In Arizona, California, and Florida, three of the hottest states in the nation for high-performance powerboating, you can take to the water year-round. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t have to brave a few frosty mornings—I’ve scraped ice of the deck of a go-fast boat before running it on the Colorado River in Parker, Ariz., in February. But for the most part, the boating season never ends.
The rest of the United States has this quaint and intriguing season, at least from my perspective about 20 miles south of San Francisco, called “winter.” I know it not just because I see it on television, but because I have go-fast boating friends all over the country — make that all over the world — and they complain to me about it. Not because it’s cold (OK maybe because it’s cold) but because they can’t get on the water.
So the moment spring comes, the go-fast boating season kicks off. And that means, for those enthusiasts who want to either participate or spectate, hundreds of organized events from poker runs to offshore races to speed contests. So many events, so little time. So how do you choose, especially if you’re willing to travel? (That is, after all, what boat trailers are for.) Simple. You let me do it for you.
Here are my top five go-fast boating events in the United States for this summer.
As the event’s name vaguely implies, top speed is the thing at the annual Lake of the Ozarks Shootout. On Saturday and Sunday, the organizers open the liquid-mile course to high-performance boat speed freaks, and they get to make as many passes as they like—and are willing to pay for—during each day. Last year, Greg Olsen drove his 33-foot Eliminator Daytona catamaran to a radar-recorded, Top Gun top speed of 192 mph—and that’s not even the fastest speed in the history of the event. Several go-fast cats have posted speeds of more than 200 mph. For the best viewing, you want to raft-up with the spectator fleet on the side of the course. Hot tip for the raft-up? Designate a driver.
With an average fleet of somewhere around 150 boats, Florida’s Emerald Coast Poker Run is the largest poker run of the summer—and for several good reasons. First, the water from which the event takes its name is spectacular. Most of the run is done in the Destin area—we’re talking swimming pool colors against sugar sand beaches. Second, the structure of the run is casual and inviting. The event kicks off in the late morning, but unlike other poker runs there are no official group starts. Participants can collect cards and hit the lunch stop at their leisure throughout the day. They can run solo (yeah, right) or form groups. Third, the concentration of go-fast boats in relatively near proximity is as good as it gets.
That an offshore race, particularly one that by the old school definition isn’t run offshore, makes my top-five list of this summer’s go-fast boating events is something of a miracle. I’m an offshore racing fan and I find watching them painful, as in dull. But St. Clair, Mich., and its surrounding communities have embraced this Offshore Powerboat Association event in a big way, and for great viewing areas of the action on the river, impressive spectator turn-outs for the Saturday testing sessions and the Sunday races, and great times in the surrounding restaurants and watering holes, this one is a winner.
OK, this is a bit of “homer” choice. Discovery Bay, Calif., ground-zero for the Big Cat Poker Run that happens on the Sacramento River Delta, is about an hour from my home. But it remains a legit pick, because this 60- to 80-boat run, depending on the year, boasts some of the finest hardware west of the Mississippi. Two more reasons to hit the Big Cat? First, the course is an intriguing mix of serpentine slues that give way to open water and lead to casual hidden-gem restaurants and marina card stops. Second, the close-knit performance-boat community of Discovery Bay welcomes outsiders with open arms.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, the Boyne Thunder Poker Run started as a small-town event that has made its way onto most every dedicated poker-run enthusiast’s to-do list. Why? After all, Boyne City, the starting point for the run on the shores of Lake Charlevoix in Northern Michigan, isn’t exactly easy to get to. Here’s why: The environment is spectacular, and if the weather cooperates there is no finer place to boat in the country. For calm-water lovers, the Lake Charlevoix and Round Lake segments deliver. For those who like it rough, the Lake Michigan legs of the run have been known to kick hard. And the quality of the go-fast boat hardware is top-notch.