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Smoke On The Water

High Speed Powerboats Offer Thrills--and Chills--to Adventurous Boaters and Their Wallets
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Jumping off such offshore race boats as "The Exciter," "Demented" and "Bad Attitude," a dozen blondes and brunettes in skimpy bikinis parade into Shooters, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, bar on the Intercoastal waterway.

Each 20-year-old Miss Bountiful bobs and sways, flaunting Perfect 10 equipment. Cheers ring out, drowning the roar of 1,600-horsepower deep-V Apaches, Cougars and Cigarettes riding in the water.

Yet the beauty show is still the perfect accompaniment to the thunderclap of these 110 mile per hour "bay-busters," boats with an attitude. For the women--along with those needle-nosed superboats, designed to fly out of seven-foot seas, to softly reenter and to launch back out--all scream fun in the sun.

"They're a rush, a dangerous, yet still exhilarating adrenaline high just like sex," says Ron Beline, a V-bottom builder and driver on the Nightmare Racing Team. "There's nothing like standing a boat up, going as fast as you can on top of waves, launching, jamming, winning races and pushing the envelope."

The machines of choice among drug smugglers, royalty, police and plain speed freaks, these mean V's foster all sorts of spirited dreams. To the scanty thong set, a joyride on an ear-splitting powerboat with three 600-horsepower motors surging under the hatches means life in the fast lane, entry into the Gold Coast glamour circuit.

Other wanna-bes, dubbed "land trawlers" by more serious racers, cruise bars like Shooters, hoping their deep-V's with sharp-angled hulls will be their limitless ticket to fast and easy sex.

But for Beline and his boat-building competitors in this fuel-injected, supercharged world, where surviving 120 mph crackups is the ultimate badge of honor, the dream is far more complicated.

They, of course, want to design--and race--the perfect hull, discover that cutting-edge mix of plywood, foam and fiberglass. In the late 1980s and early '90s, these dreams turned into nightmares, as the boat market took a dive because of the federal luxury tax. But now the tax is gone and buyers are back, and outrunning a competitor means Miami Vice-styled thrills, money, fame and the imprimatur to succeed the legendary Don Aronow, the king of offshore performance boats.

Competing with this aura of greatness is heady stuff, for Aronow, the 1970s pioneer of the 35-foot, aptly named "Awesome" hull (which is still the industry standard), gave these machines international cachet. From designing the first Cigarettes, to building such companies as Magnum and Donzi and selling boats to such celebrities as fugitive financier Robert Vesco, the Shah of Iran and George Bush, the wheeling 'n' dealing, no-holds-barred Aronow personified deep-V's flamboyance. He was the Man.

It's easy for scores of modern-day boat builders--and average Joes-- to buy into the Aronow mythology. They all dream of going fast, faster, fastest, writing one more installment of man's conquering the sea.

But mirroring the caution consumers should exercise when buying and handling a powerboat, today's builders must also know when to throttle back in their chase with Aronow. For nothing intimidated him, not broken boats or bones. Known as "The Animal," the fearless Aronow lived too close to that proverbial edge, pushed it way too hard. In 1987 he wound up dead, his own dreams exploding in a hail of bullets. (According to Blue Thunder, an account by Thomas Burdick and Charlene Mitchell of the investigation into Aronow's death, Mafia connections may have led to the killing.)

Coughing up dirt with each passing truck, powerboating's mecca is a short stretch of blacktop tucked between rotting hulls, weed-covered fields and a row of hangars. Located on the northern edge of Miami Beach, N.E. 188th Street, otherwise known as Thunderboat Alley, is the heart of America's powerboat industry. It has no visible reminders of the go-go history that was made here in the 1970s and '80s. There are no plaques to celebrate the coming of the Cigarette, no signs marking the site of Aronow's gangland-style execution. But the street is still famous for its hot machines--the Apaches, USA Racing Team Cigarettes and $3 million Magnums.

Anyone wanting to buy a deep-V, to hook into the high-performance, high-speed scene, must visit this street of dreams and high-octane sales talk. For this is where Aronow's spiritual descendants, builders like Bob Saccenti and Katrin Theodoli, grapple with the latest glass laminates, fine-tune hydraulic systems and, in general, blueprint one-upsmanship claims to the king's throne.

Those conflicting boasts, usually reserved for debating the strength of Kevlar, S-glass, closed-cell foam or some other composite hull, are best epitomized by Aronow's rightful heirs, his sons Michael and David. Antagonistic rivals in this keenly competitive business, each is convinced he's taking his father's designs to new glory, recapturing the magic that coupled Aronow's name to sleek, fast and sexy.

David has his 313, a 32-foot split-console recreational boat, "a variation of my dad's 27-footer, strong enough to pound through the torturous seas," he says, while Michael is finalizing plans to market a 24-footer, its drawing-board name The Legend, and featuring an engraved signature from his father.

"No one has a little Cigarette, but I plan to build a real runner, a boat my father designed yet never built," insists Michael Aronow, echoing the passion that drives builders to breathe noxious laminate fumes and to risk their lives testing boats offshore. "Now that this beauty's time has arrived, I'm going to make the most luxurious, safest, easiest handling boat in the world."

Thunderboat Alley (along with scores of boatyards scattered across the United States and Europe) also resounds with promises, beautiful brochures, all the right words pledging safety, seaworthiness, comfort and speed. So how does a buyer wade into this market of conflicting claims and distinguish between a Fountain, Jaguar or Powerplay, boats all sporting shiny gel-coat hulls, dazzling graphics and race-tested horsepower?

Gingerly, with extreme caution and a game plan. Any prospective buyer must summon up the diligence to talk with boat owners, visit marinas or showrooms, and, most importantly, be convinced that hurtling in and out of rough water at 90 mph is fun, not hellish punishment.

As the otherwise macho Rocky Marciano discovered during a Miami-Nassau-Miami race, the G-forces pounding against the body in an open cockpit boat are so intense, the bruised prizefighter left his boat in Nassau, conceding, "It's too tough. At least in the ring I can hit back."

One way to avoid embarrassment or the financial pounding of winding up with a boat that only inspires fear and loathing is to take numerous trial runs in V-bottoms. "The entry-level buyer has to go slow every step of the way, get their feet wet with a slower-class boat," urges Ron Beline. "Buying a used V the first time out also makes sense. But jumping into a superboat is crazy, for if the inexperienced buyer flips one of these babies at 100 mph, he doesn't walk away from it."

Going the used-boat route through brokers and newspaper ads has its pros and cons. One distinct advantage is the lower cost. A buyer can get a six-month exposure to offshore by the "50-in, 50-out" approach, that is, purchasing a boat for $50,000 and recouping most of his investment if the boat is properly maintained.

"If you buy a new V-bottom for $250,000 and put hours on those motors, you get hit hard [financially]," says Fort Lauderdale broker Curtis Chapman, the son of Nick Chapman, who did celebrated hull design work for Don Aronow. "But for the guy who's never operated a boat before and is looking to discover what type of accessories and cabin comforts he really wants, buying used is like leasing. If he buys an old Cigarette, or some other boat with marquee value, he'll be able to get out of it without coming upside-down hard."

There are risks here, however. An older boat has taken a beating in the water, endured shock after shock, and that can easily mean fractures in the inner core of the hull. A naval engineer or surveyor can detect those flaws and must be hired to inspect the boat's structure. But since boat buying is often on impulse, without any lemon laws protecting consumers, Chapman says, "It's easy, very easy, to get screwed."

Engines are another major concern, mainly because these steel blocks with aluminum parts are being exposed to their worst enemy, salt water. "You can never tell what corrosion and deterioration is going on inside an engine," says Apache builder and throttleman Bob Saccenti, the winner of numerous international races. "The magic question here is how many hours have these gasoline engines logged--200, 300, 400? A surveyor can only check motors to a slight degree, and if the seller says he's rebuilt the engines, the buyer must demand to see the invoices. My advice is buyer beware."

Motors, whatever the power package of four-barreled carburetors, crankshafts and cams, can be replaced. Repowering a 35-foot boat with twin-600 horsepower MerCruisers will cost about $60,000. But since there are so many blind areas on used boats, such as the electronics and the fuel systems behind those gleaming gauges, future expenses must also be factored against the cost of buying new. It's intoxicating to find a deal; there's a rush Saccenti calls "a fever." Yet the smart buyer also knows when to step back to avoid getting burned.

Buying a new boat also poses numerous challenges and choices. The buyer must first decide how he's going to use the boat. Will it be a family pleasure craft, loaded down with a cabin, showers and other creature comforts? Or is the boat total testosterone swagger, stripped of weighty accessories, and only race-equipped for pushing down hard on the throttle?

Balancing realistic lifestyle demands against the fantasies of breakneck speed affects everything from motor size to cockpit design and maintenance. The family boat designed with lots of room to move around, overnight sleeping accommodations and engines topping out at 80 mph is a whole different animal than the much lighter, 100 mph-plus racer. The pleasure cruiser, riding deeper and smoother in the water than catamarans and other superpowered boats, may lose WOW appeal. Yet lost sexiness has to be weighed against servicing far more "radical" engines, and that, even in the hands of pros, airborne bay-busters are a jarring rollercoaster ride.

"On one of our gentleman's performance boats, a guy can hold a drink in one hand or put an arm around his girlfriend and still enjoy a smooth ride," says Rick Dubois, a Deerfield Beach, Florida, sales agent for Formula, an Indiana company specializing in $70,000 to $300,000 boats designed for "safe and sociable" family outings.

"Unlike the Cigarette or Apache, we're not out for full speed. A Formula stresses comfort; it won't beat anyone up with its sounds or crashing spray on the water. Even better, you won't get beat up in the yard, cleaning and repairing those radical race engines that cause many more maintenance problems."

Formula, along with its much-heralded competitor Fountain, are production boat companies. The flamboyant Reggie Fountain, the world record-holder in a V-bottom at 131.94 mph, will build specific boats on demand. But in this category of pleasure V-bottoms which, according to a Fountain catalogue, is filled with "fast-fading rivals like Wellcraft, Cigarette, Sonic, Baja and Hustler," the main thrust is on boats made on the assembly line.

Workers turn out hundreds of V's yearly, and for the boat buyer that means speedy delivery. Yet a mass-produced boat will have numerous clones, and among glitz seekers, it's become popular to disguise their factory V's with the graphics of a more exclusive machine, like the Indian warpath regalia of an Apache. That same general look of a stock V, especially if it's dressed up with motors to go 80 mph such as the award-winning Fountain 38 Fever, still has certain resale value.

"Once you have all those fancy colors you have to find someone who wants that same look, and that can lead to your getting burned" in a resale, says Curtis Chapman. "With a production boat, everyone knows what it looks like, what the gauges and seating are like, and that often makes selling it a lot easier."

So don't be misled by roaring big engines and shiny trappings. The keys to buying a production boat are: 1) above the waterline, the sides of the boat must be straight without any waves or bulges; 2) except for pricier offerings, many production V's come without thick coring in the hull, so make like Mike Tyson and punch the hull sides to judge whether they feel solid; 3) budget manufacturers just slap the hull and deck together like a shoebox top, so inspect the screws or bonding agents used on the joints--a fiberglass sealer is the preferable choice; and 4) the windshield must be solid, without any dangerous rough edges, and as for deck hardware, navigation lights are a must.

As for the power package and its setup, Powerboat magazinerecommends making sure that: there's a latch to ensure that the engine hatch doesn't fly open at high speeds, the batteries are tightly secured, the motor mounts are firmly bolted (vibrations on offshore V's are intense) and you have an expert check the wiring. Remember, getting stuck on the highway is one thing. Drifting helplessly offshore is quite another.

Reggie Fountain will argue that fine workmanship can be found on a production boat. Yet dream teamers on and around Thunderboat Alley insist there's only one way to buy dependable V's that make "kick ass" statements--buyers must spend the extra $200,000 to $400,000 and go custom.

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.

A few words about maintenance and usage. A high-performance boat with its sophisticated machinery must be given regular oil changes and rust prevention treatments, and be stored so that its equipment isn't exposed to the elements. The yearly upkeep of a 36-foot Apache, for example, can amount to as much as $15,000, including $6,000 for storage fees, $4,500 for insurance (few companies are willing to extend coverage) and $2,000 to $3,000 for lubrication. If you are thinking of running with a wide-open throttle, this can mean the burning of 45 gallons per engine per hour.

To shop for a powerboat, consult the following:

Apache Performance Boats
3161 N.E. 188th Street, North Miami Beach, Florida 33180
tel: 305/937-2231, fax: 305/931-4387

Douglas Marine
Box 819, Douglas, Michigan 49406
tel: 616/857-4308, fax: 616/857-1606

Fountain Powerboats
P.O. Box 457, Washington, North Carolina 27889
tel: 919/975-2000, fax: 919/975-6793

Jaguar Marine
reached through the Nightmare Offshore Racing Team,
1669 S.E. 7th Street, Deerfield Beach, Florida 33441
tel: 954/426-6665, fax: 954/427-4884

Magnum Marine
2900 N.E. 188th Street, North Miami Beach, Florida 33180
tel: 305/931-4292, fax: 305/931-0088

Powerplay Marine
2740 N.W. 29th Terrace, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311
tel: 954/733-2500, fax: 954/733-2700

Thunderbird Products
(Formula and Falcon boats), 2200 West Monroe Street,
P.O. Box 1003, Decatur, Indiana 46733
tel: 219/724-9111 or 800/736-7685

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