REVVED UP TO RIDE ON AN OCEAN OF TROUBLE

A gutty crew is ready, set and about to go full throttle in a 36-footer after the record for an Atlantic crossing
June 26, 1977

Umm, let's see now. Four tubes of Chap Stick. Check. Put bigger wings on the DC-3. Done. Take a tracheotomy kit, just in case. Has the King of Spain RSVP'd yet? Talk to Wally Schirra again about survival. Does the trawler captain realize he may have to circle for seven days? Brief the American consul in the Azores. A backup for the backup life raft? Make sure the guy on the mountaintop has enough flares. Alert the French missile-tracking station. And oh yes, remember to look out for whales.

Like many Americans, Dr. Robert Magoon, an eye surgeon from Miami, is planning an outing over the Fourth of July weekend, making his list and checking it twice, thrice, ad infinitum. For him that is always the most enjoyable part of a trip. "I love the details," he says, "planning things. Preparation is everything. Getting there is anticlimactic."

Well, this time a few small thrills may sneak in. For what Bob Magoon intends to do, you see, is drive a motorboat across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cabo de Sao Vicente, Portugal to Nantucket lightship off Massachusetts, 3,345 punishing miles with a crew of three and an oceanful of imponderables. At stake in the Citicorp Trans-Atlantic Challenge is the world record for crossing under power (both elapsed time and average speed) that was set by the S.S. United States on its maiden voyage in 1952. The 52,000-ton liner made the trip from Ambrose lightship in New York harbor to Bishop Rock, England—2,949 miles—in 82 hours 40 minutes. Pounding across seas at gut-wrenching speeds of up to 60 mph, Magoon hopes to come roaring home in 72 hours, even though he has chosen a longer route to avoid the icebergs and fog of the North Atlantic.

"This is no stunt," Magoon insists. "I've been preparing this trip for two years, and we've got a 50-50 chance of making it. From the beginning we've treated this like a space shot."

Certainly Magoon has the credentials—or whatever it takes to compel a man to battle an entire ocean. Now 43, he has won more national offshore powerboat championships (five) and more races in one season (six) than any driver in history. And that was the problem. "After a while," he says, "the challenge was gone. I was supposed to win every race, and when I did, it meant nothing. So I retired and looked for something different."

He found it in 1974 when he covered the 1,257 miles from Miami to New York in a record 22 hours 41 minutes, clipping nearly nine hours off the old mark despite squalls, rough seas and being out of radio contact most of the way. Magoon recalls, "After that race a friend, kidding around, asked me when I was going around the world. And I started thinking about it. But the Suez Canal was closed then, and I estimated that it would take three months. So I settled for the hardest part, the Atlantic. I get very itchy if I'm not doing something challenging."

Fred Stecher, chairman of Citicorp Services, Inc., distributors of traveler's checks, agreed to sponsor the project because it offered "the kind of boldness that we like to bring to the marketplace." Magoon knows all too well the perils that go with boldness. He has experienced his share of spinouts, top-speed disasters in which the boat digs in at the wrong angle and instantaneously swaps ends, leaving the stomach where the feet should be. He has dive-bombed off the steep walls of waves as well, once so violently that his helmeted head smashed a hole in the deck. "You have to respect that ocean," he says, "and if you don't, you don't belong out there."

Nevertheless, when Magoon unveiled his new 36-foot Citicorp Traveler for inspection at the Cigarette boat works in Miami a few weeks ago, many old salts nosed around it like Biblical seers waiting to slip the word to Ishmael. "He'll lose that windshield in two hours," warned one. "The damn thing weighs 10 tons fully gassed," grumbled another, "twice the weight of the boats he's used to handling. You come off a high one the wrong way and the boat'll slam down like it was dropped from a 10-story building. The hull will never take it. It'll go down like a rock."

Even Don Aronow, the designer of the Cigarette hull and a former offshore powerboat world champion in his own right (he once had a midair collision with a press helicopter that was following too closely overhead), expressed reservations. "I crossed the Atlantic maybe 20 times during the war and, believe me, it's a nasty body of water," he said. "You get rough seas with that weight, and you're going to dive if you slow down. He shouldn't go unless he gets the kind of weather he wants."

Magoon listens to all this like a man on a Bermuda high, a period of calm that makes the Atlantic as tame as Walden Pond at dawn. He says, "The Navy's top man is doing the weather for us. and he says that during the first week of July Bermuda highs are the rule, not the exception. If something bad blows up, we'll abort. I'm not insane."

If anyone doubts it, Magoon points to the shelves and filing cabinets crammed with his research on everything from sparkplugs to icebergs. He traveled the boat-show circuit for months seeking the latest in equipment. He talked to admirals, astronauts and the Pan Am pilot who radioed the position of the balloonist who was downed in a transatlantic attempt last year. "Eye surgery is delicate, exact and disciplined," says Magoon, "and I carry that training over to boat racing."

Not all the problems are calculable. While researching the Azores, where he will make two refueling stops, Magoon came across a startling picture-spread in National Geographic. Whales! That sent him to the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami to study migration patterns. His conclusion is that "Whales definitely hang around the Azores. Big sperm whales, 50 feet long. You know, Moby Dicks. By day I can see them and go around. But at night my concern is that I'll hit a whale at full throttle."

Three weeks ago a fellow boater put him on to a Zeniscope, a light-amplifying system that was developed in Vietnam for troops on night patrol. "I took the scope out one night during a rainstorm and shined it at the bay," says Magoon, "and, wow, I could see the raindrops a quarter of a mile away. My whalescope goes with me for sure."

The result of Magoon's meticulous preparation is the most expensive, sophisticated outboard ever assembled, a $150,000 prize package wrapped in red, white and blue. Mounted on the boat's reinforced transom are four 200-hp Black Max engines, tuned to jeweled perfection at Lake X, Mercury Marine's "secret" proving ground in central Florida. They are fueled by oversize gas tanks fore and aft with a total capacity of 1,610 gallons, four times the amount carried by a standard offshore racing boat. Only the human accommodations are Spartan: padded stand-up cockpit stations and, tucked below in a maze of electrical equipment, two sleeping pallets with safety straps. Magoon claims, "When the body is exhausted, it sleeps. Anywhere."

The electronics are fit for a Navy flagship. Heading the list of hardware is an Omega computer, a space-age navigational system that locks on seven transmitters located around the world and is accurate to within one-tenth of a mile in 5,000. Punch in a destination and—clickety click—the Omega provides course and direction in both digital and printout forms. "If it works," says Magoon, "it'll find a cork bobbing in the middle of the ocean. We can't get lost."

The $7,500 Omega is so new that there are only 30 in existence—and Magoon has two of them on board. "I've got backups for backups," he says proudly. In addition, there are two single sideband marine radios, two VHF marine radios, two automatic direction finders, two VHF aircraft radios, one generator, four emergency distress radios, two life rafts....

But only one Magoon, or rather a Magoon and a half when you count Jack Greenberg, a seafaring heart surgeon who also likes things clean, neat and precise. Greenberg will handle the navigation. Skipper of the 42-foot sloop Jack Knife, he took his class in the Miami-to-Montego Bay race this year and was the overall winner in the Annapolis-to-Newport race last week. Greenberg feels he is ready for the rigors of a longer haul. "Even though I've had zero experience in offshore powerboats," Greenberg says, "I think I can handle it because ocean sailboat racing is more demanding."

"He may have a different opinion after we come back," says Magoon, "but it's true. The only thing physical about powerboating is holding on. On a sailboat Jack has to do all the work while he's racing; I do it all before the race."

Trim enough at 47, Greenberg used to race sports cars and motorcycles and still tools to his office at Miami's Mount Sinai Medical Center in a high-powered Porsche. Magoon, also on the Mount Sinai staff and ever anxious to discuss details, has been homing in on his navigator for months, no matter what the interference. Greenberg says, "I'd be in the operating room, right in the middle of putting in a valve, and he'd come up and say, 'Can we talk?' " Magoon says, "That's not true. I always asked a nurse beforehand if he was in an important part."

Rick LaMore, 38, a Mercury engine technician, will operate the 800 horses. If one of the engines breaks down, it will be his tricky job to haul out a specially designed dismountable boom and electric winch. Then, pitching seas or no, he will have to wrestle one of the two spare 350-pound engines on board into place. The defective Black Max will be unceremoniously chucked overboard.

The fourth crew member, selected from more than 75 volunteers, is Joel McQuade, 37, who operates an aircraft and computer-leasing firm in Dallas. He is contributing one of his planes and a 90-foot press yacht to the cause. "He's been after me to go ever since we met," Magoon says. "I chose him because he's persistent."

If all goes well and the Navy weathermen say A O.K., Magoon will crank up his engines at 1 p.m. on July 1 at the U.S. Navy base in Rota, Spain. King Juan Carlos, himself the owner of a 35-foot Cigarette, has promised to preside at the grand launching, schedule permitting.

An official from the Union of International Motorboating will follow the boat by plane on its first 120-mile leg. Then, when Magoon reaches Cabo de Sao Vicente, the southwest tip of Portugal, the official will start his stopwatch, and the race against time will begin.

Through the night, and with luck by the light of a full moon, Magoon will be in radio contact with a DC-3 escort plane. Part of what Magoon calls "our own little air force," the rebuilt prop plane can lumber along as slowly as 90 mph and remain airborne for up to 22 hours without refueling. The DC-3 will follow the boat throughout most of its journey, leaving it only to refuel in the Azores and Newfoundland. A flying warehouse crammed with spare engines, parts, mechanics and crewmen—backups for backups—the plane can deliver help to the refueling stations if trouble develops.

In addition—at no expense to the taxpayer, Magoon hastens to add—the Navy P-3 reconnaissance jets that patrol the Atlantic will monitor the boat's progress as a tracking exercise. "With the sophisticated gear on those planes," says Magoon, "they can pick up a cavity in your left rear molar." Also, by tuning in FAA emergency frequency 121.5 on his aircraft radio, Magoon can signal commercial flights plying the Atlantic.

Shortly after dawn on the second day, Magoon figures to startle the donkeys hauling milk down from the hills when he thunders in for a 45-minute refueling stop on Sao Miguel in the Azores. Then he is off on the 360-mile leg to Flores, the westernmost island in the archipelago, where he will top off the tanks.

But not without a little drama. Flores, a tiny volcanic outpost, has no formal harbor, only an inlet with a 45-degree ramp that whalers use to haul in their kills. Lest Magoon have difficulty finding the inlet, a man from Mercury will climb a mountain that afternoon and join a Flores native at a whale lookout post. Then, while the native stands ready to ring the large bell that signals a whale sighting, the Mercury man will keep his binoculars trained on the eastern horizon, searching for the telltale spume of Magoon's boat. When he spots it, he will shoot off a flare to mark the harbor.

As Magoon turns into the shallow inlet, a half-track borrowed from the missile-tracking station on the island will trundle down the ramp with 600 gallons of gas. Then Magoon, easing past the old whaling boats in the inlet, will take off for the 1,035-mile run to the fuel ship. The 20th century moves on.

At 39 degrees 30 minutes north latitude and 50 degrees 30 minutes west longitude—or precisely halfway between Flores and Nantucket lightship—Magoon will rendezvous with the 76-foot trawler Changer, which, because its anchor will not reach bottom, will have been circling like a waterbug for days. After taking on another full load of gas and a hot meal, Magoon will point for Nantucket light.

Waiting there will be an official from the American Power Boat Association. When the boat arrives in the late morning of the third day—the Fourth of July and almost 25 years to the day after the United States made its run—the official will hit his stopwatch, and the Fantastic Voyage of Dr. Magoon will be over.

Well, almost over. In a final moment of glory that will rev up the hearts of stinkpot lovers everywhere, Magoon will pilot his boat the 101 miles to Newport Harbor—and straight into the midst of sailboating's high society assembled for the America's Cup Trials. Picture it: the grandest gas-guzzler in the stinkpot navy rumbling past all those arched eyebrows and blazered, crested chests. Three toots and a skyrocket for Magoon!

Citicorp's William Jeanes, head of the welcoming committee, says, "We'll lift those guys out of the boat, take a few pictures and put them to bed."

Which leaves only one problem. What does an itchy man do for kicks after he has conquered a whole ocean? "Well," Magoon said recently while lingering over his coffee in a Miami restaurant, "the Suez Canal is open now...."

Just then a well-wisher stopped by and, noting that it was the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh's historic hop across the Atlantic, said, "They should call your boat The Spirit of Miami.' " That brought Magoon back to the present. "Yeah," he said, "but first things first." Then, after again ticking off all that could go wrong, he brightened and came as close, perhaps, as he ever will to answering the one big question: Why? "Listen," he said, "if it was easy I wouldn't be doing it. Right?" Right.

THREE PHOTOSERIC SCHWEIKARDTThe S.S. United States took 82 hours 40 minutes, but Bob Magoon (flanked by technician Rick LaMore and navigator Jack Greenberg) believes he'll need just 72 hours—and good weather—to cover the 3,345 miles of sea. MAPNANTUCKET LIGHTSHIP
TOTAL TIMED RUN: 3,345 MILES
"CHANGER"
CABO de SAO VICENTE
1,035 miles
360 miles
915 mile
FLORES
SAO MIGUEL
AZORES
ROTA
NEWPORT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)