"The whole scene was too soggy: first, a fortnight of rain and drizzle had threatened to turn New York City itself into an ocean. Then the real ocean, strewn as usual with rotten wood, discarded beer cans and other detritus of civilization, looked a lot like New York City. More timid sports would shy away from such conditions. Not offshore powerboat racers. Soaked and happy, they roared out of The Narrows and into the Atlantic last week to make their own contribution to the seaborne clutter. And when it was all over after, oh, say, seven hours of misty confusion, a majority had managed to get bravely lost.
By powerboat standards, the Hennessy New York Grand Prix was a bang-up race. Everybody was battered. Only seven of the $30,000-plus boats crossed the finish line, and the bruised hulls of the nine others were scattered far and wide in the waters off New Jersey and Long Island.
Before the race got under way, there had been talk that the world offshore speed record, an average 74.3 mph set in Italy only a week earlier by Floridian Don Aronow, might be broken again. But speed records are seldom broken by racers who have to stop and ask the way. And so, not long after the race began, nine of the headiest drivers, Aronow among them, careened through eight-foot seas and a heavy haze—only to wind up as much as 30 miles off in the wrong direction. While they were still trying to get their bearings, Peter Rittmaster, the 28-year-old president of Miami's Bertram Yacht company, was creeping tortoiselike through the water. And by the novel expedient of staying more or less on course, he nudged his log-battered boat into a big lead.
Rittmaster's American Moppie, a 32-foot Bertram propelled by twin 475-hp MerCruiser engines, is said to be potentially the fastest boat in offshore racing. But it had managed only a second and third in its two previous runs, and Rittmaster, in fact, had never won a race in his three years as an ocean driver. Only too aware of what that seemed to say about his ability at the helm, he insisted before the race that his boat was actually slower than either Aronow's The Cigarette or Boss O'Nova driven by New Yorker Bill Wishnick. "They've got speed on me," Rittmaster dead-panned. Then he added prophetically, "But I'm a better navigator."
The first leg of the triangular 222.5-mile course, a 43-mile dash southward along the New Jersey shore, proved to be the toughest. The earliest hazards came right at the starting line beneath the graceful arch of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The waterlogged remains of wasted boats and washed-away piers littered the surface along with oil drums, cardboard boxes and more ordinary garbage. Once the race began, the body of a man, believed dead for more than a week, was found floating about 300 yards from one of the starting boats.
Then, churning out from the starting line, Rittmaster and Aronow almost immediately slammed into the same out-sized chunk of wood. Race officials and drivers later swore that they saw Aronow's riding mechanic, Barry Cordingly, thrown from The Cigarette, probably forgetting that there was hardly room for anything else in the water. Actually Cordingly had climbed onto the aft hatches to check for damage. "They probably saw the splash and then saw me out of the cockpit," Cordingly said. "And so they thought I'd been thrown."
No sooner did Rittmaster and Aronow get back into the race than American Moppie struck still another log. While Rittmaster stopped to pick the wood from his outdrive unit, one boat after another whizzed by him on the way south to Point Pleasant, N.J. There the course called for the racers to make a sharp left and cut around a checkpoint boat toward Shinnecock Inlet, Long Island. The craft they were supposed to go around was a 57-foot Chris-Craft appropriately named Cloud 9.
That was the turning point in the race: most of the boats neglected to make the turn. Among the first to breeze merrily by were New Yorker Barry Cohen in Aquarius and Miami Beach's Jerry Langer in Dog Catcher. "I thought I saw the checkpoint," said Langer. "But I also saw Barry and I figured Barry was a New York boy and knew these waters—so I stuck with him."
Others in the pack that swept past Point Pleasant told the tale of a man in a fishing boat waving them farther south. Aronow, like several other drivers, contended that Cloud 9 was farther offshore than the 2½ miles it was supposed to be. But the most embarrassed of all was Wishnick, who rents a summer home at Point Pleasant and knows the waters.
When Rittmaster, riding with the tip of one propeller blade shorn off by one of the logs, finally reached Point Pleasant, he had no trouble finding the checkpoint. He made the turn—closely followed by Pat Duffy, a Mount Clemens, Mich. marine dealer who was driving the considerably slower, outboard-powered Janie D. As far as Rittmaster knew at the time, he and Duffy were the last two boats to swing around the checkpoint rather than the first two. There were, however, telltale wakes heading south to indicate that at least somebody had missed the turn.
"Then I saw a fellow in a big Chris-Craft make a 'No. 1' signal with his hand," said Rittmaster, "and I started to wonder: Could I really be in first?"
The racers who had overshot Point Pleasant, meanwhile, were holding a manic race-within-a-race. Barry Cohen, sensing his mistake about 12 miles south of the checkpoint, started to correct his course. Then he saw a flotilla of southbound boats rushing toward him and, deciding to stick with the others, kept on going the wrong way. "It was crazy," said Cohen. "I was disoriented."
After Wishnick realized how far astray he had wandered, he dropped out of the race. He had wasted so much fuel that there was not enough left to travel all the way to Shinnecock and back to the finish line at the Verrazano Bridge. Aronow and Cohens eventually got their boats back on course only to experience engine breakdowns while trying to make up for lost time. Of all those involved in the Great Point Pleasant Goof, the only driver to get back into contention was Jerry Langer, who pushed Dog Catcher at a breakneck pace the rest of the way to finish third.
Rittmaster returned to the Verrazano in four hours and 38 minutes with Duffy's Janie D. in his wake. His victory, added to points won in previous races, moved him into second place in national championship competition behind Aronow. (Aronow promptly compensated by winning the 200-mile Dauphin d'Or race in France over the weekend, and currently is in the first spot on the world-title level.)
Rittmaster was now ready to concede—or claim—that his American Mop-pie was indeed the fastest oceangoing powerboat around. Yet there is still no way of knowing for sure, for his first victory had been a triumph of navigation and endurance rather than speed. (Immediately after the race Rittmaster credited his navigator, Bob Schiffenhaus, with knowing enough to "follow the compass instead of the pack.")
Noting that Rittmaster's average had been a rather poky 48.9 mph, one of the losing drivers scoffed, "There was only one reason he won. He was going slow enough to see that damned checkpoint."