Back in the 1970s and 1980s, offshore powerboat racing was, well, offshore powerboat racing—meaning it happened in open and often treacherous seas. Boats and crews that could handle rough water tended to do well. Boats and crews that couldn’t handle rough water didn’t finish. It was that simple.
Among the brawny standouts from the days of “real” offshore racing—a subject of endless and mostly pointless debate—was a 1975 Bertram Competition 38’ called Needle Nose III owned and campaigned by famed racer Phil Lewis. Based in New Jersey, Lewis owned the Needle Nose Racing Team and Needle Nose Racing Team Productions, which chronicled that era on film and is the footage foundation for the Big-Seas Productions video series.
You’re not alone if you only know Bertram from its fishing yachts. The company made its formidable name those vessels. But Bertram also built 15 Competition 38’ V-bottom performance boats. Lewis’ boat was hull No. 7.
Like all offshore racers, Lewis eventually left the sport. He sold the boat to a dubious character in Chicago known simply as “Diamond Don,” who pulled the boat’s original 486-cubic-inch naturally aspirated gasoline engines and replaced them with a pair of turbocharged Merlin diesels. Legend has it that he used the boat for one run from Miami to Bimini, and not much else. After Diamond Don died, the boat sat in a warehouse for 27 years.
Now, flash forward to 2004. Kurt Groom, who lives in DeLand, Fla., and is the chief engineer for the local Hilton Garden Inn, is at a wedding in his home state of Wisconsin. Groom already has one boat restoration—that of a 25-foot-long 1973 Carver Monterey—under his belt, and one of his friends at the wedding tells him about the Bertram Competition 38’ gathering dust 400 miles south in a Jackson, Mich., warehouse.
The next day, Groom drives to the warehouse to check out the boat. It’s love at first sight.
“I took one look at it and said, ‘That’s my new boat,” says Groom. “I did a lot of research on it. I got Phil Lewis and Bertram involved, and they verified that it was, in fact, an authentic Bertram Competition 38’. The Coast Guard gave me an MSO and a serial number.”
Groom bought the V-bottom for $3,000, which was $9,500 less than its original purchase price. And that was when the fun began, because the 38-footer’s engines had been stolen and its transmissions and drives were junk. (As it happened, the drive shafts were still salvageable.) Compounding the challenge for Groom were three factors. First, he worked a 45-hour-a-week job. Second, he planned to do all the work himself. Third, he did not have an unlimited budget.
Groom started with building new engines for the boat.
“I was a diesel mechanic, so engines are easy are for me,” he says. “Plus, I didn’t have the money for new ones. I found two MerCruiser 454 engines that had come out of a boat that had sunk to the bottom of the St. John’s River (Fla.) in a giant marina fire. I bought them for $1,500 apiece, pulled off all the stuff that had melted onto them, rebuilt them and added B&M 174 blowers to them.
“The transmissions came out of a roller-coaster in Indiana,” he continued. “Speedmasters, Inc., in Deland rebuilt and restored the transmissions, the TRS drives and the gimbal housings. Diamond had relocated the exhaust to the hull sides. I plugged the holes and relocated the exhaust to the deck-transom, where it was originally when Phil Lewis owned the boat. All I had to do was remove one large cover for the four exhaust holes, and two covers that went over the original ‘NN’—they actually drilled the letters into the deck-transom—for ‘Needle Nose.’
“I relocated the motor mounts, rerigged the entire engine compartment and rebuilt the engine hatches from scratch,” he added. “Honestly, when I first got it the engine compartment looked like a garbage can.”
Far from mint condition, the cockpit interior of the Competition 38’ was in dire need of restoration, so Groom rebuilt, repadded and reupholstered the three-person bench at the helm station. He also replaced the original gauges.
Though he cleaned up the cabin, which consisted of a rectangular berth and 30-inch-diameter circular access cutouts going all the way to the nose, he left it largely in its original form.
The original hull had a royal blue hull and white deck completely done in gelcoat. Diamond Don had repainted the boat in a lighter blue and off-white to cover the NN graphics. To restore the boat to its original colors, Groom chemically stripped off the paint that Diamond Don had applied, then wet-sanded and buffed the entire hull and deck.
“That’s the original hull without any modifications and the original gelcoat you’re looking at now,” he says. “Bertram gave me permission to put the new emblems on it, but everything else on the exterior is original.”
In 2009—after four years, 3,000 hours of his own work and $67,000 of his own cash (that includes the $3,000 he paid for the boat)—Groom unveiled the boat at the 2009 Jacksonville Poker Run the St. John’s River. His engine upgrades had taken what was a 60-mph boat to at 73-mph boat, but that was far from Groom’s top priority in the project. For him, it was about restoring and owning a piece of performance-boating history.
“I pushed forward with this project knowing the end result would be a rare offshore vessel that would create attention like no other offshore boat could,” he says “I’m out there running 65 mph in rough water with no problem with these guys, and I love it.”
Then Groom laughs and adds, “And I make it to every card stop, and I come back with two running engines—like I left with.”