One of the high points of my life has been being able to “hang out” with people that I admire. I was fortunate to arrive in Miami at the very inception of offshore racing, 1956. I thought that it was damned decent of them to wait for me. The early “heavy hitters” in offshore included Sam Griffith, Dick Bertram, Forrest Johnson, Howard Hibbert, Gordon Hoover (First person to finish, then win, an offshore race in a fiberglass boat. Jimmy Wynne (in those days, no beard, no money), Bob Cox, Ed Joyce, Bob Collins, Jim Rathmann, the noted Indy driver, Howard Abbey, Tommy Gore and other equally unknown players. Except for a couple of poorly attended races to Havana, not much was going on in the fast offshore boat world since the war. That situation ended on May 6, 1956, when Sam Griffith and Dick Bertram drank beer and napped for 183 miles in 9 hours, 23 minutes, to set the standard for offshore racing in the first ever Miami to Nassau powerboat race. Just a side note, they were travelling the perfect speed to troll for Wahoo.
Macho men had pent up desires for fun and adventure that had lain dormant during the war years, and the run to Nassau, while now comical to our 200 MPH, 50 foot catamarans, awoke a spirit of adventure that died just the other day. “Pshaw!” said every person on the globe who owned a boat faster than 20MPH. “I could beat them sonsabitches”. At this point, 1956, nobody had a real, dedicated offshore race boat. Sports writers perked up a bit, having the ‘low hanging fruit’ of Miami offshore racing and its characters. Then, as now, you could hardly shut the bastards up! Yippee! Something to print! The public was hungry for some peacetime heroes, and the first two would be Sam Griffith and Dick Bertram. Seas were much larger back then, men were tougher, and boats were lousier, all but one of them made of treewood, for God’s sake.
Organizing an international offshore power boat race was a major undertaking, even then, and few volunteers stepped forward. A simple race like the Miami-Nassau, at 183 statute miles, required the check/patrol boats to be on station for 48 hours! Don’t laugh, the third place finisher in the 1960 Miami-Nassau Race took 28 hours 25 minutes to finish the course. That was Bob Cox, later the Ft. Lauderdale Mayor, and Ed Joyce, boat nut, in an 18 foot Thunderbird outboard. They won the outboard class.
We began to attract a few foreign entries who decided to get their feet wet (Har!) in offshore adventure. Soon, we had Renato “Sonny” Levi, my personal hero, Don “Bignose” Shead, Lord Beaverbrook (Sir Max Aitken, Spitfire Ace in the Battle of Britain). Tommy Sopwith, of the aviation family, and several others. No disrespect to Sir Max. He was a great supporter of offshore on both sides of the pond, and except for him and his ilk, Britain would likely be speaking German (which might be easier to understand, come to think of it). It is just his official, historical (hysterical) moniker, “Lord Beaverbrook”. In my younger days, I was known as “Lord Beaverbreath”. Coincidence? I dunno. Of all the “furriners” who came over play with us, none was smarter, handsomer and more competitive than Sonny Levi.
Sonny could draw an airplane or a boat, led the boating world in innovative designs, built dozens of fast boats for royalty, crooked politicians, and the Military, but best of all, he was the most interesting man in the world. He made Cary Grant look like Don Knotts. He spoke several languages, dined at the highest level (actually used ALL of the utensils at his place setting), and steered conversations around effortlessly. I have actually seen ladies’ undergarments drop off during a conversation with Sonny. “Ohhhh, Renato, you are sooooo charming! Oops!” In the first half of his life, he enjoyed a Playboy’s reputation. He built boats for, and partied with, the likes of Aly Khan, the Kings of all the European/Mid Eastern countries, and movie stars. He honed that craft to an extremely fine edge, and kept it ready to strike at a moment’s notice by taking a shot at every beautiful woman that he encountered.
To wit: April, 1965, Evening, Nassau, Bahamas. Don Aronow had just won the Miami-Nassau powerboat race. The Prize Giving was just commencing in a great hall, with one very long, narrow table with seats on either side. It was a rather formal affair, with jackets, etc. Renato was gliding about with a glass of Champagne in on hand, and the undivided attention of some miscellaneous beauty in the other. Since he had used same line on several of the more beautiful attendees, a half dozen of them followed him about, reciting the lines with him, causing much cajolery. On my side of the table, I sat next to Christina Shand-Kydd, maybe the most beautiful woman on the planet. Next to her was her hubby, Billy Shand-Kydd, soon to be Lady Di’s uncle, then Lord Lucan, then Christina’s sister, Lucan’s wife. Directly across the table from Christina (Not by accident, just guessing) was a smiling Renato Levi. As the prize giving droned on, and the mandatory Goombay Smash or Pina Colada drink every ten minutes, it was a noisy, fun loving crowd. Billy Shand-Kydd was just on his way back to the table with his trophy, when Christina elbowed me and pointed toward her nether regions (Best nether regions ever!), where an extremely well manicured shoeless foot with a dark blue Italian stocking was poking about. Across the table, one could only see Sonny’s grinning face from the chin up. Billy caught on to the situation, and tapped me on the arm. Without a word, we grabbed Sonny’s feet (I had the one with the shoe) and we pulled him, feet first under the table. Now he was on his back, under the table. Everyone near us poured his or her drink into Sonny’s pant legs. We tied them off with table napkins, and righted Sonny, just as they called his name for the Visitor’s Prize. With a gallon of Goombay Smash in each pant leg, Sonny won the day. He gave an excellent congratulation to Don, thanked the Hosts, and walked regally back to his seat, to thunderous applause!