Real genius, it has been said, is the ability to handle major problems while juggling minor details. On that basis Dr. Robert Magoon of Miami Beach is a double genius. For the past six years Doc Magoon has successfully lived two complicated lives: as a surgeon working meticulously inside the small, finite world of the human eye and as an offshore powerboat racer brawling over the pounding main.
After winning national outboard honors in 1968 and 1970, Magoon switched to inboards three years ago, taking 15 of 30 races and three consecutive championships. Having done about everything there is to do on the race circuit, Magoon retired last fall, deciding that, as a final curtain call to his career, he would try to break the powerboat record from Miami to New York.
Magoon has such a solid reputation as a medicine man with a bagful of boating magic that when he loaded 2½ tons of gas on his 40-foot Cigarette hull in Miami last week and took off for New York under a sick, gray sky, few people expected him to fail. And when he passed under New York's Verrazano bridge 22 hours, 41 minutes and 15 seconds later, knocking eight hours and 46 minutes off the record for the 1,257-mile run, no one was greatly surprised. Indeed, the only negative note expressed concerning the grand adventure came from an Irving Keppleman, one of the 121 cheering spectators who greeted Magoon at his East River dockage. "He must be some kind of a dumb shlemiel," Keppleman opined, "to be in such a hurry to New York in the middle of the stinking summer."
As unattractive as it may have seemed to Keppleman, the idea of racing in a boat from Miami to New York has appealed to a number of salty men who like to stretch their luck. The most notable of the gamblers intrigued by the long run was the late Gar Wood, who died in bed three years ago at the age of 90 after surviving half a dozen nasty boating disasters, one plane crash, a direct hit by lightning and two legal fights with winsome secretaries who claimed he promised them more than gainful employment. According to the legend most often published, back in 1921, in a 50-foot hull, Gar Wood raced the Havana Special, a "crack express" train, and beat it to New York by a whisker, clocking 47 hours, 15 minutes. It is a remarkable record but one that, when examined, turns out to be about as substantial as a bowl of Jell-O. For one thing, nobody connected with the Havana Special was aware a race was on. For another, although the Special made a number of whistle stops and barely qualified as an express, it usually made the run in about four hours fewer than Wood took and traveled about 200 miles farther, to boot. As if this were not enough to sour the legend, Wood counted only the hours that he was running. When the hours he spent in ports on the way—sleeping, making repairs and waiting for good weather—are added in, Wood's total time comes to five days, nine hours and 28 minutes. Sailboats could do better.
July 14, 1974
An honest record for the Miami-New York run was set in 1963 by Charles Johnson, president of Daytona Marine, who made it in 46 hours, 23 minutes. A year later Johnson made the trip at an average speed of 40 mph, cutting 14 hours and 56 minutes off his own mark. And now, with an average speed of 55.4, Magoon has really hung it up where it is hard to reach.
Although Magoon makes it look easy, offshore racing is, and probably ever shall be, a gut-busting and freakish game in which gremlins abound and even the best laid plans of a meticulous medicine man can fast go to pot. To appreciate the painstaking effort Magoon takes to keep gremlins at bay, one almost has to start way back when the Lord gave the scantlings for the Ark to Noah (Genesis 6:14-16) and review the entire history of marine technology. For the Miami-New York run every secondary system on Magoon's 4½-ton craft was backed up so a quick change could be made. At his refueling point, Morehead City, N.C., Magoon sacrificed 45 minutes to haul the boat and replace the stern drives of his two 500-horsepower MerCruiser engines, since the drives were the weakest link in the chain. His two $400 Danforth compasses were filled with special heavy oil so they would not skitter wildly on each jump off the top of a wave. He deliberately waited for good weather around the full of the moon and left Miami in early evening so that he would be traveling at night well offshore, saving daylight for the busier debris-filled waters near New York.
Magoon's mechanic, Gene Lanham, has ridden more than 13,000 rough miles with him in the past six years, but the trip's navigator, Bob Connell, was a question mark. Connell is a veteran of two America's Cup defenses and miles of blue-water racing and is as solidly built as a brick lighthouse, but he had never bounced for even 100 consecutive miles in a 70-mile-an-hour stinkpot. A man who thrives on one kind of masochism is not always suitable for another. Heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano, who was knocked down only twice in 49 fights, is a case in point. After hanging up his gloves, Marciano went on a boat in the Bahamas 500, the toughest race of the offshore circuit. In the first 200 miles the cruel seas decked Marciano 20 times. At Nassau, the refueling point, Marciano announced, "I am getting off here, and there are not enough natives on this island to stop me." Safely ashore, he confided to friends, "I have just been in two boat races: my first and my last."
Despite Magoon's great pains, a few gremlins got in their licks. In the first hour he spent four dead minutes when the tube connected to a five-gallon jug of Gatorade fouled the ignition switch. Shortly thereafter the radio linking him to a plane that would convoy him went out. A nasty, wet and gray stationary front that was supposed to move out and give Magoon clear weather all the way changed its mind and hung off the Georgia coast waiting for him. The fat moon, which he hoped would dimly light his way while he was 100 miles or more at sea, came up on schedule and straightway hid in clouds. A second convoy plane that was supposed to pick up Magoon around midnight was guided unerringly by Miami radar to the rendezvous, but in the five blackest, rainiest hours of the night never spotted Magoon and Magoon never saw it. By the time the plane did find him at 5:05 a.m. Magoon had traveled 260 miles and was only a mile east of his prescribed track—an error of about one-quarter of a degree, which is not bad navigating when using only a compass and bouncing along at 50 mph.
When Magoon & Co. finally got clear of the wet front, a smoky southwester blew up seven-foot seas. Off Delaware Bay somebody accidentally hit the battery switch, blowing the distributor. The replacement ordinarily could be made in less than 30 minutes, but in the fatigue of the 20th hour it took twice as long.
In New York, when the press asked what the voyage had been like, veterans Magoon and Lanham said it was merely a drawn-out version of the torture they customarily enjoyed. Although he survived in grand style, Connell, the novice navigator, declared that his comrades were slightly daft. "For 20 hours," he said, "you do not sleep or eat or go to the bathroom. All you do is bang, bang, bang, up and down. You could make money at this game," Connell concluded, "if you were paid by the bounce."