Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Cat's Meow At Key West

Swashbuckling George Morales drove his catamaran to win the World Offshore Championship

Last week's American Power Boat Association finale, the World Offshore Championships, held on the clear green waters off Key West, Fla., had just about as much as the imagination could stand. On Tuesday, the first day of racing, the 38-foot, five-ton catamaran Still Crazy was crushed by a wave, killing its two-man crew; two more crewmen were thrown from their boats by the treacherously confused seas. On the second day, Thursday, the water got rougher; two more racers were tossed into the sea, and the 46-foot Cougar deep V called Flap Jack was damaged by a wave and sank as it was being towed back to shore. On the third and final day, Saturday, there was a hull-to-hull shootout at 100 miles an hour, a Superboat duel between two '80s-style Wild West characters: a flamboyant Cajun chicken king vs. a genial Colombian under indictment for drug smuggling.

For the tragic opening round, squalls had stirred up the seas so a more protected, 74.6-mile "storm course" was used, but even that wasn't enough to save Still Crazy. Dick Fullam, 47, of West Springfield, Mass., a former linebacker in the CFL, and his throttleman, Mike Poppa, 39, of Sarasota, Fla., died when Still Crazy smashed into the thick of a wave at about 90 mph. "The boat just vanished," said a witness who had watched from a helicopter. "There was a big splash, and then nothing."

Superboats, which are permitted unlimited engine size, are the APBA's spectacular black sheep. They are unrecognized by the International Motorboating Union, which considers the leviathans of the outrageously expensive American class an anomaly, if not a monstrosity. The splashiest of them is the 50-foot, four-engined bright yellow aluminum Cougar catamaran Popeyes. It was the first of the breed in 1983 and has won 15 of its 23 races.

The boat is owned and driven by Al Copeland, 41, founder and president of Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken & Biscuits, which has grown from one chicken stand in New Orleans 13 years ago to an empire of more than 500 outlets worldwide today. The name was borrowed from Popeye Doyle, the drug buster admired by Copeland and played by Gene Hackman in The French Connection. This year Popeyes the cat had carried Copeland, throttleman Bill Sirois, who prepares the boat, and navigator Stan Ware to a second APBA championship, winning four of six races. But Popeyes has been jinxed in Key West; the boat broke down in both the '83 and '84 world championships.

Playing Bluto was Copeland's black-bearded archrival, George Morales, a.k.a. the Mad Man from Miami. A naturalized Colombian, Morales operates Aviation Activities, a flying service out of Opa-Locka, Fla. Unfazed by Al's Lamborghini and Rolls, Morales, in red slacks and red suede shoes, cruised around town behind the darkly tinted windows of his white Lincoln stretch limo, which has a black No. 13 on the door. Thirteen is Morales's racing number, which he likes because it's spooky. "I go against the odds all the time," he says. Morales is currently under indictment for drug smuggling and tax evasion. "The government's case is based all on informants, and they are wrong," he says. "I'm ready to go to trial when they are."

In the first round at Key West, Popeyes' steering broke and Morales took first in his Cougar catamaran Maggie's MerCruiser Special (Maggie is his wife). But on Thursday, on the storm course again, the spinach can appeared for Popeyes, and the huge yellow cat rebounded with a sock to Bluto's jaw. Although both boats had engine problems, they finished first and third. The stage was set for Saturday's showdown.

Six Superboats started the race, long, deadly stilettos charging out of Key West harbor, chased by a battery of helicopters reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. Popeyes, the grinning mug of Popeye the sailor painted on the boat's hull, burst into the lead after a mile. Copeland led Morales around the first turn, with Gentry Eagle, a 46-foot deep V, a close third as they came back into the harbor after the first lap of the 138.7-mile race, again on the storm course. Popeyes and Maggie's MerCruiser sped into the harbor side by side, and the sun-drenched spectators stacked on the docks, shore and hotel terraces screamed at the show. "We were just playing with Popeyes, letting him do what he wanted to do," said Morales later.

Back out at sea, Popeyes and Maggie's skipped through the three-to-five-foot swells at 100 miles per hour; together they were 14 tons of boat with eight engines and 6,000 horsepower. Suddenly, Morales slowed to 70 with engine trouble, and Copeland raced on, glancing over his shoulder, undoubtedly with a smile.

The race was Copeland's for almost an hour, as Gentry Eagle dropped out and Morales's engine overheated, causing a fire. Navigator Dennis Martin extinguished it, and Morales split his pants climbing out of the driver's seat—"We were ready to yump [sic]," he would explain later.

But fortune smiled on Morales and frowned on Copeland; Maggie's MerCruiser's engine kicked back in and Popeyes blew a propeller drive at about the same time. Still, Copeland might have held on to his lead to the finish, but on the fourth lap, Popeyes blew an engine. Morales, running strong again, sped by, the bold gold lettering on the cat's hull proclaiming 83 WORLD CHAMPIONS 84. Now he'll have to add 85 in gold; Maggie's cruised home in one hour and 50 minutes at 75.654 mph average speed.

"What can I say?" said three-time loser Copeland. "He's a lucky sonofagun, I'll tell ya."



After a rough week on the water, Morales had a tender moment with his wife, Maggie, for whom his boat (left) is named.