Because his profession, eye surgery, is very exacting and consuming, seven years ago Dr. Robert Magoon of Miami Beach looked around for a pastime that would relieve the tensions of his workday. After trying several gentle games Dr. Magoon settled on offshore powerboat racing—a strange choice for a man seeking peace of mind.
Look at him now: at the end of a race across 200 miles of rock-hard sea Dr. Magoon and his rivals often stumble ashore as if they had spent the day on Torquemada's rack. On the worst of days, when his bawling five-ton powerboat takes off from the steep wall of a head sea, it sometimes carries Dr. Magoon and his mechanic through the air about as far as Orville Wright went on his first flight at Kitty Hawk. If his boat happens to nose into a swell after such a flight Magoon and his mechanic are thrown forward violently and in the next instant slammed backward by a wall of water. If one chine digs in at the end of a hairy leap Magoon's boat may suddenly swap ends. In a trice the stern whips around to where the bow should be, and if Magoon does not have a good grip on the wheel, he is apt to sail out of the cockpit like a pebble from a sling.
In the past four years Dr. Magoon has swapped ends and has nosed his boat in a time or two, once so severely that his helmeted head poked a hole in the deck. Yet he claims the sport has done wonders for him. He must be right, for today he is the epitome of composure and good cheer. Dr. Magoon moves from place to place and from one problem to the next in a confident and easy way, laughing and smiling like a country boy who has just come to town and loves it all.
For a man seeking only diversion, Magoon has had remarkable success on the pounding main. In 1968, his second year of offshore racing, he won the national outboard title, and he won it again last year. A new season is just around the corner, in which Magoon is expected to relax with continued success. His fast climb to the top baffles him. "In my practice," Magoon says, "I have always had patients who hope for miracles, but there are no miracles. Some patients I can help and some I cannot. What can I say to the hopeless cases? When I started practice I would take their grief home, and it would build up in me. I took up racing to get away from the tensions of medicine. I really never intended to be good driving a boat, but somehow I got better. I don't know why except that I enjoyed it more and more."
March 22, 1971
In the hospitals of Miami Beach the orderlies, nurses, interns and volunteer workers follow Magoon's racing career. He is their hero. On the ocean-racing circuit the rival drivers, mechanics and navigators whose ills and wounds he has tended are convinced that if Magoon is not the greatest medicine man of all time, he is at least the equal of Ben Casey.
As he sits hunched over a patient in the operating room, bathed in downcast light and wearing a surgical cap and scrub gown, Dr. Magoon looks for all the world like an old guild cobbler stitching on a worn shoe. Although several of Magoon's surgical tools are quite like a cobbler's, all of them are more exquisite, and the human eyeball on which he works, however worn and old, is a precious thing. When he cuts into an eye Magoon enters a world that barely measures an inch on its longest axis. Inside the eye, around the canal of Schlemm, between the membranes of Descemet and Bowman, and in the limbus between the cornea and sclera, the distances are micrometric and the margin for error is almost nil. In the course of an operating day Dr. Magoon may reseat a detached retina with a laser beam, transplant a cornea and work other wonders without recognition from his colleagues. But when he wins a 200-mile, open-ocean bash against the world's best drivers, the nurses, doctors and attendants stop him in the halls to shake his hand and chatter congratulations. Dr. Magoon simply shrugs and smiles. "Most medical people don't even know the name of another offshore driver," he says, "so naturally they think I am the best."
During his surgical residency in New York City, Magoon assisted in a cataract operation on a horse owned by Bob Hope. Out of respect for the ethics of his profession Magoon feels this offbeat incident is the extent to which his surgical career should be publicized. Magoon's cronies on the ocean-racing circuit believe otherwise. He is their doctor. In bistros and at dockside his pals eagerly relate how Magoon once opened the chest and massaged the heart of a victim of cardiac arrest and how he saved the life of a rival pilot whose two arms were nearly severed by the propeller when his boat swapped ends. Magoon just smiles and says, "If I even prescribe the right pill the drivers think I have done something wonderful."
When Magoon started practicing medicine in 1963 he chose fishing as his pastime and bought a Formula 23, a classy hull that on a fair day would take him from his home on upper Biscayne Bay into the Gulf Stream in 10 minutes. Within two years he was ready to give up the fishing as no fun. "I accumulated too many friends who liked to fish," Magoon says. "Every weekend I was getting up at dawn, gassing up the boat and getting it ready, getting the fishing gear together and getting bait, and getting lunch and getting whatever anybody wanted to drink. Then I would spend the day baiting hooks and running the boat. And when we got back, I would put the lines away and clean the boat and clean the fish. Recreation? I was spending every Saturday like a charter captain."
At the time he gave up fishing Magoon and his wife Andrea lived two blocks from Don Aronow, a brawny, gung-ho genius who has worked a variety of wonders but is known best as the master builder and master driver of ocean-racing hulls. The Magoons often went out to dinner and to football games with Aronow and his wife Shirley. In the course of their socializing Magoon told Aronow if there was ever room for an extra body, he would like to go on an offshore race.
Now Aronow is the kind of Great Enchanter who can lead any Quixote down an errant path, but he would never give a real friend a bum steer. Indeed, early in 1966 when Aronow finally did have room for an extra body in a race called the Gateway Marathon, he showed his friend Magoon the worst the sport has to offer. The Gateway Marathon that year was an elapsed-time race of two 100-mile legs: from West Palm Beach almost due east across the Gulf Stream to Freeport, Grand Bahama and back. Small-craft warnings had been flying for three days, guaranteeing foul conditions. Aronow elected to drive a large hull, weight being of little matter in the big seas. In addition to his mechanic, Pop Meekings, Aronow took Magoon along and also a boatbuilding colleague named Jake Trotter. Ten minutes after they had swarmed out of Fort Worth Inlet into the 10-foot head seas piled up in the Gulf Stream, a dozen of the 33 drivers in the race said to hell with it. An hour after the start a plane flying over the course—sometimes lower than the boats—reported that Aronow had a good lead on the remnants of the race pack, although one of the four men on the Aronow boat seemed to be injured. The ailing man was Magoon, who was not injured at all, merely incompetent. As Magoon remembers it, each time the berserk boat came down out of the air and hit water, if he kept his legs stiff, he could feel ligaments popping. When he flexed his legs to absorb the impact he often ended up in a baboon squat on the cockpit floor.
While Magoon was trying to learn the simple art of survival in the cockpit the V-drive of the port engine failed. Aronow sent Pop Meekings and Jake Trotter forward on the deck, hanging onto ropes, in an attempt to get the boat planing again on one engine. There was no room for Magoon abovedecks; Aronow sent him up inside the hull. After two hours of tossing around like a bean in a large gourd Dr. Robert Magoon, B.S., M.D., F.A.C.S. and A.A.O.O., realized that he was seasick. He crawled back through the bulkheads to the cockpit, seeking air and a lee rail. "I never threw up during the race," Magoon insists proudly, "but when I got off the boat in Grand Bahama, I was green. In my hotel room I vomited for an hour."
Magoon claims that Aronow forgot that he was inside the hull. "That's what I told Magoon," Aronow now says, roaring sadistically, "but I knew all right. You sometimes have to sacrifice the life of a crewman if you want to win a race."
Magoon swore he would never go on an ocean race again, but he often visited Aronow's boat works in North Miami Beach, where new and better hulls were coming off molds. "I certainly did not enjoy the Gateway Marathon," Magoon says, "but when it was over and I stopped hurting, somehow I fell in love with the idea of racing again." Such was his pent-up love that one day in the spring of 1967, Magoon confessed that he would like to try driving in a race sometime. He blurted out his desire right in front of his good friend Aronow, who immediately exclaimed, "I happen to have a new 23-foot hull that would be perfect for you. With two little outboards on it you can't possibly get hurt."
And so it came to pass that Dr. Robert Magoon made his driving debut in the first running of the Bahamas 500, a gut-busting marathon that wanders across channels and flats and along reefs and spitting rocks in the northern Bahamas. On the eve of the first Bahamas 500 the wind was 20 knots. There were eight-foot seas over the deeps. Across the shallow banks the water was a tangled mess of whitecaps. Next morning 63 boats roared away, a few of them in the wrong direction. What transpired that day and the following night and the following day is best described by survivors as the Little Big Horn of ocean racing. Boats burned, broke up, swamped, wandered astray and ran aground. Jumping off a wave in the black of night one entry landed high and dry on an unknown shore.
Only 20 of the 63 boats survived the first 220 miles to the refueling stop at Nassau on New Providence Island. The first drivers to check in were familiar to the press men in the hot-wire room. In first place was Bill Wishnick, the present national inboard champion; second, Odell Lewis, who went on to win that race; third, Aronow, the lord and master of them all—and so on down to seventh place. The seventh survivor to reach Nassau was an utter nobody named Magoon in a runty 23-foot hull powered by twin eggbeaters.
At the rate the race fleet was disintegrating Magoon probably would have improved his position in the last 300 miles except that—to put it honestly—he also fouled up. At about 10 p.m., while pounding through the moonless night along the southwest edge of the Little Bahama Bank, Magoon ran onto a reef, punching two holes in the hull. Magoon chipped a tooth and bruised a shoulder and thigh. His mechanic, Barry Cordingly, who was on leave from combat in Vietnam, split open his helmet, gashed his face and lost two teeth.
Fortunately the damage to the hull was in a framed-in section around a fuel tank so that a bilge pump could keep ahead of the slow seep. Having drifted well off course into shallow water somewhere, Magoon and Cordingly anchored for the night, saving their fuel for daylight. Next morning when they idled up to the last check boat on the course simply to report that they were still among the living, Magoon and Cordingly got hell for not wearing helmets in a race. On being informed officially that they were still racing they donned their helmets and limped on to the finish at Freeport, Grand Bahama. Of the 16 finishers in the 63-boat field they were 11th across the line, winning a thousand dollars for third place in the two-engine outboard class. Magoon swore he would not race again—and inside of two months he was back in a better hull, whereupon he set an odd sort of record: he finished 16 consecutive races. (He is the only driver to finish all four Bahamas 500s run to date.)
Operating in the finite world of the irreplaceable eye Magoon learned not to make mistakes, and he has carried the lesson over into ocean racing. While he has finished a few races ingloriously in the ruck, thanks to one gremlin or another, in the memory of his rivals Magoon rarely has goofed. Magoon's mechanic, Gene Lanham—in his own right a vervy driver on the inshore circuit—aptly sums up Magoon's talent. "Offshore racing is a lot like greyhound racing," says Lanham. "One rabbit goes out fast and everybody chases him. After I had ridden with him a while I realized that while the rest of us are often only chasing a rabbit, Magoon is thinking."
In 1969, his third year of racing, all kinds of gremlins descended on Magoon, the thinking driver. He was the first outboard finisher in two of the races that counted for the national title, but the most to be said for the rest of his 1969 record is that he never let the same gremlin get him twice.
In 1970 he bounced back in grand style, regaining the national outboard title with four firsts and two seconds in races that counted toward the championship. In the Hennessy Key West race this past November, Magoon drove an inboard hull for the first time and won. Since the Hennessy Key West race each November is the first that counts for points in the following calendar year, for this brief shining moment, at least, Magoon is leading the inboard competition of 1971.
At this high point in his career some of Magoon's admirers seem bored with his ocean racing, so much so that they are now touting him as an almost-instant wonder in another sport. Two years ago Magoon turned to tennis to fill empty weekends and already has acquired a reputation that is more amusing than embarrassing. Although he plays well for a man so new at it, Magoon, because of mild bursitis, serves with his arm partly crooked like a chicken wing. Any Roche or Ashe could put his chicken service away with ease. Regardless, according to the most extravagant reports circulating, Magoon is already good enough for the center court in the big time.
To reduce the Magoon tennis legend to bone-hard truth, he has only one tennis trophy. It was awarded to him on his last birthday by his wife Andrea, who paid $20 for it. It is inscribed: "BOB MAGOON—The Most Improved Tennis Player of 1970."
Recently, hunting for a reason for the acclaim Magoon received early in his racing days, Mechanic Gene Lanham explained, "People just naturally liked him, so they wanted to say something good about what he had done." A few minutes later Lanham unwittingly proved the point. "You probably know," he confided, "that Magoon started playing tennis about a year ago. I've never seen him play, but I understand he's a tiger at it. I don't know whether it's true, but I hear he plays so well they're trying to get him to turn professional."