Insurance executive Scott Safranek of Omaha, Nebraska has been an avid go-fast boater for years on Midwestern lakes and rivers. But Safranek felt intimidated at the prospect of driving his 29-foot Baja with twin 700-horsepower engines in the open ocean.
That’s why he joined the 200-plus-member Florida Powerboat Club last month — just so he’d have plenty of experienced company boating nearly 170 miles from Miami to Key West. About 150 boats, from 28-foot outboards to 160-foot megayachts, were signed up for the club’s annual Key West Poker Run — the largest event of its kind in the world — sandwiched between the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and the Key West World Championship powerboat races.
Accompanied by his wife and another couple, Safranek skippered one of the smallest boats in the fleet and said he averaged between 70 and 90 miles per hour for the trip. They stopped at two checkpoints en route to Key West to pick up playing cards; in a poker run, whoever draws the best hand wins a prize at the end. And after the group arrived safely in the Island City, Safranek found out he took the grand prize — a 2013 Mustang convertible.
He was hooked.
“What I got out of this whole deal, besides the car, it was a bucket list thing to do,” Safranek said. “But now I want to do more of these things. It turned out to be a first-class experience I’ll probably never forget.”
For more than 20 years, the Florida Powerboat Club — headquartered in Pompano Beach and led by founder/president Stu Jones — has been conducting large groups of boaters on outings around Florida and to the Bahamas. The club reserves hotel rooms and dock space, sets up transportation for boat owners’ vehicles, and organizes parties and day trips.
While many of the boats are large expensive speedsters capable of more than 100 miles per hour, the events are not races; they are simply excuses to go fast from one place to another, then socialize with other boaters at the destination.
“We show them the sizzle, how much fun it can be,” Jones said. “I make safety a top priority.”
Owing to rules imposed by the American Poker Runs Association and enforced by Jones, no one has been killed or seriously injured in a Florida Powerboat Club event. Mandatory safety meetings are held ahead of time. Participants must follow a pace boat and wear life jackets, and the skipper must wear a kill switch attached to the ignition key so that if he or she falls overboard, the engines will cut off. Drinking while driving is prohibited.
At the Key West event in early November, the club set up a Poker Run Village at the Conch Republic Seafood Co. and adjacent A & B Lobster dock. Performance boat builders such as Nor-Tech exhibited new models; beautiful women posed for photos and video wearing skimpy bathing suits. There were cocktail parties, a beach outing to uninhabited Boca Grande Key, and the Poker Run awards gala. Participating boats, which hailed from all over the U.S. and as far away as Europe, outnumbered offshore race competitors by more than three to one.
Amid reports that Super Boat International Productions president John Carbonell is considering relocating the worlds to Clearwater in 2014, Jones volunteered to fill the potential vacancy with a comparable spectator event. He proposed to several city commissioners to add a short-course, “shootout” format similar to auto drag racing to next year’s Poker Run. Commissioners appeared receptive during an informal meeting at the Poker Run Village.
Chris Bradley and his dad, who run a road building business in Austin, Texas, brought two Nor-Tech boats and an entourage of 18 family members and friends to the Poker Run.
“I’ve always been into the performance aspect of stuff,” Bradley said. “I enjoy the horsepower. Key West is a good place to decompress and get away from life. A light-hearted, good-time atmosphere. We’ve made good friends.”
Poker Runs are also good for the recreational boating business.
Nor-Tech, headquartered in North Fort Myers, displayed four new models at the village immediately after the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show. Marketing director Terry Sobo said they closed a sale in Key West for a $450,000 39-foot center-console after talking with the buyer at the show.
“Boat shows, Poker Runs, word-of-mouth all culminate together,” Sobo said. “It’s been a great opportunity for us over all these years.”
David Tievy of Gaithersburg, Md. has run four different Fountain performance boats in the 30- to 50-foot range since joining the Florida Powerboat Club in 2002. Tievy, who owns a business supplying communications gear to U.S. military forces, has become a Poker Run sponsor – donating $15,000 worth of electronics as prizes.
“We enjoy it so much we want to help the club succeed,” Tievy said. “I’ve grown with this club and this event.”