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Paul Dean

Speed Demon Who Loves to Make Waves

April 04, 1987|Paul Dean

The impossibilities: Joe DiMaggio, at 72, returning to the Yankees and still batting third. Ben Hogan, 74, playing the current PGA tour and Sam Hanks, 66, qualifying for this year's Indy 500.

The actuality: Bob Nordskog, at 73, driving today's brutal Rum Run for offshore power boats. It will be an open water hammering from Long Beach to Catalina Island and back at 90-miles-per-hour for two hours.

"The only way to beat Father Time is to ignore him," Nordskog said. Or to avoid callow, soft journalists and their predictions for the retirement of this old man from his cruel sea.

"I'll retire when I feel that I don't have the ability to react. Or if the pain is too great."

Wise money is on the pain. Four decades of offshore racing have brought Nordskog 45 world and national titles and a body that has been examined by every medical specialist except a coroner.

Crashing hydrobatics in 50-ton boats have given him six concussions. A ruptured spleen and kidney. Broken ribs, arm and leg. Punctured lung. Nothing really more serious, he says, than loose connections and a few leaks.

Why? "Exhilaration, the fun," he explains. "Otherwise, why would I get myself on the ragged edge?"

Nordskog, a millionaire industrialist from Tarzana, is the beloved great-grandaddy of this blood sport for affluent masochists. He holds its records, serves its committees and international organizations . . . and sponsors many of its races, including today's Rum Race.

The event is in mild commemoration of Prohibition when rum was ferried from Mexico, unloaded offshore and smuggled by speedboat to Santa Monica and San Diego.

Little has changed. The current arena is the Atlantic coast off Miami. The contraband is Colombian cocaine with final delivery by powerboats similar to those modified for more legal water sports.

"As a matter of fact, the boat you see in 'Miami Vice' is the same as this one," Nordskog said. We're burbling away from the California Yacht Club at Marina del Rey. "It's a 38-foot Scarab by Welcraft and constructed of Kevlar, the stuff used to make bulletproof vests.

"This boat has twin 850-horsepower engines built on Chevrolet Corvette blocks. Today I want to test some new propellers that should give us greater efficiency with a higher top end.

"Hook this kill line to your life vest. We call it that because if you get tossed out of the boat it kills the engine. Or kills you.

"I'm sure this won't be the case, but if it gets too scary . . . well, I've had people huddle in the cockpit where they couldn't see anything. Y'know, eight people were killed in offshore power boat races last season. Broken necks."

OK, old man. Show me your stuff.

The yellow, tangerine-flake missile boils out of the channel. Other boats seem to quiver. They sense the menace of this hull; one-third stuffed with men and machines, two-thirds a restless broadhead sniffing for range and speed.

Nordskog's foot digs deeper. Forty-miles-per-hour. Fifty. Ride control plates are set. So is Nordskog's target, a dot of a buoy between Santa Monica and Malibu.

Boomhisss. Sixty-miles-per-hour. Kerslap. Seventy. Suddenly, the essence of the sport. The exhilaration of a cavorting, wave smashing thing; a living, dangerous roller coaster. The fun of riding a bucking sea bronc, standing up, knees flexed in honor of Nordskog's warning: "Stiff leg it and you'll push your hips through their sockets."

Then that ragged edge. The boat is almost berserk. It's thrashing from rock-hard crest to brick-wall swell. She's airborne. She's thumping down, hard. Part fighter plane, half racing car.

And the ocean gives up. No matter how angry, no matter how heavy, mere water cannot harm this boat. We have conquered.

"We got her to about 90," says Nordskog. He apologizes. "The new props weren't working. There was no point in going flat out. . . . "

Pity. The whole morning ruined.

Race start at 10 a.m. abeam the Queen Mary, Pier J, Long Beach Harbor. Ends at noon. Free viewing from pier or Queen Mary.

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