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To sail or knot?

Brian Keelan's picture
Fri, 06/01/2018 - 08:21 -- Brian Keelan

I‘ve been a sailor all my life. Not a very good sailor in terms of the America’s Cup, and the Volvo Ocean Race guys and in fact, there are several sailors right here in Sarnia who could easily beat me on a race course. However, despite those drawbacks, going for a sailboat ride in heavy air is something that I just love to do. But… life has not always been that simple for me.

Back in 1970 I was working for IBM in Kitchener. Some of my customers were in Galt, now a part of Cambridge. There was a great back road I used to love driving. One day I was driving by a farm on that road and sitting right out in the middle of a field on a trailer was a classic Boston Whaler 17-foot Montauk with a 125 hp Johnson outboard engine.

A few months later, in early June as I drove by that farm, I wondered why they just left that boat sitting out there in the middle of that field like that so I decided to stop in and ask somebody if perhaps it was for sale.

Turns out, it was.

The price? Twelve hundred Canadian dollars.


The next weekend I towed my new boat back to Sarnia and on Saturday afternoon, around 4 p.m. after a great afternoon on Lake Huron and the St. Clair River, we pulled in to the Black River in Port Huron. We tied up at the Zebra Bar to go in for a beer and a few of their hamburgers. It was a much simpler world in those days: all I had to do was call customs and report my boat numbers and then try to remember to do the same when I got back to Canada.

In those days I was a big fan of big-engine “muscle” cars and now there was a new type of boat coming into vogue that had been developed by C. Raymond Hunt, who designed the Boston Whaler. He also pioneered the design of the Deep Vee hull, which was being made famous by the likes of Dick Bertram and Don Aronow: the evil emperors of the powerboat world who put big engines in these boats. They had seduced me from my love of sailboats to the dark side of offshore powerboats.

So, I was very happy to see that we were tied up right behind a 16-foot Donzi, one of Don Aronow’s legendary “muscle” boats. It looked like it was going 60 miles an hour just sitting at the dock. As I stood there admiring it and trying to explain to my wife what this boat was all about, two guys came strolling out of the bar and walked over to the boat. One guy was tall and lanky with a friendly smile: his name was Ernie. The other guy was shorter and stockier but just as friendly: his name was Jesse.
I asked them, “Is this your Donzi?”

Jesse smiled and said, “You bet she is son,” and he proceeded to give me the cook’s tour. The highpoint was the 289 cubic inch Mustang Boss engine that had been blueprinted and balanced by Holman and Moody; famous race car engine builders. Then he started the engine. Wow! It had no muffler, just a straight through exhaust. You either love the sound or you don’t.

I loved it… still do.

Then Ernie and Jesse offered to take us for a, “little chug.”

Five minutes later, we shot out under the Bluewater Bridge into the lake at just over 70 miles an hour and I was hooked. As we jumped the wake of a big cruiser the boat was airborne. When the propeller cleared the water, Jesse pulled back on the throttle so the engine wouldn’t over-rev and then swoosh, the boat landed in the water and as it did so, Jesse timed the throttles perfectly to get the engine back up to speed and the boat never missed a beat. You expected it to land in the water with a bone-jarring thud but the deep-vee hull just cut into the water like a knife slicing through a birthday cake.
I wanted one.

That night, as I was pulling my boat out of the water at the Sarnia Yacht Club, this guy walked up to me and started asking me questions about my boat. He eventually got around to asking me if I would be interested in selling it. I told him that my interest in selling the boat would depend on the price he offered me.

“How does twenty-five hundred dollars sound?” he asked.

I said, “Sounds perfect,” and I handed him the keys.

The following Saturday, Ernie, Jessie and I headed down the St, Clair River to the Emerald Beach Marina in Detroit, There I bought a 16’ Donzi for $1,800 American, which in 1971 was just about even money. It laid in to Canada for about $2,300.

I loved the way that boat could handle rough water and I was made humourously aware of this one day in the St. Clair River that first summer when I was driving my Donzi south into a very strong south wind.

We were passing Ferry Dock Hill, at about forty-five miles an hour, when all of a sudden this wall of white, rooster-tail water blew right past me like I was standing still. I pulled back on the throttle figuring, “What the heck was that?”

“That” was actually a flat-bottomed speedboat with a giant chrome-plated engine in the back. It had chrome exhaust pipes sticking up and out each side and just looked wicked fast. It had to be doing close to eighty miles an hour. After it blew by me, the driver slowed the boat down and did a slow turn to come back around and have a look at my boat since deep-vee hulled boats were a fairly new phenomenon back in those days. Donzis were fast but they weren’t flat-bottomed speed demons like this guy was.  On the other hand, we could handle rough water and those flat-bottomed boats would tear themselves apart trying to keep up with us out in the middle of the river.

 I slowed down and as the speed demon approached me, I could see that it was a man and a woman in the only two seats in that boat. They both wore crash helmets and large, orange Mae West life jackets.

As the boat got closer, I saw that it was local race-car driving legend and all round go-fast guy, Ken Helwig who was taking his wife out for a little spin. Kenny was sporting a mile-wide smile as he pulled up beside me and said something like, “Howdy son.”

I replied, “Hello Mr. Helwig. What the heck have you got in that thing?”

With an even wider smile he said, “Oh… just a little old 454.”

“Sweet,” I said. “What’s your top speed?”

Ken said, “I really have no idea but she’s pretty fast eh?”

I said, “You got that right. Looks like you’ve got her dialed in.”

Again with the smile, “That I do son… that I do.”

Now I wanted to see if I could get him out into the middle of the river where my deep-vee would have the advantage so I said, “Well then Mr. Helwig, what do you say we take these things out into the middle of the river and you just try doing that to me one more time.”

He smiled, “Uh uh, I can’t do that son.”

“Why not?” I asked.

He jerked his thumb toward his wife and with a big wide smile he said, “Mother doesn’t like it.”

I started to laugh figuring, what a cool guy.

Then I said, “Well in that case, would you mind dropping back about a hundred yards and hitting that throttle one more time so you can blast by me at full speed. I want to take your picture.”

He smiled again and said, “Be pleased to.”

Two minutes later he screamed by me doing… well I really I can’t say for sure but at that time I would have bet money that the only thing around here that would have a chance to beat it was Miss Supertest which had a top speed of almost 300 miles an hour… but it needed really flat water to do that: what my dad and John Blunt would have called, “flatter than pee on a plate.”
When Mr. Helwig passed by me on his photo-run, he put up a monster rooster tail of white water that drowned my instamatic camera - an expensive lesson to learn but it was totally worth it to see something that fast, up real close and personal like that.

These days I am back to the sailing thing because offshore powerboats were great at 30 dollars for an afternoon of fun, but at $300 - $400 for an afternoon?

As B.B. King would say, “The Thrill Is Gone”.

Now that’s just my opinion and I know there are some who would disagree with me but even so, from now on I am going to try and break all my speed records in sailboats.


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