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Romance versus realism on a cruel sea

In Key West's offshore powerboat race the rooster tails were as lofty and the men as intrepid as ever, but ignominy awaited a new marvel and injury a salty old hand. Even for the winner it was touch and go

It is easy to romanticize the sport of offshore powerboat racing—and almost as dangerous as the sport itself. Once they have gotten to speed, the long, slim hulls seem to leap from wave to wave with the grace of a greyhounding marlin. The crews, standing erect against their padded back rests, appear almost military in their insouciance, like so many young PT-boat skippers dashing to meet the Imperial Japanese fleet. The sound of the engines, as visceral as anything heard at the stock-car track; the lofty white rooster tails erupting yards behind the slashing screws; the loud and lovely violation of the rolling seas for nothing more than the hell of it and a piddling $2,000 first prize—all of it puts one in mind of old-time automobile racing back before that sport got so costly in terms of life and loot. But in Florida last week, during the 12th annual running of the Key West Offshore Race, romance got the deep six and a hard, briny realism ruled the waves.

For openers, the favorite in the field of 10, Paul Cook's "tunnel-hulled" catamaran Kudu, crashed into the first checkpoint boat only a few minutes after the start of the 190-mile race and retired in ignominy. That was not the only error. Another boat whose crew was new to the Key West course missed a check-point out in the flats and took off for Texas, despite the ardent pleas of officials on the voice radio. It had to be herded back by airplane. Worst of all, the veteran Roger Hanks and one of his crewmen were seriously injured when their Blonde III suddenly swapped ends at 80 miles per hour. The race was eventually won by another old pro, Miami's Sammy James, in the 38-foot Bertram Whittaker Moppie, but just barely. The slam-bang stresses of the ride peeled the fiber-glass rear transom from James' boat as neatly as if Poseidon himself had slapped it away.

Technologically, at least, Paul Cook's debacle was the most disappointing turn of the weekend. Offshore racing has been dominated for the past two decades by the so-called deep-vee hulls—Cigarettes, Bertrams and Garas. With hull design virtually stagnant, races were won by a few more ergs of power coaxed out of highly tuned engines or a few seconds pared from the course by highly tuned drivers. That was very gratifying for the participants but often dull for the spectators. Then along came Cook, 50, of Atherton, Calif. His Kudu has become to offshore racing what Jim Hall's first winged Chaparrals were to sports cars. It brings aerodynamics into the picture, thus changing the whole technical concept of high-speed powerboating.

Designed by Californian Ron Jones, Kudu rides atop the waves, her 12-foot-wide deck acting as a lifting wing between the boat's two 35-foot-long pontoons. The pointed bows give the boat the look of some strange aquatic antelope.

A slow starter because of the added drag of an extra hull, Kudu comes into her own on calm seas and at full throttle. Under those conditions she smoked the Cigarettes, and all the other competition, for that matter, in September's San Francisco offshore race, blasting under the Golden Gate Bridge at a top speed of 93 mph and establishing not only a new record for the race but also a new U.S. racecourse record of 79.2 mph. Kudu's twin 496-cubic-inch MerCruiser engines generate more than 1,200 horsepower, nearly double the oomph put out by a Can-Am or Indy racer.

"We've got power to burn," said Cook on the eve of the Key West Race. A serious, almost solemn aerospace engineer turned industrialist, Cook got into offshore racing after officiating at several meets and deciding that something new could and should be done to stimulate the sport. His wife Betty came along for more than the ride; she pilots a production-class 31-foot Bertram, the Mongoose, with the same grit her husband brings to the open class. "We name all our boats after animals," said Cook, "because it's a brute of a sport."

To a competition notable for its hard drinking, hell-for-leather exuberance, the Cooks bring a thoughtful, almost staid, coloration. After all, boat names like Kudu and Mongoose sound serious in contrast to others in the Key West fields—Makin' Bacon, Beep-Beep Too and Raped Ape.

Still, more than power to burn and seriousness to spare was necessary in last Saturday's race. A little bit of luck was also required, and in that respect it was just not Paul Cook's day. No sooner did he light up Kudu's engines at the Naval Annex dock than he blew an oil pump. During the next hour the pump was pulled and replaced, Paul sweating the while in his trim red racing suit with the stylized kudu on the back. Then, shortly after the start, as he strove to catch up with the field, Kudu's power steering failed. "We went on after trying to fix it," he said, "but when I came up on the first checkpoint boat I couldn't hold us clear. We punched a hole in her hull with one of our sponsons." Fortunately, only sensibilities were injured in the collision. The true test of Kudu's future, the rough water beyond the far checkpoints, was never reached. Well, as they always say in racing, wait until next year.

The lesson in offshore realism administered to Roger Hanks was far more abrupt. A full-throttle oil millionaire from Midland, Texas, Hanks had won the 1971 Key West race and was running smoothly in his 36-foot Cigarette during the early stages of this one, moving up steadily from fifth place with an eye on the leaders. Roaring out of the harbor toward the fourth checkpoint at Smith Shoal, he seemed to have paced his race nicely. The heavy seas still lay ahead. Scudding along at nearly 80 mph and with plenty of water under his keel, Hanks' Blonde III suddenly snapped a steering linkage, slewed sideways to the right and came to a stop virtually within its own length.

Five tons of boat, decelerating from that kind of speed, generates quite a moment-arm, as the physicists say. In auto racing terms it would be roughly equivalent to Swede Savage's fatal collision with the wall in Turn Four at Indianapolis 1½ years ago, but fortunately without the fire. Hanks was slammed face first onto the gunwale and knocked cold, with his crash helmet flying off to land in the water nearly 100 feet from the boat. His throttle man, a tough Texan named Sam Thomas, tried to duck under the forward bulkhead, a standard evasive maneuver in a spinout of that sort, but ended up with a faceful of shattered fiber-glass. Amazingly, Navigator Steve Stettin emerged unhurt and flagged down a passing helicopter.

Hovering over the stalled boat, the copter crew viewed a spooky scene. Now you see 'em, now you don't. With Thomas wedged out of sight under the bulkhead and Hanks' orange helmet floating a long way off, it seemed at first as if someone had been thrown clear in the crash. Hanks lay sprawled over the port gunwale face down in a pool of blood. He was ominously still. Then, after a minute or two, he began to come around, shaking his head groggily and trying to raise his arms. A Coast Guard patrol boat raced the injured men back to Florida Keys Memorial Hospital, where Hanks was listed in fair condition with cracked cheek and brow bones, broken ribs and internal bleeding. His left eye was damaged in the wreck and Dr. Bob Magoon, an eye specialist and offshore racing legend who had won the Key West race in 1970, stood ready to fly down from Miami should his special skills be needed.

The sudden end of Hanks' stern chase left the race to the front-runners. Sammy James, 40, a vice-president of the Bertram Yacht Company, led from the start clear on out to the Dry Tortugas, nearly 100 miles west. Then trim tab troubles forced him to ease off on the throttle. Bob Higgins of Miami, driving The Red Baron, a 32-foot Cigarette of ancient and honorable lineage (it had won the 1971 world championship), nipped into the lead as the boats swung around the Tortugas and began the pounding ride back home. That was too much for James. "I was worried about stability," he said later. "The seas were standing up out there, up to 14 feet high, but I told my throttle man to nail it and we went right back after them."

And catch them he did, blowing home with a 2½-minute lead over the Baron. A crowd of more than 5,000 lined the dock-side at Mallory Square and cheered James in. Then came the traditional dunking and champagne ablutions all around. James' total elapsed time of two hours, 51 minutes worked out to an average speed of 66.7 mph, not a record but plenty fast enough for the day. Only six of the original 10-boat field finished the race and for a while it looked as if only five would do it. Jack Tushinsky, a newcomer from Encino, Calif., missed the checkpoint out Tortugas way and went 35 miles off course. Only the timely intervention of a plane that vectored him back to Key West kept Tushinsky's 36-foot Cigarette, the Jumpin' Jack, from leaping clear across the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston, Texas.

The scene that night at the Pier House, Key West's swinging race headquarters, was reminiscent of those war movies in which the pilots who survived the murderous mission whooped it up hysterically to forget their woes. Booze flowed and bull roared. Drunks staggered through the corridors leaning on one another for support. There was a sense, though, that these racers, oldtimers and newcomers alike, were celebrating or lamenting more than the day's events. Offshore powerboat racing may well be at the end of an era, both technologically and emotionally. While new hardware like Kudu will stimulate interest, it may throw a wrench at romance.