Up in Newport, Liberty skipper Dennis Conner is calling today's final America's Cup meet "the race of the century." You might expect that here on the Chesapeake Bay, in the midst of sailboat country, everyone would be interested in this. But that's not quite the case.
"I just don't have time for that kind of boating anymore," says Jerry Herson, whose words and 46-year-old body are zipping up the Severn river at about 50 miles per hour. Herson is piloting his custom-designed, 53-foot-long, 17-foot-wide, twin-screwed powerboat, Purely Pleasure, whose two 750-horsepower turbocharged engines drink up 36 gallons of diesel fuel per hour when cruising at 30 mph. "Let me put it this way," Herson says. "I went from Miami to Annapolis in 36 hours, at an average speed of 44 miles per hour. There are guys in sailboats who wait half that long for one drawbridge to open."
Wherever Herson goes, folks on the water tend to stare at him, or, more precisely, at his boat. For starters, it is bright yellow and orange because, Herson says, "white boats remind me of white bread." People in sailboats are probably amazed at the speeds attained by Purely Pleasure, not to mention constantly on the watch for the wake left by boats of its ilk. People in other powerboats have not seen many speedboats this large: not so much in length as in width, big enough to allow a king-sized bed in the captain's stateroom. Some of the little guys can go faster--as fast as 80 miles an hour--and throw up incredible plumes of water behind them. But they still gawk at Purely Pleasure because Purely Pleasure is just one incredible hunk of a boat.
"I don't want to sound immodest," says Herson, "but you won't see another boat like this anywhere on the Bay."
Welcome to the world of macho boating, where speed and flash are supreme, and where any notions expressed about the grace and thrill of a sail being unfurled against blue sky will probably be drowned out by the roar of a turbocharged Chrysler engine.
All day long they run past Purely Pleasure: five boys in a 14-foot outboard with a 200-horse Johnson dragging a sixth passenger on an inner tube; a red, white and blue Rayson Craft, powered by a 440-horse Oldsmobile engine; a 23-foot Sonic, with twin 200-horse Mercury engines. The boats' names themselves conjure up the hot nature of the sport: Silver Hawk, Formula, Sun Racer, Avanti, Tempest, SuperStar
"This is a cult unto itself," says Herson. "Nothing means anything; it's a way of life. Look. There's a Sea Nautique, something you see very rarely, a fine inboard. But nobody would know that. The one boat that some outsiders know about is the Cigarette, one of the original ocean racing boats. They were named that because they're so sleek. They'll do 80 miles an hour. But it's sort of like a Corvette. People buy them more for the name, the status, than for the performance. People who drive these kind of boats want to project a certain image.
"There's a retired couple out here on the bay who are pretty famous. They drive around in an 18-foot Boston Whaler, with a pair of Johnson 260 low-silhouette racing engines. He wears a straw hat; she knits. They sit on rocking chairs. They wait until these young kids drive up to them, and then they gun the engines and leave the kids in the dust. The rocking chairs are bolted to the deck.
"The ultimate kind of power plant for these boats is an Arnison drive, which is sort of like having two airplane propellers coming out of the rear of the boat. It's all a question of how much speed you want, and how you want to control it."
Last month on the Chesapeake there were at least three fatal accidents involving powerboats, according to the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. "Generally, it's teen-age kids who are drunk," says Herson. "There's a long tradition of drinking while boating. With sailboats, it tends to be very forgiving. The faster you go, the less forgiving it is. The biggest problem is with kids who are too young to drive, so they go out in boats and drink. There's a real controversy in boating circles over what to do about it. Right now you don't have to have any kind of license to drive a boat. Some people think that should be changed, and others think that will be one more right that is being infringed on. I'm not sure how we should deal with it."
What Jerry Herson is sure about, though, is that he wants a bigger boat. Construction on it begins today in Miami. He keeps the plans down in the air-conditioned cabin below the deck. This one will be 70 feet long and 22 feet wide, with three Jacuzzis, a gym, a washer/dryer and a small speedboat that will slide right out from under the stern of the yacht, a la James Bond. The way things are now, Herson has to carry a small outboard that's hung from two davits in the rear of the ship. The new boat will also have a wine cellar.
"Now, of course, you don't need a wine cellar on a boat," he says. "You don't need a gym, either. But let's face it, one of the main reasons people have boats like this is to impress other people. I'm not saying I don't have a good time when I'm out here, but I like to impress other people."
Call it understatement, the way Herson says this. Maybe it's the same attitude that's reflected in the ship's name, and in its logo: a grinning Cheshire cat. "In 1971," he says, "I lost my business, my wife, my father. I also lost a boat that used to have a professional captain, and I had to buy a little runabout. Somebody said to me, 'How can you go from a yacht to something like that?' and I said, 'Purely Pleasure.' Another time I was sitting around with a girlfriend, and she said, 'Jerry, when you're being devious, you grin like a Cheshire cat.' "
Herson slides the boat into the harbor here in Annapolis. People sitting on sailboats and other powerboats stop whatever they're doing. "I love to surprise them," Herson says. "They never see anything this big in the harbor here. Out of every 300 vessels in Annapolis, 280 are sailboats. Those other 20 people may live here, but they don't occupy the same world as sailboat people."