It was with obvious pleasure that the American Power Boat Association recently announced the results of its demographic survey of the folks who are interested in offshore racing. These fans are "young, upscale and attractive," the survey noted, and 40% of them have incomes over $25,000 a year. They are familiar with life's goodies, things like designer jeans and light beer, and they are well read: 30% of them, when questioned, recognized the name of Betty Cook, the 1981 U.S. champion. A really terrific survey and just the proper image for a sport that is struggling to gain more national attention. Of course, all of that was before everybody went down to Key West to stage the world championships.
Key West? That lazy, hazy capital of laidbackness and ennui? Absolutely. The race start and finish lines were at a famous hangout called Mallory Square, which is, in its own way, a wonderful spot. No matter what sort of day it is in Key West, sun or rain, any events at Mallory Square are always viewed hazily, as if through a pale lavender fog, and to breathe the very air is to become giddy.
What's more, the upscale and attractive crowd seemed to be made up mostly of young gypsy pairs and wildly bearded men with bandanas tied around their heads, gold rings glinting in their ear-lobes like real pirate stuff. There was Key West's standard corps of nubile maidens dressed in faded little cotton shifts—girls whose folks back home in Iowa would throw a fit if they saw them now. Never mind those demographic surveys, these people seemed to say, just bring on the racing boats and show us a good time.
Which is exactly what they got. All through the week leading up to last Saturday, 59 raceboats from five countries boiled around the island in championship events for four offshore classes. Ferocious boat names rang in the air: Boston Strangles Sheer Terror, Rampage, Nasty and Chaos, each seeming to give a clear indication of how their owners regard the sport.
November 23, 1981
What had gone before—a season of battles on their home oceans and lakes—didn't really matter now. Key West was the showdown: winner-take-all races to decide the world champions. In the glamour class, Offshore I, one could be the former world and current U.S. champ, Betty Cook, or Ted Toleman, a British tycoon who had won both the English and Australian titles, but the rules declared that no such honors carried over—the only thing they got you was an entry to this race. This made for a field full of hot-shots: The top three finishers from each country were eligible, plus such notables as Michel Meynard of Concord, Mass. Though Meynard had finished a dismal 10th during the regular season, he drew an automatic entry to defend the world title that he had captured last season.
For a final deft touch, two qualifying races early in the week added four others to the potential field. One such entrant was 44-year-old Jerry Jacoby of Old Westbury, N.Y., who pilots a four-year-old 37'6" Cigarette called Ajac Hawk, a boat with fierce hawk portraits on its flanks. Jacoby had just missed the cut by finishing fourth this season. "No way, no way, was I going to lose this one big chance," he said before the qualifiers. And, sure enough, make it he did. He squeaked through two 95-mile heats with a second and a sixth, and thereby collected enough points. Those who like Cinderella stories—and Key Westers love them—should remember this, because one will be along later in this report.
After all the qualifying on the ocean and several thunderous cocktail parties ashore, everybody had to face as tricky a course as has ever been presented. They may be gin-clear, but the waters that surround Key West are also notoriously treacherous. The seas abound in shoals, flats, sandbanks and bars; reefs and rocks often appear just inches beneath the surface. And what's more, as race physician Dr. Matt Houghton told the assembled drivers at a briefing on Saturday morning, "There also are cans, debris of all kinds, floating hatch covers, lobster-pot floats trailing long sections of line, and coral heads. Remember that coral has a tendency to shred human skin. And one more thing: This morning, there were two sharks on the course."
Terrific. A short time later, the competitors buckled into life jackets and helmets and surged away in their boats to a mill-around area just off Mallory Square. On the dock, the crowd was packed thickly, with many of the spectators already mellow in the bright morning sun. As one bearded and pigtailed youth said earnestly, "Man, you know what would make this race meaningful? If that farthest checkboat was really a mother ship, know what I mean? And each racer would have to check in and bring back a few bales."
It was a deceptively perfect Florida Keys morning: clear skies carrying only wisps of clouds, 72° under a brisk 10- to 15-knot wind out of the north-northeast. Seas lay minty green and placid on all sides, though the waves were said to be four to six feet outside the reef. Anybody can handle four to six, right, guys? There were 17 Class I raceboats in a raggedy lineup, 10 from the U.S., five from Italy, one from England, one from Australia. Four were catamarans; 13 were deep-V-hulled. Ahead of them all lay a 208-mile course, consisting of two long and three short loops around eight checkpoints. At 10:22:39 a.m. off went the starting flare. The monster boats came howling out of the narrow cut, each one leaving a boiling white wake that rose into a rooster tail. The heads of drivers, navigators and throttlemen were bent in concentration, the sun startlingly bright on the high-visibility orange of their crash helmets. And in what seemed just a brief moment, the boats became tiny white dots against the horizon.
That's when the Cinderella story started to take shape. Out at sea, perhaps 25 minutes into the race, one of the two 700-horse engines blew on Cook's 38-foot Scarab, and blam! went her chances for an unprecedented third world championship. And when the boats came roaring back into Key West harbor at the end of the first lap, what was this? There was old wild-card, last-minute-qualifier Jacoby in the lead—not only in first but running five boat lengths ahead of Apache, a 39-foot Squadron driven by Jerry Kilpatrick of St. Augustine, Fla. The rest of the field was strung out behind them, and Jacoby and his crewmen—Bart Quartin navigating and Keith Hazell on the throttles—signaled the crowd what kind of race it was going to be. Passing Mallory Square, each one happily shook a fist at the sky. It turned out that Jacoby had already discovered the deception in the perfect day: On the longest leg of the course, a 17-mile run from the main channel to Smith's Shoal on the Gulf side of Key West, the seas were piling up in 10- to 12-foot waves. It was purest Florida boating magic; no whitecaps to give warning, just slamming high water that stood the boats on their ears. "We just tried to hold our speed," Jacoby said after the race, "but this was as rough as anything I've ever seen. At one time I stood it—I mean literally—I stood it on its end just trying to look over the top of a wave. We were churning through the stuff at maybe 85 miles an hour, and we can normally run much faster than that."
With a chilling, gradually building sort of momentum, the reports began to crackle over radios of boats disabled, one in Class III even sinking; of injured racers; calls for tows. By the third lap, Ajac Hawk had built a 2½-minute lead over Apache, and by 12:56 p.m. only five of the original starters were left in Class I. In another few moments there were only four, the same number that actually finished the race.
The two lead boats battled it out right down to the flag; at one point in the long run through the big seas, the Hawk and Apache had run cheek by jowl for nine bouncing miles. But Jacoby was not to be denied this one.
"The last couple of miles," he said, "our boat would go bounce! and I'd pray, 'Oh, God, don't break,' and then it would go slam! and I'd whisper to it, 'Please hold together.' And about 100 feet from the finish line, Keith reached for the throttles so we could come flashing across, and I almost slapped his hand. 'Not now,' I said. 'This is the world championship; let's not take a chance.' " They finished modestly, having spent 2 hours 56 minutes on the course at an average speed of 70.9 mph. Apache boiled in a minute or so later. Way back in third place was Marlboro, piloted by Italy's Alberto Smania.
And so the new world champion of 1981 stood in the bright sun of Mallory Square. Jacoby sipped some champagne handed over by Gene Ferri, president of the sponsoring Imperial Industries, Inc. And then Ferri took the bottle back and had a big swig himself. Sponsors who lay out $80,000 in prize money can do that sort of thing.
There was a moral in all of it, of course, a message that one could divine if one just studied the situation long enough. Why, naturally: One of the reasons Jacoby won was that he knew the course. "Listen," said the world offshore champ, "just to get into this championship, just to qualify, I had to race this thing over and over again in the heats. I raced over it 11 times before the final. It turns out that I could run it in my sleep." Thus does perseverence pay off.
And with that homily firmly in mind, Mallory Square settled down to some really serious partying, which, of course, is what Key West does best.