In 1961, I was service manager at Challenger Marine, in North Miami, Florida. Challenger was a beautiful facility situated on Arch Creek, in the middle of nowhere. We were dealers for Chris Craft, Trojan (the boat, not the ribbed one), Boston Whaler, and Johnson outboards. These were trying times for boat yards. The Gummint had recently done away with most of the tax deductions for corporate boats and yachts. When I went to the Army in the spring of 1958, kicking and screaming, (When the Major asked if I had ever considered the violent overthrow of the United States government, I replied “Not until now!”) we had about forty painters and carpenters. All the big boats were made of tree wood, a miracle material. One could take a couple of tools into the woods, and come out with a boat! Corporations would buy a new Chris Craft cruiser in the fall, use it over the winter, and turn it in for repaint, repower, whatever. The sky was the limit.
When I returned from the wars (Stationed in NYC, I fought the battle of Broadway, took the Beanpot Bar single handed, and even scarier, I got my finger caught in a wedding band), the wood-butcher count was down to about ten. We had to work a little harder for business. We concentrated on service work, and I got promoted from outboard mechanic to service manager. One of my first customers was a tall, handsome, well tanned gentleman named Don Aronow. He was tan enough that one might suspect a woodpile malfunction. Don had just moved down from Joisy, and had sent his diving boat ”Claudia”, a 32 foot Pederson Viking skiff, to our yard for launching. Don was brutally handsome, funny, well dressed, a big tipper, and the best swordsman that I have ever met. That first day, he was dressed in a silk shirt, gabardine slacks, leather sandals, a planter’s straw hat, and smoking a Cheroot. We immediately became strangers. We were both about 6’2” and change, 225 pounds, but Don somehow had rearranged his 225 in a different pattern. He was 2 or 3 inches wider at the shoulder, and 3 or 4 inches smaller at the waist. He was very interested in offshore racing, women, money, spearfishing and having fun in general. One of his spearfishing pals was Frank Satenstein, Director of the famous “Jackie Gleason Show”, filmed every week on Miami Beach. We used to hang out there, and drink with Jackie.
Don wanted to be involved in the boat business, offshore racing, or anything that was different from being a builder in New Joisy. He moved to Bay Harbor, on Miami Beach, and drove back and forth in a new chocolate brown Rolls Royce. He told me a story about being stopped by a motorcycle cop on the Broad Causeway, connecting the mainland to the beach. The motorcycle cop, John O’Mara, said “Sir, you are fifty dollars over the speed limit.” Don gave him the fifty. Later that afternoon, O’Mara stopped him again, with the same line. Aronow said “I will bet you a twenty that I wasn’t.” O’Mara said “Sir, my pride will not allow me to accept that bet!”
Don wasted no time in gathering a circle of “boaty” friends. Dave Stirrat, Sam Sarra, Cal Connell, Howard Abbey, Jake Trotter, Buddy Smith, Stu Jackson, and several others. He was a ringleader. He decided to be a boat builder! He went to Dave Davis, at Sea Bird Boats, and bought three or four empty black 23’ vee hulls. His idea of building, at that point, was to have them covered with teak. He assembled a motley crew of boat yard guys, and put the first two boats together. When he showed them to his new friends, we hooted him off the dock. It may have been at that point that he decided to jump in with both feet.
He built a small factory on a desolate street in North Miami Beach. The factory was so far into the boonies that you could only see one other building from the dock except for Florida Wire Products across the canal, and Oolite Prestress across the street. He commissioned Jim Wynne and Walt Walters to design the Formula 233. Don showed me the plans for the boat, and asked me to get Challenger Marine to be the local dealer. No problem, as I was the General Manager at that point. The Formula was a roaring success. Don did everything against the grain of the boat business. He priced the boat double any other 23’ boat, at $7985, cut the dealer discount to point that it was impossible to discount, and put together a ten boat racing team on other people’s money! I raced on the team, and in 1964, Bertram boats finished one, two, three in the Miami-Nassau race, and the Formulas finished four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten, with me winning class two, and Jim Wynne winning class three. Merrick Lewis immediately bought the company, freeing Don to dream up another barn-burner. Wynne Walters again. This time: Donzi Marine, with me as sales manager/whipping boy.
Don had built a home in Gables Estates by then, on the most desirable lot in Florida. The home was situated on the end of a street, with the broad Biscayne Bay and Matheson Hammock on one side, and a dock in a calm canal on the other. I think it was at this point that Don discovered that he was Jewish. He started hosting Sunday afternoon brunches at the new home, sometimes for 50 or 60 people, with only Skip and Joanne Allen, of Southern Boating, and my wife and I as the token Christians. His social group was pretty much divided along the same ratio. Don did not enjoy boating. His idea of a boat was a conveyance to get to the spearfishing grounds. He realized that his friends and hangers-on were much better boaters than he, so he set out to even the score. He hired Harry Schoell to design and build a 21’ all wood runabout, and on weekends, when no one was around, he set out to be DON ARONOW! One Sunday, I was at home with my family when Don called an asked (told) me to go to the Castaways Charter Fishing docks and find a certain charter boat that he had “bumped into.” I drove over to the boat, which was backed into its slip. There were two planks missing from the top of the transom, a V notch on the starboard side of the hardtop, two hatches broken on the foredeck, and the bow rail adrift on the starboard side. Don had apparently tried to jump their huge wake, and pretty much bounced right over the boat. I agreed a cash settlement to make the incident go away. Another Sunday, Don called to tell me that the boat was parked next to Fun Fair on the 79th Street Causeway. I replied that I didn’t realize that there was a dock there. “There isn’t.”
The worst one was in the early Formula Marine days. I had a Formula 233 race boat with a 427 Ford Interceptor on a vee drive, maybe the first such setup ever. Don wanted more speed, and sent a 233 hull to Lake X to have a racing 409 Mercruiser on a #2 (Now that is a description) sterndrive. When the boat was delivered back to the Formula Marine shop at 5PM, Don, fiberglass foreman Jake Trotter, Sales Manager Stu Jackson and I just had to take it for a ride. No hand holds, engine box, padding, nothing except the engine sticking up. The controls were side mounted outboard style, single lever, and Ride-Guide steering. No power trim, so the trim angle was set by placing a rod in the proper pinhole. No trim tabs. We jumped in, and away we went. Don was driving, Jake was on the left, I was behind Don, next to the engine, kneeling and holding on to the gunwale. Stu was across the engine from me. The boat seemed noticeably faster than my vee drive model, and we were excited about the speed breakthrough, when I noticed a large Hatteras approaching from the opposite direction. He was making a 3 or 4 foot wake on glassy water. It never occurred to me that Don would not slow down. We hit the wake at about 55 MPH, went straight into the air, slowly rotated to my side down, and crashed. Stu came across the engine inverted, smashed into my neck, which was tight against the side of the boat, and landed spread eagle, upside down on the wildly spinning engine. The flame arrestor rod pierced his back two or three inches. I couldn’t hold my head up. When I got to my knees, my head was on my right shoulder, and would not move. Don drove the Mercruiser control box right through the side of the boat. I don’t know what Jake hit, but he was out like a light. Somehow we got to the Haulover fuel dock and called an ambulance. They took Jake and Stu to Hospital for a few days, and Don and I nursed the boat back to the factory. My neck responded a little, so I drove, while Don tried to stem the bleeding from his right side. We idled along, with the control box roped to side of the boat. Don looked at me and smiled. “Well, what do you think of it?”