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HomeEvent CoverageInside The Garden State’s Double Decade Poker Run

Inside The Garden State’s Double Decade Poker Run

Captains participating in the New Jersey Performance Powerboat Club’s 20th Annual Atlantic City Rally awoke yesterday morning to text blast messages reminding them of the mandatory drivers meeting, the weather forecast and a small craft advisory predicting five- to six- foot seas. That’s just one of the many differences from when the event began 20 years ago.

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Though the NJPPC Atlantic City Rally fleet has grown more diverse in the past 20 years, it still includes high-end performance boats such as this 52-foot MTI catamaran. Photos courtesy/copyright Tim Sharkey/Sharkey Images.

Another big difference is the absence of long-time club member and boating bon vivant Tom Healey, who was memorialized with this anniversary run. Healey, who joined the club in 2001 and worked the last 10 years for Marine Unlimited, in Toms River, N.J., as the ultimate powerboat concierge, died unexpectedly in his sleep last December of natural causes. He earned somewhat legendary status when he joined NJPPC and drew the winning poker hand in at least one event per year during the next three years.

“I miss him today more than most days,” said Mike D’Ambra, the owner of Marine Unlimited. “Tom had a strong presence. He filled a room. But we know he’s with us here today looking over us.”

According to D’Ambra Healey was “public the face” of the Marine Unlimited. Participating in events and glad-handing fellow powerboat enthusiasts came naturally to him, and not so much to his boss. Doug Falcone, a former customer and later colleague, said Healey was responsible for introducing him to 70 percent of the people he knows in boating.

“When I went to my first poker run in Florida, I knew no one, but I left that weekend knowing everyone because Tommy knew everyone,” said Falcone. “He was the conduit—he pulled everyone together.”

Healey was named NJPPC’s 2016 Powerboater of the Year,” and the club had two crystal trophies made, presenting one each to D’Ambra and Falcone who were both described as “like family” to the late Healey.

Much has changed in the 20 years since the first Atlantic City Rally, the called the Atlantic City Poker Run. The aforementioned telecommunications technology has worked its way into the boats, and the engines that power them and the boating market itself has changed dramatically, according to NJPPC co-founder Dave Patnaude.

“Twenty years ago the big power was the Mercury Racing 900SC and the 300 outboard,” he said. “Today we have the Mercury Racing 1650/1850 and outboards that make 400, 527 and even 627 horsepower.

For more images from yesterday’s Atlantic City Rally, check out the slideshow above.

“Our largest class the first year was the big, high-horsepower performance boats,” he continued. “Today, our biggest group is the 35-mph class.”

Patnaude attributes the changes to the NJPPC’s being an early adopter of opening memberships to all types of boats and boaters. “The market is evolving to cruisers and center consoles, and we’re all getting older,” he said.

This year’s 37-boat fleet proved his point. It included everything from a 24-foot Baja V-bottom to a 52-foot MTI catamaran. There was even a 30-foot Bennington pontoon boat with twin Yamaha 300 hp outboards. (You can read all about that one in a story that will go live later today.)

The NJPPC also tries to offer a variety of events from one-day, no-entry-fee “social” runs to breakfast or dinner, one-day rally events for as little as $99, and the Atlantic City Rally that costs $499, which includes three meals and two cocktail parties.

No event goes off successfully without a lot of hard working volunteers and NJPPC has no shortage of those. Linda Schmalzigan and her husband Ray of Brick, N.J., have worked every Atlantic City event save one they missed for a family wedding.

“Without the volunteers you can’t have an organization. We have a dedicated core group of people who have been around 15 or 20 years,” she said, “It’s what we do. No one ever says ‘no,’ and we have made very close life-long friends through the club.”

Editor’s Note: NJPPC Atlantic City Rally participants will be giving boat rides to members of the Combat Wounded Veterans of America, Mission Transition and the Disabled American Veterans organizations today. Look for more reporting from longtime speedonthewater.com contributor Tony Esposito as the event progresses this weekend.

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