Miami to New York: Drama on the high seas and the high court

Powerboat racers’ personalities can be as colorful as their boats. That was especially true in the 1980s when business tycoons, TV stars and even members of the crime world vied for records and titles.

In 1921, legendary boat builder Gar Wood set the speed record from Miami to New York to prove the dependability of gasoline-powered boats. The trip took 47 hours and 15 minutes over five days. Sixty-four years later, Ben Kramer, fresh off his 1985 APBA Class II International Championship win, decided that he and throttleman Bob Saccenti were going to set a record in order to win the Motor Boating & Sailing Magazine Chapman Trophy.

Al Copeland of the Popeye’s Chicken boat, a three-time superboat champion, challenged Kramer with a $100,000 bet, which was promptly countered by Tom Gentry and Sandy Satullo, 1976 and 1975 world champions, respectively. Then George Morales, two-time world superboat champion, wanted in, but ran into trouble when sanctioning authorities denied his entry due to pending legal charges on drug smuggling and income tax evasion.

However, the race committee yielded when the Columbian threatened to file suit. Providing further intrigue to Morales’ entry was his boat: a 46-foot Cougar catamaran – the only cat in the race – powered by four 635hp MerCruiser engines. The boat was aptly named Maggie’s MerCruiser Special.

After much drama regarding starting dates and times, the 1,257-mile race started with three boats – Popeye’s Diet Coke, Gentry Eagle and Maggie’s MerCruiser Special.

Morales, who arrived at the race wearing a jumpsuit embroidered with “Miami New York Champion,” stood up to that claim. After 19 hours, 31 minutes and 20 seconds he claimed the win, the $500,000 purse and the trophy. “It started with the guy who built my engines, Rick Ulrich of Mercury Marine,” Morales said following the race. “Without those engines I would not have been successful.”