Although it officially started in the early 1900’s, offshore powerboat racing as we know it today didn’t really blossom into the modern era until the 1950’s and ‘60’s with the advent of the deep-V hull design. That kickstarted a new trend and the ability to go faster in open waters. Soon after, the creation of races like the famous Miami-Nassau Race and the awarding of the Sam Griffith Memorial Trophy became mainstream events.
Offshore powerboat racing expanded when wooden boats morphed into fiberglass hulls. Offshore catamarans became increasingly faster and races moved closer to shore into calmer water. This dramatically improved spectator appeal as wealthy elitists got hooked on the thrills of running on the edge between adrenalin and disaster. As offshore powerboat racing moved into the 70's and 80's speeds increased even more, making it one of the most dangerous sports for accidents, injuries, and death.
Don Johnson did not grow up boating. He was born in Flat Creek, Missouri and raised in poverty in Wichita, Kansas to very young parents. After years of trying to make it as a stage and film actor, in 1984 he landed a starring role as undercover police detective Sonny Crockett in the TV series Miami Vice.
Johnson became the epitome of 'cool' for the era with athletic good looks, a gravelly voice, and permanent stubble growth. He wore expensive suits over pastel T-shirts and expensive loafers with no socks while chasing criminals in his Ferrari or Lamborghini. All while living on a yacht in Miami Harbour. Miami Vice ran for 111 episodes from 1984 to 1990 and made Johnson a major international star.
These were also the halcyon days of the famous (or infamous) Thunderboat Row on NE 188th Street in North Miami. It was home to offshore racing legend Don Aronow, who was murdered there in 1987 during the height of Miami Vice popularity. There, on that street, were many of the offshore boats Aronow created -- Formula, Donzi, Magnum, and Cigarette, as well as other brands including Apache, Panther, Cougar, and Nova. Miami Vice played on the mystique and legends of offshore boats and their “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” usage by the illegal drug trade.
A 39-foot Chris-Craft Scorpion was first used by Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) in Miami Vice, but by the second season it was replaced with a Wellcraft Scarab 38 KV (Kevlar-reinforced) offshore boat with a radar arch and a fancy paint scheme. Johnson expressed interest and was taught how to drive the boat, eventually taking the helm in most of the show's action-packed sequences. It had a pair of very conservative and almost indestructible 454 MerCruiser 330-horsepower sterndrive engines with beefy TRS outdrives. Top speed may have been around 70 mph. Johnson eventually procured one for himself and named it My Vice. He often drove to “work” in it.
In those days of offshore racing, there was a minimum requirement of two persons per boat, but in most cases three people were employed for an offshore race. This of course was prior to GPS. The most important job was the throttleman who “read” the water immediately ahead of the boat and handled the throttles, the drive trim, and the trim tabs. There was a driver whose sole job it was to steer the boat.
The third person on board was the navigator, who looked ahead and typically pointed to the driver which way to go to for the next turn marker. The navigator also kept an eye on gauges, counted the laps, and kept an eye on competitor’s boats and reported the info to the driver and throttleman. GPS made the navigator’s job redundant. Oftentimes, the owner of a boat became its driver, and a throttleman was hired for each race or for a season. Good throttlemen, then as now, were highly sought after and well paid.
The mid-1980’s were heady days for Wellcraft in terms of retail sales and in offshore racing, too. In 1986, just two years after Johnson set foot in an offshore-style boat, he drove Wellcraft’s new 43-foot Scarab V-bottom in an 1100 mile race up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis. My recently passed friend Gus Anastasi who was head of high performance for Wellcraft at the time, throttled while Johnson drove. The team won by a fair margin and Anastasi praised Johnson for his aggressive and fearless attitude.
This was the first of several major victories for Johnson. He loved the feeling of the power and acceleration of offshore-style boats. It was around this time that Johnson worked with Wellcraft to design the luxurious (for an offshore-style boat) 43-foot Scarab Don Johnson Signature Edition equipped with triple 420-hp MerCruiser engines with TRS outdrives. It was in one of these models that I was credited as the Stunt Boat Driver in the feature length movie FX2 starring Bryan Brown and Brian Dennehy.
This was a busy time for Johnson. While filming all of those Miami Vice episodes, he also starred in four feature-length movies between 1984 and 1990. Then he added offshore racing in 1986, and spent 1987 as crew on the offshore circuit. In 1988, he became the driver in the 46-foot Wellcraft Scarab Gentry Eagle V-bottom Superboat running three Gentry turbocharged engines with the brand new Kiekhaefer Aeromarine Surface-running outdrives. The throttleman was a Wellcraft favourite and highly experienced Bill Sirois. The navigator was Wellcraft’s Gus Anastasi.
Superboat is the highest (and fastest and most expensive) class in offshore racing. It is sanctioned worldwide in all its forms by the UIM (Union of International Motonautique), which further sanctions the APBA (American Power Boat Association) for all powerboat racing in North America, and which itself then further sanctions all forms of powerboat racing in Canada through the CBF (Canadian Boating Federation). The APBA Superboat Class, at that time, allowed any boat, V-bottom or catamaran, from 35 to 50 feet and up to four engines totaling up to 2,000 CID (Cubic Inch Displacement).
Under APBA rules for offshore racing, wins and points accumulated throughout the season allowed the boat with the most points to claim National Champion. The World Championships consisted of three separate races over a one-week period and the accumulator of the most points in those three races became the World Champion. APBA boats qualifying for the World Championships needed to have entered three races on the circuit during the season. For most of the past 40 or so years, with a few exceptions, the week of World Championship offshore racing has been held at Key West, Florida in November.
Johnson had had some luck on the season’s circuit but had not won a race. So it was that in November, 1988, Johnson and his team took second place in Tuesday’s and Saturday’s race at the Key West World Championships, but won Thursday’s race, giving him just enough points to squeak by Tom Gentry’s own boat, the 50-foot Gentry Turbo Eagle catamaran powered by four Gentry turbocharged 850-horsepower engines that had won the finale race on Saturday. Gentry was driving. Throttleman was Richie Powers. These were the only two Superboats to finish the finale race as both of Al Copeland’s Popeye's Chicken Superboats dropped out with mechanical issues. Johnson and his teammates were crowned World Superboat Champions and Johnson received the Top Driver award.
Johnson was kept busy filming for most of the 1989 racing season but having seen what Gentry’s catamaran could do, Johnson wanted one himself for the 1989 season. “Team USA” was exactly that boat – a 50-foot Revenge catamaran and one of the first to employ carbon fiber in its build. The boat was finished, tested, and dialed in just weeks before the APBA World Offshore Championships being held that year in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The event was title sponsored by the Trump Castle Casino. Donald, his then-wife Ivana, and their superyacht, The Trump Princess, were all watching throughout the week.
Johnson was the driver, Jonathan Sadowsky, the builder of the boat was navigator, and together with four-time world champion and arguably the best and winningest throttleman of all time at that point, Richie Powers, a friend of mine and one of the true gentlemen on the circuit, they set off to secure the 1989 Superboat championship.
Johnson had no experience with catamarans as all of his limited experience to that point was in V-bottoms. This new boat had four 800-horsepower engines with Mercury Racing outdrives to deliver the power. It was a handful, but Johnson apparently took it all in stride under the steadying and unflappable influence of the experienced and soft-spoken Richie Powers.
There were a handful each of catamarans and 46-foot Apache V-bottoms in the Superboat class. The water off the New Jersey coast was rough. Charles Marks in his Gentry Eagle cat, Eric’s Reality, the 1989 National Superboat Champion and winner of the 1988 Trump Castle race was there and was odds-on favourite. Pete Markey in the standout colourful Little Caesar’s Pizza 46-foot Apache Superboat, and who had placed second to Marks throughout the 1989 season, was also there to challenge defending World Champion Don Johnson.
Johnson and his Team USA were running in third place most of the race when mechanical issues brought an end to their hopes of repeating as world champions. Race leader Charles Marks in the Gentry Eagle led until the final lap when mechanical issues slowed them down, allowing Pete Markey in the V-bottom Little Caesar’s Pizza to take the 1989 Superboat checkered flag and the World Championship.
Johnson entered several more races in 1991, but his film career took precedence and he soon retired from offshore racing altogether. He went on to star in the hugely successful television series Nash Bridges in the mid-90's, as well as in many more movies, a couple of successful record albums including a hit single with his lady friend at the time, Barbra Streisand. Johnson has his star of course on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.