In the 1960s and ’70s, powerboat drivers worked closely with boatbuilders like Bertram and Cigarette to develop fast boats that won races. That meant the drivers often found out what worked—and what didn’t—at dangerous speeds.
“I was one of the guinea pigs that tested the boats,” remembered Richie Powers, a top driver for Mercury Marine’s legendary Carl Kiekhaefer.
He and other racers, designers, and builders can tell some heady tales from offshore powerboat racing’s glory days. And they did just that last fall when Nick Vanoff—who is restoring a Bertram 32 (9.8m)—organized a roundtable in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In addition to Powers, the group of veterans included Alan “Brownie” Brown, Sam James, Harry Schoell, and Michael Peters. (Professional BoatBuilder’s Dan Spurr moderated the discussion and wrote about it in his story “Fast Company,” PBB No. 155.)
In the short video above (one of three clips excerpted here from the discussion), Powers shares stories from when the drivers were expected to figure out the final, race-winning touches. “Kiekhaefer would come in with some sort of oddball boat and say, ‘Okay, boys, there it is. Rig it,’” he remembers.
Being the fastest also required a willingness to check out the competition. While working for Bertram, James (who is the airborne driver in the photo at the beginning of each video) came up with 5-1/2” (140mm) strakes by measuring the strakes of a 36′ (11m) Cigarette, and making his a bit bigger—something he was not ashamed to admit.
“I wasn’t too worried; I caught Aronow measuring my strakes one time,” he says in the clip below.
Those early powerboat designers and builders weren’t just making fast boats for the time but developing ideas that have remained central to powerboat design and production 40 years on. Several members of the group wondered why it’s so hard to make similar breakthroughs in the marine industry today.
“No matter how much things have moved forward, I’d say a good 80% of what you guys did is still standard,” says Peters, who is considered one of the foremost designers of high-speed hullforms. (He was profiled in the two-part “Peters on (Fast) Powerboats” in PBB Nos. 126 and 127.)
Schoell, developer of the Delta conic hullform, asked one company, why not take advantage of the power capacity to produce a 50-mph boat instead of the existing 34-mph model? He was told they didn’t want the boats to go that fast. “They don’t think, well gee, you can pull the throttle back and not use as much fuel, you know—but that’s what you deal with sometimes,” he says.
Racing requires speed and endurance. These guys have both.