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Smoke On The Water

High Speed Powerboats Offer Thrills--and Chills--to Adventurous Boaters and Their Wallets

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Ron Beline argues against that approach for the first-time buyer, insisting, "He has to get some experience on a less expensive boat,otherwise he'll make mistakes, not knowing what he really wants or needs in a boat."

Yet if a buyer is dead set on this course, Beline's injunction is "to only work with a very competent builder, a guy who'll steer you away from radical motors and other costly add-ons that just serve to attract bimbos in bikinis."

In boat-crazed south Florida, where there's a plethora of highly regarded builders (most quick to bad-mouth each other), choosing a yard is no easy task. Dan Weinstein at Powerplay Marine has been building quality 25-, 28- and 33-footers since 1982. Curtis Chapman, also a builder, says the Cherokee boat line "is an up-'n'-comer ready to bust out." And then there's Beline, who is teaming with expert craftsman Jack Clark of Jaguar Marine to build a line of family pleasure V's with so-called S-glass hulls.

Standing in Clark's Hollywood, Florida, factory, amid those rolls of fiberglass cloth that are slowly wrapped around a foam core to give the S-glass lightweight hulls extra strength, Beline says, "Our building motto is: When in doubt, rip it out. On a production assembly line, the workers are in a hurry, and use weights or clamps to push the [hull] lamination down. But here, no matter how time-consuming it is, we vacuum-bag [or compress] every inch of the panel. That way there can't be any air bubbles in our hulls, which very easily can lead to catastrophic failures."

Less talkative about his hull's fiberglass composition (the exact combination of Kevlar and other laminates remain "a trade secret"), Apache's Bob Saccenti, the Legend of Thunderboat Alley, rarely needs to discuss engineering specifics. His racing fame speaks volumes, and if a potential buyer needs any further coaxing, there's always one of his 100 mph offshore performances.

"A lot of people will slam, slam a V, but Bobby sets it up, bop, bop, bop, right over the tops of waves; he never lets the motor miss a beat," Chapman says about Saccenti. "Forget his just making the sale. With him launching off waves, dropping in and out, pulling back and opening the throttle, the buyer immediately gets [excited]."

A protégé of Aronow from his days in the marinas of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Saccenti was one of the mechanical wizards-cum-hot boat riggers who helped Aronow turn Cigarette into an early 1970s racing phenomenon. Later, Saccenti founded Apache Boats and started building limited production high-performance race boats (about 12 a year). Now, after 25 years of making 1,600 horsepower "sex and speed" statements, Saccenti engineers boats such as the Renegade and an autographed 47-foot "Superboat" edition that sell for $200,000 to $650,000.

Yet the 53-year-old Saccenti, the winner of several U.S. and world speedboat championships and survivor of innumerable offshore crashes, is not just looking to market go-fast V's to thrill seekers. His dream was to win another world championship with a newly designed 36-foot Warrior this past November in Key West, Florida.

"There's no secret to speed. Anyone can make a light boat that shakes the fillings in your teeth," says Saccenti, frenetically hopping from one boat to another in his factory.

"The crucial key in boat-building is the hull's strength; laying the Kevlar by hand gives that boat resiliency. Sure, opening the throttle is life on the edge. But with all that slamming into rough water, guys torture boats. That's why we baby the lamination process along for a month. Our boats don't start coming apart in two years. Ours take the pounding, are far more forgiving."

All the builders on Thunderboat Alley want to be associated with hulls that withstand terrific punishment. In that regard, Apache has won the reputation as "the Lamborghini" of its 100 mph class.

If a buyer prefers a somewhat slower but swankier boat, say a 60- to 75-mph boat with Roche Bobois furnishings, there's the Rolls-Royce of pleasure cruisers, a diesel-powered Magnum that sells for between $2 million and $4.5 million. In these waters, where King Juan Carlos of Spain, the Agnellis of Fiat fame and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi scamper around in 70-footers, "Katrin the Great" rules.

Katrin Theodoli might seem demure in her designer silk sundresses. But she's the shrewdest of businesswomen, with a doctorate in modern literature, who revved up a company started by Aronow in 1976 and delights in mixing it up with her Muscle Boat Row competitors.

"Everyone thought a fast, open sports yacht, which could speed from Italy to Sardinia, was a crazy idea," recalls Theodoli, remembering that the wealthy only cruised the Mediterranean in slow yachts with crew during the mid-1970s. "But we [she and her late husband Fillipo "Ted" Theodoli] still felt speed could be combined with seaworthiness and comfort, with such amenities as double staterooms and guest showers.

Initially, the Theodolis only brokered Aronow's 35-foot Magnums in Europe. But the Cigarette King was only interested in speed, not bigger V-bottoms (his first boats had no passenger comforts whatsoever), so he sold Magnum to them in 1976 for $1.5 million. They subsequently designed a cross between a high-performance speedboat and a motor yacht, now ranging up to 70 feet; a military interceptor craft dubbed "The Barbarian" that will be used for Navy Seal duty; and, soon to debut, an 80- to 90-foot boat with dual 3,000-horsepower engines, which will go for approximately $4 million.

"I see the offshore market moving into bigger and bigger boats; that's what men of power want these days," insists Theodoli, proudly talking about her 70-footers, all "overbuilt" with layer after layer of Kevlar and sporting interiors by Pininfarina, the Italian firm that designed the Ferrari 308 GTB.

Soon leaving her plain office in Thunderboat Alley to show off a Bestia 50-footer docked beside her factory, Theodoli turns on the turbo-charged diesels and flaunts another selling point of this beast. Instead of the customary engine roar that drowns out all conversation on a smaller, gasoline-powered deep-V (on fully rigged race boats all communication is through headsets), diesel power, operating at lower RPMs than gas engines, packs a quieter wallop.

"My boats are heavier and beamier than Cigarettes, loaded with comforts, and far smoother to ride," says Theodoli. "The King of Spain went from Genoa to Palma in very rough waters [in a 50-foot Bestia], and later said my boat was 'extraordinary, no pitching, no lurching.' While I'm always thinking safety, and not 100 mph, my boats can still outrun the paparazzi. These aren't boats; they're beasts."

Off on another high-speed romp in the Mediterranean, the King of Spain couldn't be reached for comment. Yet 88-year-old entertainer Victor Borge says of his 50-footer, the fifth Magnum he's owned in 20 years: "Just as I have a favorite piano, Katrin makes perfect music with her boats. At my age I need to get to places fast, and Magnum's quality is unsurpassed."

Or you can forget about a mere 100 mph. If you have big enough balls, and want to leave mono-hulled V's in your wake, a 120- to 160-mph catamaran, or "cat," is the only way to go.

The badass of offshore boats, with a reputation for flipping over and laying upside-down in the water, these smokin' winged-type cats with two hulls (called sponsons) and a tunnel running between them are not for the faint-hearted (and arguably not for the entry-level buyer).

Catamarans are said to be less forgiving than V's since each hull can respond to waves differently in rough seas. Air rushes under the hulls and is compressed in the tunnel, giving the boat extra air-lift. While going airborne is exciting, the inexperienced driver can easily launch or hit the water at too precipitous an angle. Which is why Beline describes a cat's rocket-style kick as "a ticket to the jaws of hell."

Recalling the catamaran crash that claimed the life of Stefano Casiraghi, the husband of Monaco's Princess Caroline, off the coast of Monaco in 1990, Beline says, "Cats are just too radical a boat for the beginner. They don't handle rough water well and don't right themselves after tipping over, forcing the occupant to swim out and up. Cats are simply too dangerous."

Cruising at 100 mph, cats still offer the ultimate thrill on water: head-turning speed, especially in a top-of-the-line Douglas Skater, a 46-footer with four gasoline turbines selling for $700,000.

This is the machine for those who want to wreak havoc--and maybe lose some friends en route. "Pit this baby against an Apache, a Cigarette, any deep-V, and you annihilate them," boasts Douglas Marine owner Peter Hledin. "The only drawback to owning a cat is intimidating your friends. They hate you, for once you open a cat up, their V-bottoms are ancient history."

Yet even if cats are short on socializing (usually not for sunbathing, most cats have protective canopies with riders strapped and helmeted in separate compartments), catamarans are that expression of freedom a cigar smoker can relate to.

"Cats are the last true refuge for speed freaks," says Connecticut anesthesiologist John Golia, who traded in his Cougar V-bottom for a Skater about two years ago. "Very fuel-efficient, cats are the future. In them, having no fear of getting ticketed on the open sea, I can escape, numb myself and just go crazy."

Don Aronow is alive and well. At least for a few days in Margaritaville, among the Animal's successors trying to outrun his long shadow.

In Key West last May for an American Super Boat race, a prep for last month's World Cup Championships, Bob Saccenti and other dreamers are all nerves during the day. Standing around in the wet and dry pits reworking wiring and revving their 2,000-horsepower motors, they're in no mood to talk. Not with trial runs looming, and with everyone worried about blowing an engine.

But at night, once they hit the bars in their "Apache," "Jaws" and "Zero Defect" racing team polo shirts, the mood lightens a bit. Looking like hard-assed bikers, they couple each Bloody Mary with a tale about their 120 mph crashes, new power packages and, if you believe these seafaring yarns, how every lady in town wants a piece of them.

Eventually, however, reality returns. These muscle boat guys have to stop imbibing on racing's heady sexy stuff and come to terms with the dangers always stalking them--and buyers who want in on this fast boat action.

"We're flying, setting records, having a ball out there," says Phil Hall, a crew member of the Jaws catamaran racing team. "The dream is to go even faster. Maybe one day soon we'll even crank it up to 200 mph." (Last year, Jaws teammate Dennis Kaiser set an American Power Boat Association record at 158.5 mph.). "I love the water," continues Hall. "But my advice to anyone getting into this is still: 'Be straight with God.' For anything can happen out there with a V or a cat. That's why we always give our wives and girlfriends a long goodbye kiss."

Edward Kiersh is a freelance writer living in Florida.

Hitting the Waves

No license is required to operate a high-performance V-bottom. That may sound terrific, but it also means there are a lot of crazies out on the water who know nothing about handling one of these powerful machines. To prepare yourself for this oceangoing adventure (and the fact that many marine financing companies are requiring deep-V instruction), school is recommended. The Top Gun Thunderboat Training School in Washburn, Wisconsin (715/373-5277), offers four days of instruction and lodging amid the Bayfield/Apostle islands on Lake Superior for $2,500, while Wellcraft Marine's Offshore High-Performance Boot Camp in Sarasota, Florida (941/753-7811), gives four days of instruction on 31-foot Scarabs under the supervision of expert offshore racers, with meals and lodging, for $3,950.

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