Symposium: River Dance
“Oh, we’ve blown up engines, drives, just about everything,” Gary Montano says matter-of-factly as we prepare to board Montano Motorsports, his $750,000 Cigarette speedboat. He gives my life jacket one final tug. “Can you swim?” he asks with a smile.
Half an hour later, we are puttering up New York’s Hudson River, poised to ignite the 46-foot Cigarette’s twin 1,100-hp Sterling engines and rocket as fast as 106 mph. “Whatever you do, when you’re turning your head, do this,” shouts Montano, holding his sunglasses with two fingers at the bridge of his nose. “If you turn your head at the speed we’re gonna go, say good-bye.” I nod, sit down, and take my sunglasses off, because I have no intention of removing either hand from the bar in front of me.
We are competing in the New York City Powerboat Rally, also known as the New York City Poker Run. The objective is for each powerboat to travel to different docks along the Hudson, pick up a playing card at each location, and return to Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City, N.J., with a full five-card hand; the owner with the best cards wins. Truthfully, the poker is irrelevant. The game is an excuse for more than 100 speedboats and their too-tanned, testosterone-addled owners—most in their 20s and 30s—to sprint up the Hudson at heart-stopping speeds. “It’s an ego thing,” admits Montano, who, at 54, is a self-described dinosaur among his peers. “It’s all about who’s the fastest and who looks the nicest.”
Because of commercial traffic on the Hudson, the boats are limited to 10 knots until we reach the George Washington Bridge, where the restriction is lifted. From there, each boat navigates a flat-out 15-mile run to the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Denny Hejja, Montano’s crew chief, punches the throttle, and the Cigarette blasts off. The two Sterlings, located just behind my head, are shrieking in sync with the roar of the waves in our wake. The steady thud-thud-thud of the hull pounding the water shudders throughout the boat. I feel as though I am in a supermarket cart rolling downhill on a cobblestone road, powerless to prevent the unspeakable from occurring.
With the Cigarette’s engines howling at 5,000 rpm, if Hejja makes the slightest error while adjusting the Cigarette’s trim tabs (devices to adjust the boat’s angle on the water), the 14,000-pound boat will perform a hook: an instantaneous 90-degree turn that would catapult us into the Hudson. The flotilla of approaching powerboats would shred our bodies, but we would be dead before hitting the water, our necks having snapped from the force of the ejection. “The water is a very dangerous mistress,” Montano says somberly. “There isn’t a year that goes by without deaths.”
Our lives are literally in Hejja’s hands, the ones controlling the wheel, the throttle, and the trim tabs. The crew chief is “reading the water,” avoiding rogue waves, watching for debris, and keeping away from other boats. Several times, the boat goes airborne—a sickening sensation at triple-digit speeds—and Hejja backs off the throttle, which keeps the engine from over-revving, then eases the boat back into the water to prevent the propellers from breaking.
We are testing the limits of horsepower, hull technology, and ego, kept in check by Hejja, who knows exactly where the edge lies—and not to cross it.
After the rally, I drive home in a BMW 760Li, turning on the massage function to soothe my back, which is still as tight as a snare drum. I am steering the whisper-quiet 4,872-pound sedan with one hand, changing radio stations with the other, until I notice that the speedometer reading is nearing 100 mph. I slow down, put two hands on the wheel, and remind myself that when I get home, I need to thank Hejja for keeping me alive and Montano for giving me a newfound respect for speed.