When the sun ducks behind a cloud in the Florida Keys, the rooster tail of the high-performance boat ahead of you turns dark gray, almost black. It’s an optical illusion, of course, but the first time you see it you think the boat ahead is on fire. Then the cloud passes, the rooster tail turns white, the water around you turns myriad shades of blue, and you realize it was just a trick of the eye.
Now, picture a line of those photosensitive rooster tails parading on the open waterways between the passes in the mangroves. That’s just one of the many visuals that get etched in your memory during the annual Miami Boat Show/Islamorada Poker Run organized by the Florida Powerboat Club in February.
By design, the event happens Thursday through Sunday after the Miami International Boat Show. That way, a lot of the go-fast hardware displayed at the show can be put through its very first paces on the water the following week. It’s not uncommon for owners to take delivery of their new boats at the docks Sea Isle Marina in Biscayne Bay, where the run begins, or even at Grove Harbor Marine in Coconut Grove, the sole card-stop for the event.
“Our events have changed a lot since we started,” said Stu Jones, founder and owner of the Florida Powerboat Club. “Multiple card stops really don’t fit into what we do now. So we’ll have just the one card stop at Grove Harbor, then head for lunch at Gilbert’s. Everyone gets the rest of their cards at Islamorada.”
Poker runs began more than two decades ago as “card games” of sorts. Get a bunch of performance-boat owners together. Charge them an entry fee. Give them four stops where they pick up one card at each stop. Give them one more card at their final destination, where they have a banquet and a party. Best five-card poker hand takes all the dough.
That was the basic idea, anyway. Many now donate a significant amount of their proceeds to charity. But what poker runs really have provided since their inception is an activity in which performance-boat owners and their lucky families and friends can run together, and later hang out and get to know one another better.
“Poker runs have been tremendous for our industry,” said Skip Braver, owner and chief executive officer of Cigarette Racing Team, the builder of Cigarette performance boats.
Cigarette was one of 10 marine industry sponsors—down from more than 20 sponsors in the better years—for this year’s event. A reflection of the economy, the run was also down from its fleet peak of 90-plus boats to 67 boats.
“The economy is still recovering, and we know that the performance-boat industry will be one of the last sectors of the economy to recover,” said Jones. “So we set our expectations accordingly. Our boat count met our expectations. Our industry sponsor numbers met our expectations.
“But the Miami Boat Show Poker Run is still, as it always has been, a stellar display of some of the best hardware out there,” Jones continued. “And it’s truly a ‘pocket poker run.’ You have half the fleet and half the running distance that we have for the Key West Poker Run, and that just makes it so manageable.”
The stellar display of hardware, as Jones called it, during this year’s event was in fact world-class. Attracting a slew of dock-gawkers at Holiday Isle was Derek Wachob’s brand-new, all-carbon-fiber Corvette-themed black 48-foot MTI catamaran with a fully enclosed canopy and twin Mercury Racing 1350 engines. Just down the row from it was Terminator, another 48-foot MTI, this one owned by Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and recently repowered with twin Mercury Racing 1350s. A few steps down the docks was a 44-foot-long MTI, formerly owned by Haynesworth, called Hellraiser.
And the fleet wasn’t limited to spectacular catamarans. Cigarette brought the redesigned 50-foot-long Marauder V-bottom it displayed the week before at the boat show. While Outerlimits didn’t have an “industry” presence at the run, the Bristol, R.I. custom V-bottom builder was well-represented by a slew of boats including a stunning gray and white 43-footer with a pair of 725-hp Ilmor engines.
Nor-Tech, Donzi, Fountain, and more—the hardware list was extensive. As was the weekend of partying, which as always centered around the infamous Holiday Isle Tiki Bar.
Come Sunday morning, the crowd began departing boat by boat, most of them headed back to Miami. The city starts as a blip on the horizon when you first spy it on the return leg north. Slowly but surely it grows before your eyes. The skyscrapers gain definition first, followed by the thin aerial lines of the causeways and bridges and, finally, the towers on the cruise ships docked end to end in Biscayne Bay’s Government Cut, which leads to the Atlantic Ocean.
Like the rooster tails of go-fast boats when the sun ducks behind a cloud, that’s just one of the visuals that gets etched into your memory during the Miami Boat Show Poker Run.
Editor's Note: All photos courtesy of the Florida Powerboat Club
Matt Trulio is the editor at large for Powerboat magazine. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Trulio’s daily blog can be found on speedonthewater.com, a site he created and maintains, which is the high-performance arm of the BoaterMouth group.