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Original Issue

It was streak or swim at Key West

George Morales kept his speed up to keep the water out in the worlds

The real name of this game is Let's Get Together and Bust Up All the Equipment. Oh, there's another, more formal, title—The Michelob Light World Offshore Championship—but by either name, it's a wonderfully manic event, with brave men in strong boats racing over the ocean off Key West. And the 1984 edition last week was a doozy.

For one thing, not all the boats and men were strong enough to survive three days of churning madly into two-to seven-foot seas. The water around the tip of Florida doesn't come in predictable rolling swells—it bunches up into nasty chop, the result of the reefs, jagged coral heads and the shifting sandbars that lie just beneath the water's surface. Indeed, it was amazing that all the racers were accounted for last Saturday night.

The grittiest among them was George Morales, 36, of Fort Lauderdale, whose kidneys and two compressed ribs are still aching even as you read this. Morales and crew banged through most of Saturday's final 166.25-mile race beset with three big problems aboard MerCruiser Special. One outdrive unit blew apart, one of the three engines conked out, and then the inner transom plate ripped loose. "We had to keep going," Morales said, "because if we stop, we immediately sink. And we didn't want to sink."

The boat still averaged 71.9 mph—plenty fast enough to avoid taking on water—and finished third in the final race but first in points for the week, thus cinching Morales's second American Power Boat Association world championship in a row. Morales allowed that, while it wasn't exactly a perfect windup, it was much better than finishing at the bottom of the sea.

Terrific, but pretty typical stuff for this sport, which may be the last outpost of adventure for well-to-do madcaps.

Forty-nine boats from five countries rolled into Key West for the occasion, entered in six classes that ranged from the little 400-hp, 22-foot-or-so models up to the awesome 2,800 horses of the so-called superboats, the unlimited, no-holds-barred craft introduced last year. The boats fought it out in three events: two races around an 81-mile course and the grand finale over the longer layout. And between events, everybody faithfully kept the world's longest continuous cocktail party going.

For sheer glamour nothing could touch the superboats, which loomed above the others in size and swagger. Before 1983 the APBA limited its top class to 45 feet and 1,000 cubic inches of engine. The revised Class I is creating a new generation of heavyweights, boats that tool along routinely at 100-plus mph. The class still isn't recognized by the Union of International Motorboating, the world governing body, and a world superboat title may or may not be official, but who worries about such details? There were four of the giant boats in Key West last week, and they caught the town's fancy.

The contest for the world championship finally shook down to two boats: Morales's 45'6", 2,100-hp, V-hulled Cougar, an item of some $300,000, and the 50-foot, 2,800-hp catamaran Popeyes/Diet Coke, the $600,000 pride of Al Copeland of New Orleans, boss of a fried chicken empire. Cope-land's Cougar cat is a vessel to inspire awe: It weighs 16,000 pounds—that's eight tons—and it's powered by four Mercury engines. It holds the APBA world speed record, 130.401 mph. And Copeland could stage the Mardi Gras parade on the foredeck.

Copeland won six of eight races this season to wrap up the 1984 national championship before coming to Key West, and what better way to cap off a season than by adding the world title as well? But, alas, mechanical gremlins struck in the first two races in this winner-take-all series. Morales won both easily, with Popeyes placing third twice—and George came up to Saturday's final leading 450 points to 254. With 400 points going to Saturday's winner, Copeland's problem was clear: "I've gotta win this thing," he said, "and Morales has to finish fourth. Or worse."

And so they prepared for battle the way the rich folks always do in this sport: While their crews changed engines, they outlimousined each other. Morales was being whisked around funky little Key West in a bone-white stretch limo with tinted windows, plush seats and bar. Copeland struck back with a black limo with bar and color TV. Oh, that's not enough? Copeland then sent his man out to buy up all the Dom Perignon in town, every last bottle. Take that, Morales!

Morales has a weightier problem: He was indicted March 13 by a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale—named as the kingpin of a reputed drug-smuggling operation out of Colombia. Also, the government alleges that he owes $1.5 million in back taxes for '80 and '81. He's now free on a $2 million bond.

Lounging in his limo, Morales wearily referred to his "troubles." He had been indicted once before on similar charges. "I'm completely, 100 percent innocent," he said. The first case was dropped by the government, he says, and he claims the same thing will happen again. "Look," Morales said, "if those charges were true, would the judge let me go around free like this on just my signature on a bond? This one, too, will go away, like the other one."

One more cocktail party and it was Saturday, showdown time. The day turned up in basic Key West bright, with predictions of two-to four-foot seas and a 10-knot wind out of the East-Northeast.

It was a good day for cats. First lap around, Popeyes was blasting along with a 15-second lead over Morales's MerCruiser Special, with Morales just starting to experience his run-or-sink problems. And on a 17-mile leg into some of the meanest water around, Copeland poured it on until, rounding Smith's Shoal in terrible seas, Popeyes suddenly took off in a 40-to 50-foot leap, perhaps seven feet out of the water. "We were running really hard," Copeland said later, "maybe, oh, 115 miles an hour." The splat of the landing made them all a bit more reflective, and from then on they ran at 75% throttle. Copeland still won handily, averaging 80.15 mph, with MerCruiser falling ever farther behind. Morales finished third behind Stiletto, a 42-foot Cougar cat, and 14 minutes, 39 seconds behind Copeland. Still, the final point total was 675 for Morales to 654 for Copeland. Only 15 of Saturday's 40 starters finished; it was a big day for the marine salvage business.

Copeland had invited retired champion Rocky Aoki of Benihana fame to ride aboard Popeyes, and halfway through the race Copeland said, "We suddenly overtook this big old pelican. Whap! He hit the tip of the bow, and then he came sliding right up the length of the whole deck until he hit the wind deflector. I mean, he was really ticked off" about it. And we kept swatting at him with our hands, trying to get him off and still not crash the damn boat. And the pelican kept dodging us until finally I suggested to Rocky that he get out his cleavers—you know, like they use at Benihana—and chop that critter up into serving-size pieces. And with that, the bird took off."

And after much hugging and back-slapping on the docks, Copeland and Morales took off to their respective limos, uncorked the champagne and headed off for the next party. It's still going on, even as you read this.



Morales powered his MerCruiser Special to victory in two races to win the crown.



In the concurrent battle of the limos, Morales made his moves with a white stretch number.



Patti Copeland puckered up for husband Al, who had the fastest boat in the final.