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The Atlantic City Poker Run: Inside-Out

Joe Sabo and company got some rough treatment offshore in Sabo's 38' Cigarette during the Atlantic City Poker Run.

Joe Sabo and company got some rough treatment offshore in Sabo’s 38′ Cigarette during 2011 the Atlantic City Poker Run.

Every dream job has at least one ugly little reality. Mine, as it happens, is travel. I’m not talking about logging time in new places and meeting new people—that’s part of the dream that comes with covering the high-performance boating world. I’m talking about getting there and back, which is, more often than not, a nightmare.

Case in point: I left my house in Belmont, Calif., at 5:30 a.m. last Thursday to catch a 7 a.m. flight from San Francisco to Newark, N.J. From there a car would take me to a fine beach home in Seaside Heights, my home base, so to speak, for the weekend’s Atlantic City Poker Run hosted by the New Jersey Performance Powerboat Club.

I arrived in Seaside Heights more than 12 hours—topped off with a three-hour time change—later. Let me offer a comparison. The last time I had an assignment in Europe it took me a little more than 12 hours to get there, and ever-disgruntled employees of Air France were more pleasant than the termimally ill-tempered folks of Continental Airlines on my California-to-New Jersey flight. (My guess is that being taken over by United Airlines just has that effect on people.)

But I digress—and whine—far too much. The truth is the trip to New Jersey and back (no delays) was worth every excruciating minute. First, I got to drive Speed Racer, the stunning 44-foot Marine Technology, Inc., catamaran that was outfitted with a new six-seat cockpit interior and twin Potter Performance supercharged engines with Mercury Racing No. 6 drives in the off-season, for the entire poker run. The privilege of driving the cat through the tricky channels and shallows leading from Toms River to Atlantic City (the story of which will appear in a Boats.com article in July) came courtesy of Bob Christie, the owner of the boat.

Driving Speed Racer with its new six-seat interior was a rare privilege.Driving Speed Racer with its new six-seat interior was a rare privilege.

Second, I got to hang out with members of the New Jersey Performance Powerboat Club including club Dave Patnaude, Anthony Sauta, Tom Anselmi, Joe Nasso, Frank Civitano and a whole bunch of other characters whose names end in one vowel or another. If there is a tighter-knit yet warm and open bunch of people in the performance-boating world, I haven’t been lucky enough to meet them. Loud voices and large personalities? You bet. But with the folks of the NJPPC, what you see is what you get and for me, a guy who grew up in the shallows of Los Angeles County, it’s more than refreshing. It’s family.

With 43 of its 50 slots sold out, the 2011 Atlantic City Poker Run didn’t boast the largest fleet in the event’s history. Still, it created plenty of memories. Here are just a few, each of which falls under its own unique heading.

On second thought, maybe we should have run inside—Joe Sabo and the crew in his 38’ Cigarette Top Gun opted to run offshore, rather than in protected water, for the last seven miles of the run between Holgate Inlet and Atlantic City. Sabo and company quickly found themselves running up the face of a giant rogue swell—until the bottom fell out. The boat freefell down the back of the wave and landed flush on its starboard side. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, this is going to hurt,’” said Sabo. The result was a hefty crack in the fiberglass above the rub rail next to the engine compartment. Most memorable, however, was Sabo’s comment back at the docks over a cold beer. “Last time you saw me, I broke my engines,” he said, referring to our aborted attempt at a poker run during the 2010 Offshore Performance Association World Championships in Orange Beach, Ala., (Read the full story) and laughed. “This time, I broke my boat. It happens.”

The dock party, NJPPC style, at the end of the run was not to be missed.The dock party, NJPPC style, at the end of the run was not to be missed.

Party to the people—Although jetlag—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it—cut into my post-banquet dock party time, I hung out with the NJPPC faithful on the docks right after the run. And as it was two years ago, the family-friendly party was long on good food, cold drinks and great vibes and short on anything resembling attitude. It was hard to walk by the transom of any boat without having a stranger offer you something to drink or eat. Chicken wings. Jello shots. Deli sandwiches. Café Patron. There was something, and lots of it, for everyone.

•Birds of a feature—I didn’t do a formal count but I’d estimate there were at least a half-dozen Outerlimits V-bottoms including the elegant Ilmor-powered 43-footer owned by Joe Cibellis that made its all the way out to Desert Storm in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., in April. The Outerlimits fleet is so substantial in the NJPPC that their owners—though friendly and cordial—are almost a club within a club. Despite their brawny rides, one member of the Outerlimits crowd was heard to say, “We had no business out there” regarding the nasty 4- to 6-foot conditions offshore

Walter Molosh and his wife, Donna, in their repowered 40' Skater catamaran.Walter Molosh and his wife, Donna, in their repowered 40′ Skater catamaran.

•There’s no place like home—Originally, NJPPC club member Walter Molosh planned to the take the 2000 Skater 40 catamaran he bought and repowered earlier this year (Read the full story) to SkaterFest in Michigan, which was scheduled for the same weekend as the Atlantic City Poker Run. But instead Molosh brought the classic 40-footer to his home club’s signature run, and the endless grin on his face during the dock party proved he made the right move. “Right now, with the 33-inch props its running 120 mph,” he said. “With the 37s we have, it should top out about 140. It’s exactly what we wanted, something fast enough but not too extreme.”

•Mister Sprague’s Wild Bat Boat Ride—Chuck Sprague and his wife, Diane, who came up from Maryland for the run, took me for a ride in the their 28-foot, 730-hp Ilmor engine-powered Mannerfeldt “Bat Boat.” That happened after our Saturday lunch stop on the way back to Toms River. OK, I have to admit that I climbed into the 28-footer more than a little spoiled by the soft ride of 44-foot-long Speed Racer, but the unusual V-bottom was, pardon my French, fun as hell. I won’t lie—it didn’t deliver the softest ride I’ve every had in sloppy water, and the water that day was sloppy—and I was working on a full stomach. But the V-10-equpped V-bottom was a total hot rod. “It’s not for everyone,” said Sprague. “But it’s a lot of fun.” Plus, when the water is too much for the 28-footer the Spragues have a 38-foot Formula FASTech with twin 600-hp engines.

•Surprised by the unexpected and undeserved—During the annual pre-run breakfast and driver’s meeting at the Lobster Shanty, I received an award for “Excellence in Journalism” from the NJPPC. To say I didn’t see it coming (damn that pesky jetlag) would be a huge understatement. To say I was honored would be equally inadequate. To say I will cherish this honor for the rest of my life is just about right. I have been lucky enough to win a few awards over the years, but this one is something different because, rather than coming from professional peers, it comes from readers. It comes from family. Like the Atlantic City Poker Run and the NJPPC, it comes from the heart.

Editor’s Note: All photos courtesy/copyright Tim Sharkey/Sharkey Images.