Issue: February 2002
Poker, Anyone?

On your marks, get set . . . pick a card. Five-card draw meets muscle-boat mania in the Bay's newest water sport.

     I hope you like to go fast!" Stephanie DelGrippo had said as we made final arrangements for my tag-along on the First Annual Jackson Marine Sales Donzi Poker Run. "Sure," I said. Sure. I like to go fast. Up on plane, tearing along at 30 knots, wind in your hair, sun on your face. What's not to like about that? But, no, she didn't mean fast; she meant fast. 

And I began to understand that distinction only a few minutes before the poker run began, when Bill Nagy of Felton, Del., hit the ignition switch on his innocuous-looking 16-footer, Summer Fun. It was smallest of the two dozen Donzis that would be dashing around the upper Bay that day, in pursuit of playing cards, yet when Nagy got behind the wheel and hit the starter, the sound. . . . No, it wasn't just a sound; it wasn't just loud. It was an atmospheric disturbance-a huge, concussive belch of sound that assaulted the entire body, not just the ears. It was at that moment (or shortly thereafter, when my spinal chord stopped vibrating) that I knew what this day would be about: speed.

But first, some deep background, beginning with a few definitions: Poker run: n., a weekend social ritual practiced by motorcyclists, recreational boaters and other vehicle-obsessed hobbyists, in which the better part of a day is spent navigating a predetermined course, usu. ass over teakettle, for the purpose of collecting five playing cards, i.e., a poker hand, the best of which win cash prizes, usu. awarded over the collegial din of an outdoor party.

     Donzi: n., one of several high-performance American boat brands developed in the 1970s by offshore racing legend Don Aronow. (see also Cigarette, Magnum, et al.)

     High-performance: adj., very fast and very loud. (see also muscle boat, go-fast boat, "bat out of hell.")

     Vehicular poker is not unique to boating; in fact, the concept seems to have been borrowed from the motorcycle crowd. There are hundreds of biker poker runs every year around the country, with some annual events dating back 30 years. The Key West (motorcycle) Poker Run in Florida, for example, has been held every September since 1972. There are also car club poker runs, bicycling poker runs, running poker runs, and even (I swear I'm not making this up) a lawn mower-and-golf cart poker run. It happens every July, as part of Potato Day in Clark, South Dakota, which, as we all know, is the Potato Capital of that lovely and fertile state.

     Among boaters, the poker run is a more recent phenomenon, adopted by the high-octane crowd in the late 1980s and now a wildly popular diversion wherever muscle boats gather in large numbers-at offshore racing events, in particular. There are a dozen big, sanctioned poker runs every year, presided over by Ontario-based Poker Run America, which now even publishes a bimonthly magazine devoted exclusively to the game and its players. From the language in the magazine and on the PRA website, you might conclude that the organization holds exclusive ownership of the poker run concept. But in fact the phenomenon seems now to be spreading quickly into the general boating community, and recently has become a popular fundraising vehicle [see sidebar, page 55]. Go-fast boat manufacturers have also latched on to the idea; Velocity's annual National Poker Run was held on the Bay last year, running from the Bay Bridge Marina on Kent Island to Solomons, Md. And Donzi has been in the game since the mid-1990s, now sponsoring a dozen or so dealer-based poker runs annually around the country.

     Which brings us back to Shelter Cove Marina in North East, Md., home of Jackson Marine Sales, one of the most successful Donzi dealers on the East Coast-whose owner, Woody Jackson, decided last winter to organize a poker run for his own widely scattered family of customers. The idea was attractive enough that 23 Donzis and their owners showed up that Saturday in mid-August, each plunking down $65 for the chance at a $450 winning hand. Actually, most of the participants arrived the previous evening, to attend the mandatory drivers' briefing, conducted by Jackson and the aforementioned Stephanie DelGrippo, Jackson's administrative assistant and chief organizer of the poker run.

     The rules: no drinking onboard, no dangerous hotdogging, no flouting of speed and no-wake zones, etc. The course: (1) up the Northeast River to the pier off the North East town park; (2) back down the Northeast into the Bay, past Turkey Point and the Elk River to the Sassafras River, and all the way up the Sassafras to Georgetown, specifically the fuel dock at Georgetown Yacht Basin; (3) out of the Sassafras, around Grove Point into the Elk River, and then up the Bohemia River to Bohemia Bay Yacht Harbor; (4) out of the Bohemia and up the Elk to the C&D Canal and Chesapeake City, specifically the Chesapeake Inn; and (5) back home to Shelter Cove (which, for those who don't keep their boats here and aren't paying attention when we leave, is just inside Hance Point, at red '10').

     The basic scheme: Slower boats leave first, faster boats last; everyone draws a single card, in a sealed envelope (no peeking), at each of the stops. When you return, turn in your sealed envelopes (did we mention no peeking?), and while youre enjoying a nice al fresco buffet, the capable Ms. DelGrippo will record the poker hands. Mike Miller, our gregarious guest from American Marine Holdings Inc. (aka Donzi), will announce the winners. Good luck and Godspeed.

     And speaking of speed, did you know that at approximately 60 mph in an open-cockpit boat your cheeks start flapping? To be perfectly scientific about it, I can't say this with absolute certainty, because the speedometer wasn't working on our prodigiously overpowered observer boat (a Donzi 33ZX Daytona, with twin 500-hp Mercurys) and I had to rely on Woody Jackson's educated guess. And I suppose the exact flapping moment varies according to individual cheek elasticity.

     So forget that; consider instead this irrefutable scientific fact: Mild-mannered bankers turn into mad-eyed, cackling speed demons when they have wide-open water in front of them and a thousand horses at their fingertips. Okay, the mild-mannered banker in question (Jackson's friend Dave Hitchens, a VP at Wilmington Trust) never actually cackled. But there was a mad glint in his eye as he took the helm and throttled us out of the Sassafras like a jet off a carrier deck. If the boat had had wheels, we'd have been on just two of them coming around the corner at Grove Point. It took us roughly 45 seconds to get toChesapeake City.

     But now I'm getting ahead of the story, which is easy to do at these speeds. Things had gotten off to a considerably tamer start that morning. Shortly before 10 a.m., the appointed start time for the poker run, Jackson had herded us into the waiting Daytona (also tagging along were Tom Bradlee, president of Chesapeake Publishing, and John Ulrich, regional sales manager for Donzi), and soon we were rumbling slowly out of the marina, headed for North East and stop number one. We were the official observer and make-sure-nobody-gets-lost boat, so we wouldn't be picking up a card at the pier in North East; rather we'd be handing the cards out. Bradlee, Hitchens and Ulrich were commendably competent at the task, keeping the bucketful of sealed envelopes high and dry and fending boats off the Daytona's swim platform as the arriving poker players struggled in the fluky breeze. "Can you swim it out to me?" wisecracked Randy Harbin after the wind had defeated the first two efforts to get his 28ZX within card-drawing range. "One of these days I'll learn how to drive this thing!" he said as his wife Barbara at last snatched a card and scrambled back into the cockpit.

     And so it went for an hour and a half-Ian and Cindy Chalmers in their Z-255 Cruiser, James and Margaret Conant in Magg Mutt II, a 22Z, the Corcorans, the Willards, the Shumachers . . . an 18 Classic, a 22 Classic, a 26ZX, a Regazza 23, and so on. After sending off the last boat (Bob and Michelle Ripple and company, who impressed us with their matching Donzi polo shirts, to say nothing of the spanking new 38ZX), we took down the Donzi banners and shoved off for the Sassafras and Georgetown. After negotiating the channel out of North East, Jackson turned the helm over to Bradlee and put on his tour guide hat, pointing out the sights for me as we roared down the shore-hugging channel between Elk Neck and the vast Susquehanna flats. It was somewhere along here that I first noticed the cheek-flapping effect. "Is the speedometer out?" I yelled to Jackson, who intuited the real meaning of the question. "I'd say we're doing . . . oh, about sixty," he shouted back, after glancing at the tachometers and the tree-lined bluffs speeding by to port. "Somewhere in there. She'll do eighty-plus flat out."

     Before I could fully ponder what 80-plus might do to my cheeks, to say nothing of my eyeglasses, which were also fluttering madly, Bradlee throttled down and offered the helm to the nearest dilettante, which happened to be me. I took it eagerly, my only misgiving being that we were still in the middle of a vast field of crabpots. Oh, well. Courage, Dreyfuss. For the first inch or so of throttle, she felt like any other boat; after that she felt more like Endeavor leaving the pad at Canaveral. The rockets behind me growled in earnest and catapulted us up on plane in the blink of an eye. Another blink, another inch of throttle and the growl widened into a menacing drone. Now we were ripping along-whoa, crabpot!-now we were ripping along at about . . . I don't know; there's no speedometer. I looked down at the dead gauge and then at Jackson. "About fifty, fifty-five," he yelled, flashing his big, impish grin. "You can bump it up a little more if you want. It's up to you, whatever you're comfortable with."

     No, 50 is just fine, I thought. Whatever this was, was just fine. Any faster and my glasses will start fluttering again and I won't be able to see the crabpots. This was fine. In fact, it was bloody great, tearing along at highway speed, slaloming effortlessly around the crabpots. It was fantastic, especially that booster-rocket takeoff. Holy Neptune, what a rush! If I owned one of these, I think that's what I'd do all day long-burn rubber, so to speak, from a dead stop. I think for the first time I truly understood the appeal of drag racing. I understood-Georgetown? We were in Georgetown already? Were they sure? Last time I came up the Sassafras it took half an hour at least; that was more like half a minute. But it was indeed Georgetown, or rather the speed zone that begins several bends below the town. Every last poker runner had come and gone by the time we pulled up to the fuel dock at Georgetown Yacht Basin. And since we'd only spotted about half of the boats as we came up the Sassafras, that meant the other half had left the river before we'd even gotten there. "Whew!" Jackson said as we headed out again. "Some of those people are flying!"

     As were we after Dave Hitchens, the aforementioned mad-eyed speed demon, took the controls and gunned it down the aforementioned Sassafras like the aforementioned bat out of hell. Perhaps it was the chase instinct- the whiff of the fox, as it were-that drove him to such extreme speed. Perhaps it was some dark thing in his childhood. Or perhaps, unlike the sissy Poindexter who had driven before him, he wasn't fretting about ill-fitting eyeglasses. Whatever the case, we arrived in Chesapeake City in shorter order than I imagined possible.

     We took a brief respite at the Chesapeake Inn, chatting with Jackson's son Mark (a Coast Guard lieutenant moonlighting that day as a poker dealer) and waiting for a few stragglers. This time, since we had skipped the Bohemia River stop, we had overtaken a few boats. When Jackson was satisfied that all were accounted for, we climbed aboard and rumbled back down the canal for the final leg of the day-back to the Northeast River and Shelter Cove. And it was on this leg that I was forced to amend my scientific observation about bankers, thusly: If you think mild-mannered bank VPs are throttle-happy, wait till you see a mild-mannered Donzi rep behind the wheel. Genteel, soft-spoken John Ulrich didn't just push the envelope; he pushed the sound barrier. No, really. I'm pretty sure we pulled into Shelter Cove several minutes ahead of our own sound. I call it the Ulrich effect-sort of like the Doppler effect, but scarier. And along the way we had the added thrill of wake-jumping, which is an interesting experience at a speed approaching 80 mph. The good thing is that it forces you to focus on more important things than your flapping cheeks-things like, could you have been a better father to your children, and have you updated your will recently? It was an interesting experience. And it made it all the more difficult to believe that we were one of the last boats to return.

     I didn't ask Woody Jackson what sort of deal he'd made with the weather gods to keep the rain from falling, but the man is clearly a wheeler and dealer. Menacing clouds had swirled above us all day, yet, aside from a brief sprinkle in the morning, not a drop fell until the last poker runners had found their way to the two large party tents that had been set up for the afternoon's festivities. Then the rain came-a day's worth all at once, hammering so hard on the tents that folks had to chit-chat at the top of their lungs as they sat at picnic tables, dining on deli-platter sandwiches, barbecued chicken, corn on the cob and pasta salad.

     "Okay, folks, it's time to play poker!" said Donzi's Mike Miller as the rain at last began to let up. "Hershfield! . . . Where are the Hershfields? . . . Okay, let's see, you have . . . a pair of kings, ten high. Not bad. . . . Zeise! Where are you, Zeises? Okay, you have a . . . hey, two pair! You're in the lead! Sorry Hershfields, doesn't look good for you. We just started and you're already in last place. Okay, where's Bill Nagy? . . ."

     And so it went, hand after hand called out, the tension palpable, rankings shifting, hopes and dreams riding on the luck of the draw. . . . All right, maybe the tension wasn't that palpable. But it did make for a very entertaining twenty minutes under the dripping tents, thanks to Miller's wisecracks and the natural suspense of the process. In the end, it was a hat trick for Pennsylvania. An eight-high straight took first place, $450, for "Dr. Dan" and Liz Johanides, who trailer their 22 Donzi Classic out of Shrewsbury, Pa. The $300 second-place prize went to the six-high straight held by "Ed and Ed" (Schumacher, Jr. and Sr.) of Pottstown, Pa. Third place ($100) went to Richard Willard and family of Downingtown, Pa. "Did you have fun?" Stephanie DelGrippo asked me after the prizes had been handed out and the party had devolved into random social clusters.

     "It was great," I said. "That is one hell of a fast boat we were on."

     "I told ya," she said with a sly grin.

     Yes, she had told me. But she hadn't said anything about flapping cheeks, or mad-eyed bank VPs, or speed-hungry Donzi reps. Clearly, she knew better.