought of that coat became the only thing in my mind. I began to inch forward ever so slowly—holding on for my very life—ever so slowly toward that Givenchy box.
"I finally made it; it took about an hour. And I half stood, half crouched in that little space and peeled off all my clothing. Every single, soaking-wet stitch until I was completely naked. And then I opened the box and put on that Givenchy coat and wore it the rest of the way to Naples."
"She marched up the dock wearing just that coat and nothing else," says Rene, "with a certain noble majesty. If anyone had said anything to her, she would have killed them with a glance." Mrs. Long also took the rest of her clothing ashore, hired a car and drove the rest of the way to St. Petersburg Beach. "I will never, I promise you, never get on one of those little boats again," says Mrs. Long. Gale sometimes wonders why she herself gets on the boats. "It's exciting, but it's insane," she says, happily.
Gale does most of the driving while Mama rides shotgun. The reasoning behind this arrangement is simple enough: "Mama isn't tall enough to see the compass," Gale explains. "But, then, I have my own problems, too. North and south mean nothing to me. I can't navigate my way out of a paper bag. And Mama is getting pretty good at reading charts. Of course, she did spill a whole bottle of Fabergé into our chart bag, and now we have the sexiest maps in racing."
But the sensations of racing, to Rene and Gale, are all powerful and luring. "I love to go fast," says Gale. "On the water, it is a kick like nothing else in the world. With the engines roaring, you can't hear anything; there is this marvelous noisy silence in your ears—like flying alone or skin diving very deep. Wild, crazy, funny thoughts run through our heads while we're racing."
On the days when they race, Mama Rene sets aside her champagne mink stole and jeweled dinner rings and puts on clothes until she looks stuffed. White duck trousers, a knit shirt, two sweaters, a quilted ski parka, oilskin-slicker, bib overalls and coat. Then she tugs a life jacket on over it all. Her arms stick almost straight out. Gale slips into much the same outfit. In the Hurricane Classic she was wearing a blouse, mohair sweater, wool slacks, a sweat shirt, parka, foul-weather gear and life jacket. She looked like a bear playing Wallace Beery.
The girls finish each race keyed to the breaking point. Instead of pulling right into the dock, they lie slightly off the committee boat—a situation that often annoys race officials considerably.
"Look at them out there," said one after a recent race. "They do that every damned time. Know what they're doing? They're changing their clothes and combing their hair and putting on lipstick, that's what they're doing."
"I'll tell you what we're doing," says Gale. "We're shaking, that's what we're doing. Sure, we stop and comb our hair, but, actually, we need that time to get back under control and calmed down.
"I always shake and shake for hours after a race. I get so damned keyed up. Mother and I always have words when we finish a race. 'Don't you think we ought to dock now?' she'll say, and I'll shout back, 'In a minute, Mom.' But first I have to get calm enough to dock the boat."
Between races Mama Rene—who wears a diamond wedding ring set that could be used as a searchlight at sea—and Harry live on Miami's posh Belle Meade Island. Their house has lipstick-red carpeting on the inside, and the outside fronts on Biscayne Bay. From their terrace they can look across the water to the apartment house where Gale lives with one roommate and two poodles, Stormi Gale and Scoti Gale.
Each morning Gale gets into the elevator with the dogs for their daily ritual—the dogs start to bark as soon as the doors close while Gale yells, "Kill! Kill! Kill!" because the sound is nicely magnified inside the elevator shaft. By the time the doors slide open on the lobby, unsettled strangers expect to see a pair of slavering Great Danes leaping out upon them. Gale then drops off the dogs with Mama for the day and whips off in her Mustang convertible to teach third grade at Parkway Elementary School.
"The car was a present from Daddy after the Key West race," Gale explains. "He told me that if we came in first he would buy me a Rolls-Royce. But we came in third, and I got this Mustang."
Teacher is a romantic figure to the Parkway scholars, and they recently did a mural on one wall showing her and her mother in Miss Amazon. In one of the sections of the mural the boat seems to be ramming a submarine, but in all of the pictures the boat is assuredly charging like crazy, leaping wildly out of the water, and most of the drawings show Gale's long, black hair streaming back in the wind.
The mural makes a telling point. This happy, leaping will to win runs strong through the Jacobys. The Gateway Marathon last April provided the clincher. It is the purest indication of the sort of feminine spirit the men can expect in the Sam Griffith race, and in the years ahead.
"After we had sunk the Miss Amazon off the Diplomat," says Rene, "Harry paid a great deal of money and floated it again. We patched it up, put in new engines, new radio, new everything.
"We were racing it from West Palm Beach, headed for Grand Bahama Island. And it looked pretty good until we got about 10 miles out. Then it got choppy. Then rough. Then very, very rough. Suddenly we hit a little side wave—these things happen in boat racing and can be very dangerous.
"The wave—pow!—opened up a 10-inch-wide three-foot hole in the hull. Just like that. Gale looked back and saw the water pouring in. She switched on the bilge pumps—for whatever good that would do—and we swung around at full speed and headed back for West Palm.
"We knew our time was short, very short. We had a lot of snap decisions to make in a hurry. For one thing, Gale had to keep the boat running at top speed. That way, we were planing along with most of the hull—and the hole—out of the water.
"Our aerial was down, and I knew that by the time I got it rigged up and called the Coast Guard we would have sunk anyway. So we rejected that idea. Gale kept racing and I started bailing...."
The Jacobys made it back to a West Palm Beach marina, shouting, "We're sinking!" to spectators on the shore; Rene was in the back of the boat bailing with a bucket. Gale pulled right up to the dock smartly—an expert piece of boat handling—and everybody cheered.
Then the Miss Amazon sank, right there alongside the dock, with Rene bailing as the water closed in over her head.
In soaking clothes, still wearing life jackets, their crash helmets under their arms, Rene and Gale dashed over to the airport and bought tickets on the next flight to the island so as to be in on the fun at the finish.
They climbed aboard the plane and stood there, life jackets on, dripping on the carpeted floor. The stewardess was unable to do anything but blink.
"I understand," said Mama Rene brightly, presenting her ticket, "that these airplanes aren't nearly as safe as boats."