'Tis the season for a variety of boats and folks to hit the water at top speed.
By TERRY TOMALIN and DAVE ELLIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jay Pilini remembers his first poker run.
"Ten years ago, when they were new, and you'd only get a dozen or so boats show up," said Pilini, whose high-performance Spectre catamarans cater to recreational boaters who feel the need for speed. "Now poker runs are major events ... people come from all over the country and make a vacation out of it."
The St. Petersburg-based Offshore Power Boat Association hosted a one-day run Saturday from Tierra Verde to Sarasota. The 50 or so boaters stopped and picked up playing cards at various locations along the way, and at the end of the day, the boat with the best hand was declared the winner.
"It is a real family type event," said Pilini, whose Clearwater-shop also builds race boats. "It is a great way for people to get together and have some fun on the water."
Poker run boats aren't cheap. Spectre's base model costs more than $100,000 and can go as high as $300,000.
"There are plenty of people willing to pay," Pilini said. "Up north, they only get to boat three months out of the year, so when that first poker run of the season rolls around, people are ready to go, check in hand."
Stewart Jones of the Pompano Beach-based Florida Powerboat Club began hosting poker runs and rallies in 1992.
"We did six events that first year," Jones said. "Now we do two a month. People love these events that feature destination and adventure as a theme. We go all over Florida and the Bahamas. I'd say the average boat price for our members is $300,000."
PERFORMANCE BOATS: The performance boat market makes up about 3.8 percent of the total boat sales in the United States. But that translates to roughly $435-million out of $11-billion in sales, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
"Small boats seem to be getting bigger," said Mark LaPrade of St. Petersburg's Thunder Marine. "Mid-sized boats 23 to 35 feet are up.
"A lot of people are buying boats just to run around or take on poker runs. They don't want a livewell or microwave. They just want to go fast. These are the same folks who might buy a Corvette or Porsche."
OFFSHORE RACING: Thunder Marine is the top Baja dealer in the world, and the powerboat manufacturer has joined forces with the St. Petersburg American Power Boat Association Offshore to produce a new 25-foot, entry-level race boat.
"We hope the new E-class will help build the sport," APBA Offshore Chairman Michael Allweiss said. "The boat is affordable -- you can get into one for $60,000 to $80,000 -- and we think that these identically prepared boats, running similar speeds in a controlled environment, will create an ideal environment for new people trying offshore racing."
Allweiss said no E-class boats will be racing in Daytona this weekend when the APBA Offshore kicks off its 2002 season. But he expects 80 boats, including Hugh Fuller's World Champion Drambuie on Ice, to hit the race in the traditionally rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Fuller, from Clearwater, and teammate John Tomlinson, from Miami, set several records last year in the Super Cat class and are expected to be the team to beat. After Daytona, the tour will head to Marathon in the Florida Keys, then Cape Cod, Cleveland, Corpus Christi, Texas, Savannah, Ga., Atlantic City, N.J., and back to the St. Petersburg area for the national championships.
Officials with the racing circuit said no deal has been signed with the City of St. Petersburg to bring the races back to The Pier. Industry insiders say the tour might move the nationals to St. Pete Beach.
OPEN-OCEAN SAILING: The Regatta del Sol al Sol, also known as the St. Petersburg to Isla Mujeres race, starts at 10 a.m. today at The Pier.
If you are near the the Sunshine Skyway, the fastest boats will pass beneath the bridge at 11:15 a.m. and the slowest around 12:30 p.m.
The 456-mile race, sponsored every year by the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, is one of the last great open-ocean challenges in the United States.
Twenty-seven boats are registered, and the classes include spinnaker, non-spinnaker and true cruising. There is only one multihull entered, so it has no class designation.
Among the largest boats will be the 78-foot Fazizi, which once competed in the Whitbread Around the World Race. The smallest boat attempting the crossing will be Allen Davidson's Jackal, a Morgan 30.
The biggest challenge will be the waters off Yucatan with their northerly current in a north wind. The second biggest challenge: getting the boat home after the race.
The Offshore Power Boat Association: www.opbafl.org
The Florida Powerboat Club: www.flpowerboat.org
The American Power Boat Association Offshore: www.apbaoffshore.com
The St. Petersburg Yacht Club: www.spyc.org
Clearwater's Hugh Fuller, driver for the Super Cat team Drambuie on Ice, hopes to add another victory to his resume when the American Power Boat Association Offshore Tour kicks off its 2002 season this weekend in Daytona Beach. Fuller was the world and national champion in 2001.