They struggle to be heard above the din, hollering "Cigarette Lady!" as the deeply tanned blonde glides by. They are not at the Rainbow Room, and the Stork Club closed years ago. Furthermore, most of them don't smoke. Who are these people? They're offshore-racing fans, cheering above the roar of powerful engines for Anna Dalva, the driver of the 42-foot Open Vee Cigarette Lady II.
This scene takes place on piers and beaches across the country every time the Dalva offshore-racing team competes during the nine-month, 10-race season, which began on March 27. In 1992, racing in the Open or Superboat class (for 30- to 45-foot vessels, the heavyweights of the sport) with navigator-husband Morris Dalva and throttleman Don Von standing on either side of her, Anna drove the 9,000-pound Cigarette Lady II to second place in both the Offshore Professional Tour and the Superboat Racing Tour standings. John Rebhan, driving the Warren Fabricating Corporation's Ohio Steel, came in first in both.
Of course, some might say that finishing second in a division with only three entries is no great achievement, particularly when merely avoiding breakdown can often lead to victory. Indeed, Anna has been criticized in Superboat circles for driving for second place in two-boat races. Furthermore, the two victories of her career—one last August in Mount Clemens, Mich., the other last month in Long Beach, Calif.—came in "races" that included no other boats. But, to paraphrase the motto of the New York State lottery: All it takes to be part of the high-priced sport of powerboat racing (where a tank of fuel can cost $1,500) are several million dollars and a dream. The Dalvas have both.
In 1973, while studying at UCLA to become an emergency-room technician, Anna met Morris, who had just finished law school at the University of San Diego. In less than a year they were married. Morris opened his own law firm, then became a successful real estate developer, a judge pro tern and arbitrator for the State of California Superior Court and a sponsor of several semipro soccer and baseball teams in the Los Angeles area. Anna, meanwhile, continued her studies while raising Shayne, now 17, Candice, 6, and Zachary, 3. Her current medical interest is sonography. "I'm crazy," she says in her hoarse, alto voice. "I just go around collecting licenses." She goes to school to set an example for her kids. "I figure if they see me doing my homework, they'll do theirs," she says hopefully.
Now in her late 30's, the athletic, 5'5", 115-pound Anna has spent much of her life around boats. When she was growing up in Monticello, N.Y., she would take her father's Boston Whaler out for spins on the lake behind her family's house. She also ice-skated, ran track, skied—water and snow—rode horses and played tennis and basketball, often with her three brothers. These days Dalva lifts weights and does aerobics to maintain the strong back, leg and arm muscles needed to endure the pounding that comes with standing in a boat for an hour and a half, bouncing over waves at speeds averaging 85 mph.
The Dalvas live in Pacific Palisades, Calif., in a mock castle complete with crenellated walls, turrets, a moat with a bridge, and 22 rooms, none of them rectangular. The house is a hulking reminder of the ambitious, speculative '80s, when Morris hired a young "genius" architect from the Walt Disney company to "do something unique." Morris had planned to sell the house once it was completed, but when he couldn't find a buyer, the Dalvas decided they might as well move into the castle themselves.
Last November in Key West, Anna, wearing a small fortune in gold jewelry, relaxed in her hotel room before the Key West World Championship, the last offshore event of the '92 season. She winced when asked about the house. "People come to the front door and ask if it's a restaurant," she said. Still, the place has its merits, including a fitness room and a tennis court, which are very convenient for Anna's workouts with her personal-trainer-cum-public-relations-director, Susy Jaeger. Like her sister, Andrea, Susy is a former tennis pro.
But what about this boat racing? Five years ago the Dalvas took a fateful trip to Florida, where Morris bought—more or less on a whim—a $60,000 35-footer at the Everglades Marina boat factory in Fort Lauderdale. By 1988 the Dalvas were competing in local club races. At first Anna boarded the boat only as the navigator. "But eventually she said, 'I really have to drive,' " recalls Morris, who has been granted scarcely a moment at the wheel since. "I would enjoy doing more driving, but I can't fight with my wife." Anna, who claims to have a racer's love of speed, says, "Morris likes to go about 70 miles per hour, and after that he gets nervous. I like to go about 100."
Dubbing their boat Cigarette Lady, the Dalvas raced it for three years in amateur competition before moving to the pro circuit. In 1990 they placed second overall in the Open Class of the Pacific Offshore Power Boat Racing Association, a pro group that admittedly included only two other boats. In February of '91 they bought the bigger, faster Cigarette Lady II, and that May, in Corpus Christi, Texas, they raced the boat for the first time. That October, Anna established the Open Vee speed record by reaching 110 mph on Nevada's Lake Mead.
That achievement moved her infinitesimally closer in stature to the great Betty Cook, the only other woman to race in the Open Class. Cook, who died of cancer last year at the age of 70, began competing in the big boats at 50. In the '70s and '80s she won 17 races, three U.S. titles and two world championships, and she set several records, becoming a paradigm for all offshore racers—male and female.
Not surprisingly, many of today's racers scoff at Anna's presumption, pointing out that Cook raced in the Open Class division against a dozen boats at a time and had driving skills that were far superior to Dalva's. As the female pioneer in an all-male world, Cook laid the groundwork for Dalva. "I want to break all of Betty Cook's records," Anna said after Cook died. "She was the one who inspired me. I want to pay her that respect, and I'm going to hang in there until I do."
Anna Dalva has a long way to go to equal Cook's achievements, but time is on her side. "I'm still only thirtysomething," she says.