Don Aronow sold two year old Formula Marine Corp. to Merrick Lewis and Alliance Machine Company in April, 1964. Alliance Machine owned Thunderbird Boat Company. They built tri-hulled family boats, called ‘cathedrals’ that were designed by Dick Cole. Dick is high on my list of favorite characters. He was the most successful (money) of any small boat designer, and had taken the time to teach me the rudiments of naval architecture. His most endearing quality, however, was his ability to fart “God save the Queen” on command. Cole and I did the European boat show tour a couple times, but that’s another story….
Aronow had commissioned Wynne and Walters (mostly Walters) to design some new boats, 16 through 35 feet, for a new company. He kept most of the crew from Formula to man the new company, which was to be called “Donzi”, a rude reference to Don’s sexuality. The crew included Dave Stirrat, Buddy Smith, Jake Trotter, Roy Farmer and secretary/lunch toy, Mary Ann Mossa. Don was forced to include our pal, Stu Jackson, in the sale of Formula, and Stu became the sales manager of the new company, Thunderbird/Formula. Lacking a sales manager for the new company, he made me a deal that I should have refused. I was General Manager of Challenger Marine, in North Miami, Fl. Challenger was the biggest Formula dealer, and one of the biggest Chris Craft, Boston Whaler and Johnson outboard dealers. We built small fiberglass boats, a 16’ outboard, and the Moth class sailboat. We had a manicured 7 1⁄2 acre marina that was kept spotless, and aspired to the highest ideals and morals of the boat industry. My background as an elementary school practice teacher and outboard mechanic made me perfectly suited to run the multi-million dollar company. Aronow asked me to join the new company in May, ’64, but Challenger owner, Dudley Whitman, was going surfing in Hawaii through August with his kids, and I agreed to stay until then. I worked the night shift at Donzi for free….
When Aronow came to Miami, he brought his fishing and diving boat, a 32’ Petersen Viking, built in Joisy. We launched it for him, and did the maintenance. Pain in the ass customer. We became friends, and spent lots of time together. Don was really a lot of fun. He was handsome, funny, tall, dark, and smart as a whip. I raced on the Formula Racing Team with him, and it seemed natural that I would race on the new Donzi team. Little did I know that I had signed up for a twelve hour, seven day a week job. We were building four 28’ Donzi race boats, and the first 19’ Donzi Hornet model for me to race in addition to tooling the stock models. We all worked like dogs, and loved every minute of it. It was easy to see how Don had been so successful in his business up north. Thinking back, I guess Don may have coined the slogan, “Promise her anything, give her Arpege…”
November, 1964, showed up early that year, and we had to double our efforts in order to finish all the boats. We had a 28’ with twin Daytona Turbocharged (Troublecharged ?) V8’s on vee drives, one with the same engines driving a single propeller (Later to be my Ford powered Miami-Nassau winner), one with a single Detroit Diesel 650HP, and one with a pair of 427 Ford Interceptors on vee drives. My little Hornet had a 427 Interceptor on a 1958 Pontiac 4-speed manual transmission! Rules required forward, neutral, and reverse, and no standard marine transmission could stand the gaff. The Hornet was the fastest and most dangerous boat in the race. Side note: In later years, I sold a Crusader 427 powered 19’ Hornet to my friend, Tom Otto. Tom brought it to Donzi Marine for service. He came into my office and I asked him how his wife liked the boat. (He had been worried that she would hate it) “She loved it! She even kissed it!” We walked together out to the boat lift, and I noticed that the left side of the windscreen was missing, and that there was a lipstick streak leading from the left seat to the water. Uhoh!
Inauspicious debut at Key West. Manson won again (Jack, not Charles). The big boats had teething problems, and mine dove into the back of a big wave and nearly broke my neck, and finished my co-pilot’s racing career. We finished, last. Well, crap! We fight better uphill. Aronow sold the Ford powered 28 Donzi to Billy Wishnick, who had raced on the Formula racing team, and assigned me to crew it for him. Billy renamed the boat “Broad Jumper”. My lucky day. Billy is right up there with Dick Cole on my most admired list. The Daytona powered boats were much faster, at 60MPH, but the Fords always finished, at 51MPH, and usually outlasted the other guys (and girls).
Our first race together was to be the second annual Sam Griffith Memorial Race, in February, 1965. We fluffed the boat up as best we could, and I took Billy out for some driving lessons in the big pond. He clearly had not yet developed the coordination to successfully pull the throttles back when in the air, and reengage them upon landing. He liked to drive with both hands on the wheel, and I couldn’t reach his throttles. Finally, he said “You drive, and I will watch and learn”. The tachometer needles were bent like the little sickles on the Russian flag. The crew was to be me, Billy, and great all-around boat guy, Davey Wilson. On race day, Billy’s brother Jack showed up to join us in the tiny cockpit. What could possibly go wrong?
The fleet for the race was small, but top notch. Bertram, Manson, the other 28’ Donzi’s, Weiler, Merrick Lewis, Dick Genth, Carl Moesly, Forrest Johnson, Bob Collins, the Jacoby girls, and some boob who bought my Hornet. The wind was brisk, out of the west, which made it smooth near the Miami Beach shoreline on the first leg, from Miami to Fort Lauderdale. There was a following sea from Lauderdale to Bimini, a huge beam sea on the starboard from Bimini to Cat Cay, and a big head sea from Cat Cay back to Miami and the finish line. We started the race near downtown Miami, at the end of Government cut, and headed out sea. Our crew was crammed in the cockpit, with me on the portside at the controls, Billy, Davey, then Jack on the starboard side. No problem until we got to Bimini. Boats did not have trim tabs in those days, and if they listed one way or the other, they just did. We did have some control over longitudinal trim. We had a water ballast tank in the bow that, when filled, moved the trim center further forward, and allowed a much higher speed in a head sea. When we cleared the jetties at Government Cut, we were running about 15th. The lighter, faster boats had their fun for the first half of the race. As we headed north, to Ft. Lauderdale, I stayed further offshore, to let the rougher water break us loose. It seemed to work, as we arrived at Lauderdale in fourth place. By the time we reached the “hump”, in the middle of the Gulfstream, we passed the leader, Sam Sarra, in the little 23’ Formula “Holocaust”, with two 327 Turbo Daytonas on one propeller. He gestured that we were in first place with finger signals.
We were all ecstatic. None of us had ever led an International race, and we were eating it up. Manson was now running second in the big 48’ Diesel, “Allied Marine Special”, which had won the two previous Miami-Key West races. He was going to be a problem on the run from Cat Cay to Miami, in the big head seas. We ran wide open, trying to put as big a gap as possible between us and Manson. When we turned the corner at Bimini, we were running in the troughs of 6 or 7 footseas. With the west wind, the boat leaned to Jack’s side, and we all occasionally piled on top of him. Didn’t take long for Jack to break a rib in the uncushioned cockpit. At exactly the same time, my hearing apparently went, and I was unable to hear him scream. Unfortunately, Billy, who was one person closer, did hear him and ordered me to stop. NFW. I offered to slow a little, and put Jack off on the check boat, “Conch Pearl” at Cat Cay. Billy okayed that plan. When we pulled up to the Conch Pearl to let Jack off, he was helped to the engine cover deck by Billy and Davey. I asked if he was spitting any blood. “No”. I reached over and pushed him overboard, right near the swim platform of the Conch Pearl. Last I saw, he was giving us the closed fist “Go get ‘em!” sign as he floated in the shark infested waters.
It was now do or die, regarding Manson. He was in sight, a mile or so behind, but he could run wide open in those head seas, no problem. We couldn’t, or at least, shouldn’t. We threw the lever to fill the water ballast tank, and shoved the throttles forward, We could run on the tops of the crests, sometimes 8 or 10 in a row, but then we would miss, and just catch a wave with the back of the boat, and dive through the next one. About the third time we did that, Manson was right alongside. Sonofabitch was eating a sandwich, and steering with one hand! We were just getting up from our meeting place on the floor. I looked at Billy, not wishing to kill the goose that was going lay lots of golden eggs. He jumped up and said “I’d rather die than let that MF beat us!” That was all I wanted to hear. We ran wide open all the way to the finish line. The seas got smoother toward the shore, and I put Billy behind the wheel, and wiped the blood off his face for the pictures. We were probably the three happiest guys on the planet. Amazing fact about the race: “Miss Amazon”, a 31’ wooden Prowler race boat crewed by mother-daughter team of Gale and Rene’ Jacoby, who were racing along Miami Beach when an engine hatch jumped out of its hole, and allowed a nylon dock line to fall in. The line found the spinning propeller shaft, and wrapped itself around it like a snake. When the line became taut, it jerked the plank out of the bottom of boat, and sent the girls surfing and sinking onto the beach.