Water Fights Something in the way they move . . .

August 06, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Annapolis -- Labradors, disposable cameras, a Chris Craft cruiser grinding a moored Boston Whaler, alternating heat and thunder for weather and Day-Glo bikini tops. It's all here near the Kunte Kinte, point-of-arrival commemorative marker at Ego Alley.

Officially, it's the Annapolis City Dock and it's a July weekend. The scrawny waterway -- maybe 60 feet wide, 300 feet long -- is called Ego Alley because there's not enough room for boaters to do anything but strut their crafts.

A faded-red powerboat, with a shirtless driver and a near-shirtless woman, enters Ego Alley with all the subtlety of a blimp with an attitude. The high performance boat passes the docked Stanley Norman, a working skipjack -- the oldest sailing vessels in North America. If they could, the two vessels would sneer at each other.

Powerboating vs. sailing: It's just that way in these waters. Powerboaters and sailors share the same bay but not much else. Their states of mind do not meet. They are two with the sea.

They fuss over issues of right-of-way and wake and pollution and noise and fossil fuel. Some powerboaters have zoomed through anchorages and even sailboat races. Some sailors have fired off middle-finger opinions at them and have applauded loudly when powerboaters cut their engines.

They call each other names. Powerboaters, with their six-figure boats and $200-a-day gas habits, are called "stink potters" by sailors because of the powerboats' noisy exhaust. Powerboaters call sailors "air bags," "rag toppers" or just "rags."

"There is a culture clash," says Harbormaster Rick Dahlgren at the Annapolis City Dock. Few formal complaints are filed with his office, but he hears plenty of carping on the marine radio between powerboaters and sailors. "They are polar opposites. They hang with their own kind."

If you haven't seen or heard them, the powerboats are sleek, open crafts that cut through the water at 50 mph to 100 mph. Of the 198,000 vessels registered and documented in Maryland, only "a couple thousand are high performance boats," according to Beth Kahr, director of the Marine Trade Association of Maryland.

Not all true 'Cigarettes'

These crafts often are generically called cigarette boats, but "Cigarette" is actually a brand name. No matter what you call them, they've been described as nautical Ferraris or simply vice boats -- from the "Miami Vice" television show that featured Don Johnson, powerboats, and Don Johnson on powerboats. The in-board engines on these boats can cost $100,000 alone.

Stereotypically, "the powerboater has a gold chain, a Bud or Miller in a Styrofoam holder. He has a buddy in the front seat and on the back, padded hatch cover, two women in bikinis," says Harbormaster Dahlgren.

What are the boats good for besides burning 120 gallons of fuel an hour? What do the boat owners get out of it?

"I guess they like the pure speed. That to me would be the only benefit," says Racing Editor Dave Gendell of Rags, an Annapolis-based sailing magazine. "I couldn't see it being fun for more than five minutes."

At Ego Alley, a white, true Cigarette boat sputters up to the dock. Jim Stonebrook, a 55-year-old retiree who has a summer home in Annapolis, waits on-board while his rider goes ashore to buy sunglasses. Jim is shirtless, barrel-chested and has a head like a tanned, cement block. His is a $170,000 boat. It goes fast.

"We top out at about 80 mph . . . highway speed, right?" he says, laughing in that way a man has when he's sitting on $170,000. He opens the engine hatch to show off two, 650-horsepower Chevy engines that could power a space shuttle.

A thrilling ride

His wife, Maggie, comes back with the sunglasses. They like getting where they're going in a hurry. Powerboating is a thrill, a skilled thrill, these boaters say. It's the ultimate boy and girl toy, Maggie says.

"It's even macho for the woman on board," says Maggie, who lets her husband do all the driving. "You got to be able to handle the ride. You can't be in the back saying 'slow down.' "

The Stonebrooks were married on a sailboat, but Maggie says they've had their most intimate moments aboard their powerboat. Besides, sailing is too much work.

"This is fast and easy," says Maggie, who adds that she tries to be nice to sailors. "Sailors are very snobbish. When you wave hello and they give you the finger, it's obvious."

Jim and Maggie agree to take on a passenger in their Cigarette boat. They ease out of Ego Alley and wait until they pass the buoy allowing boaters to exceed the 6 mph speed limit. The passenger is strongly urged to hold on to the hand rail fronting the passenger seat, which is a tall, so-called bolster seat. The driver and passenger stand in these chairs and brace themselves. Maggie sits in the back on the padded hatch cover.

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