Panama City, Panama, circa 1973.
Some of the South Florida offshore racing mob were honored by General Torrijos, El Presidente for Life of Panama, with an all expense paid trip to race in Panama. Only the CIA and I knew that he had invited us down to alienate the local gentry, or peons, as we liked to call them. We had a complete airliner at our disposal, and free shipment of the boats from the Port of Miami. They made the mistake of serving huge quantities of Panamanian drinks, called Rebozos, to acclimate us to the Central American way. As I recall, the Rebozo was made from 17 kinds of local rums, a lime, the juice of a small pig, and served in a bed pan. I might be a bit fuzzy on that, but it was close to that.
On arrival in Panama, we were greeted by the top (well, close to the top) brass, including the Mayor, the Postmaster, and guys like that. Our group included Jim Breuil, El Presidente de Magnum Marine, with David Gillmore as throttleman and comedy relief. Their 27’ Magnum was powered four Mercury BP racing engines of 240 HP each. George Newman and John Heinrich had an Aronow Banana Boat, with a pair of racing Volvos (Now there is an oxymoron), and a few other local, nondescript boats that sneaked down, hoping that no one else came. Local boats included the mayor himself, Tito de Diega, in a 28’ Cigarette with straight six Mercruisers, Billy San Malo, in an 18’ Donzi, with a racing Chris Craft engine (oxymorons are coming thick and fast), and Franco Alfaro, noted cat house owner, with an open 28’ Cary with a pair of Turbo Daytonas on straight shafts. The race was to take place in paradise, literally, in the Pacific ocean 13 miles seaward of Panama City, in the Las Perlas archipelago. The main island is called Taboga. It could be the set for a movie with Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet. It has an all wooden hotel, Hotel Taboga, which is mostly decorated in rattan, flowers and plant life, lit with torches, called gringos, at night. Entertainment featured local musicians, until we arrived. The race was to start near the island, and travel out to the far end of the island chain and back.
Before the race, the boats needed to be offloaded from the ship and taken to the local yacht club, Club de Yates y Pescas, in Panama City. I took care of getting the Superstat offloaded and taken to the club. Breuil and Gillmore felt that it was necessary to investigate the local casinos and nightlife, and to see what could be done for the local gene pool. While that doesn’t sound too important, one must understand the tide situation in Panama. On the Pacific side, standard tide is 18 feet, and spring tide is 28 feet! The Yacht Club is on a creek, which at high tide is lapping at the windows of the club, threatening to float it away, and at low tide, goes out five miles. Breuil and Gillmore missed the high tide launch window, so they also missed testing and practice.
The next day, the boats had to launch very early, and travel to Taboga for the race. I got the boat launched at first light, and was prepared to take it over to the island myself, when Breuil showed up, drunk. No Gillmore. Normally, I would not give a whit whether or not someone raced, but we had special circumstances. The previous evening, we were guests of the Yacht Club for a party and drivers meeting. Lots of food and drink with the local Chimichangas. The high point of the night was the ‘Calcutta’, where one could literally buy a particular boat for the highest bid. They called up the crew of each boat, and literally “sold” them at auction. It was a sort of a side bet, with the total amount of the auction ‘buys’ put into a pool to be divided up for 1st, 2nd and 3rd overall finishes. The favorites went for big bucks, and the oxymorons went cheap. Breuil and Gillmore and a local guy bought Superstat in the Calcutta. No problem. Well, one little problem. They wanted a check or cash for the bet. The Yankee bettors had none. I was hiding under a senorita when Breuil found me and said “Hey, Pard, how about putting up a check for us until tomorrow?” “Jim, I love ya, but I’ve got about 300 bucks in my checking account”. “No problem, Pard, we will win the race and cut you in for a full share just for letting us hold the check for a few hours”. What could possibly go wrong? I wrote the check for $13,000.
Breuil and the other boats took off on their own bottoms for Taboga. I made my way to Billy San Malo’s 75 foot yacht, along with about 50 other ‘hangers-on’. One of the hangers was a major babe. She was Brazilian (Think Ipanema and dental floss) and had been lured off the plane by George Newman, who had invited her to join us and watch the race. All of her baggage was flying down to Rio. George had taken her downtown and bought her some clothes and girl stuff. He brought her to the yacht, and he and John Heinrich took their ‘Banana’ to Taboga. She was dressed in a bolero skirt, which is essentially ten yards of dark blue denim from her navel to her toes. You could smuggle a small pony under there. Panama is hot as hell in the summer. Guess who showed up for the trip… Gillmore. He was in rare form, and immediately homed in on Miss Brazil and moved in. He spoke English, French and Spanish fluently, a little jive, and pigeon Portuguese. “My dear, may I modify your beautiful skirt?” “I do not know. Meester Newman just gave it to me”. “My dear, do you not recognize me? I am Daveed of Paree, inventor of the Bolero skirt.” “Well, allrighty, then!” Gillmore went to the ship’s galley, and found a pair of lobster shears. “Close your eyes, and when you open them, you will not only be cool, but you will be the center of attention”. He wasn’t kidding. I can’t tell you how high he trimmed the skirt, but there was enough denim left over to make a cockpit cover for the yacht. When we reached shore in the islands, Gillmore and Newman fought to the death over the honor of Miss Brazil, much like a couple of nine year old girls might. They finally got tired of rolling around in the sand, and discovered that someone else had run off with her anyway. All in all, it was a pretty nice trip up to that point.
Breuil pulled up to the dock and dropped the bomb: “It’s only running on three engines, Pard!” Uhoh. I figured that I had one shot at avoiding a Panamanian dungeon, with the local guards, called mojitos having their way with me twice a day. I had to get that other engine running! I started barking orders to Breuil, Gillmore, our friend, Freddy Seymour, and anyone else in earshot to try to save myself and my virginity. We removed spark plugs, wires, coils, called Nuvarings by the locals, and other suspect ignition parts in order to isolate the problem. On reassembly, we couldn’t find the sparkplug wires. “Gillmore! Where the hell are the spark plug wires?” “I dropped them overboard”. It was 40 centavos deep. We hired a pearldiver to get them. On reassembly, no luck. Ten minutes later, the race roared off, with Superstat on three engines and two drunks. I don’t scare that easy, but I was petrified. I listened to the race on Spanish radio, comforted only by Miss Brazil. My Spanish is pretty much limited to Desi and Lucy terms. “You guys got a lot of splaining to do!” At the far turn, the race was led by the Mayor, with San Malo second and the Cary third. No Superstat. Carajo! I tried to find something to drink. I finally found a native bar with a bottle of 151 rum and a coke. No ice. No problem. After a couple of drinks, I settled down on the beach to await my fate, peering seaward. A couple more rums, and I was actually feeling jaunty. I heard a mighty noise behind me, and discovered that I had been facing the wrong way. Zoom! First place: The Mayor, Zoom! Second place: Billy San Malo. Zoom! Third place: Superstat by a nose. The Calcutta paid $13,500 for third place!
Gillmore had partially sobered up and we set up camp on the beach with Miss Brazil, watching the local juevos rancheros splashing in the surf. I poured long strong ones all around. After a couple of hours they called everyone to the Hotel Taboga grand ballroom for the awards ceremony. We still had a third of a bottle of 151 rum. “Gilly, what shall we do with the rum?” “Hell, lets drink it”. The Grand Ballroom was straight out of “Casablanca”. Six giant rattan tables for 60 people each covered with fruit, flowers, Champagne and such. Much speech giving by the officials and tyrants, with only Gilly and I shouting “Ole!” occasionally. By the time the meal was served, there were five tables with eighty people each, and one with two Americans. General Torrijos leaned over to his aide, Miss Brazil, and said “See, I told you so”.