When Bad is (Really) Good, Part II

The Cleffi's 38-foot Cigarette Top Gun pace boat.

When I woke up two Sunday mornings ago in Orange Beach, Ala., I had no idea where I would watch the final races of the Offshore Powerboat Association World Championships. I only knew where I wouldn’t be—in a helicopter. Contracted to shoot the race for Powerboat magazine, photographer Jamie Russell had graciously offered me a seat in the Robinson 44 he had hired for the race, but I’d declined.


Been there and done that a bunch of times, and for watching an offshore race a helicopter provides the best seat in the house. But I have no need or desire to ever do it again. I’m still a little haunted by the death of photographer Tom Newby in a helicopter crash a few years back. Strike that—I’m afraid, and my fear isn’t going anywhere.


So there I was on the docks in the wet pits, where I wanted to be shortly after each race for interviews, looking for a ride to watch the action. The Geico Cigarette 39 Top Gun pace boat—my ride for Friday’s races—was full. My alternate ride, a 38-foot Cigarette Top Gun (see yesterday’s blog) was down with a broken blower. It was beginning to look like a long day of standing around on the docks and waiting for racers to return until Vincent Cleffi, who I’d met briefly the day before, spotted me.


“Hey, you want to ride with us?” he asked. “We’re one of the pace boats.”

 Vincent Cleffi

Cleffi seemed like a reasonable guy, albeit one with a wild look in his eyes, and I watched him run sensibly the day before in his 38-foot Cigarette with 850-hp Zul engines.


About 20 minutes later we were leading the smaller-boat classes, which would start in the third wave, through their parade lap. On board was OPA starting official Lenny Hill and Cleffi’s brother, Jason.


A pace boat’s role is to bring the race boats it is a leading to a comfortable speed, which varies from class to class, and then when they are roughly even with one another drop the yellow flag and wave the green one. At best, it’s an inexact “science,” but Hill nailed it—at least from where I sat—both times.


Then we were left to float in the middle of the course until the last race boat had finished.


And that’s where things got fun, because the Cleffi brothers are a two-man comedy team, a pair of New Jersey characters who take pure delight in torturing one another. Sample conversation:


Jason, pointing to a weathered glove box cover: “I’m going to replace this when we get home.”


Vincent: “Why?”


Jason: “Because it looks terrible. It’s all worn out.”


Vincent: “We don’t need to.”


Jason (getting exasperated): “Yeah, we do.”


Vincent: “Why?”


Jason says nothing. He simply waves his hand in the direction of his brother’s face and the message is clear: I’m done talking with you.

 Jason Cleffi

That’s the kind of dialogue—at least the kind that’s publishable—you can expect from a day on the water with the Cleffi brothers. It reminded me of, well, being with own brother, and I couldn’t get enough of it.


“We love working on the boat—as you can see, it’s an older 38 Top Gun and we’ve restored it a little bit of the time,” Vincent told me as we idled out to start a boat class in the second race of the day.


When he added that his 850-hp engines were hooked to Bravo XR drives, and that one of them was “going,” he could see the look of concern on my face.


“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a wrench. We’re in the trucking business. I can build a diesel engine from the bottom up—I’ve done it.”


As it happened, we were the last “official” boat—with exception of the turn boats—back to the docks after the second race. We had to wait until the course was clear, and the final race boat was hell-bent on finishing its laps despite a mechanical issue that had it topping out at roughly 40 mph.


Having spent hours at idle, the Cleffi brothers wanted to head back out to “blow the carbon” out of their engines before putting the boat back on the trailer and heading to Miami for the night. From there, they planned to fly home to New Jersey. As I climbed over the starboard gunwale and onto the dock, both thanked me profusely for coming on board.


“Hey guys, no, thank you,” I said. “You made this day fun. You made it a pleasure.”


I smiled as they pulled away, wondering not how many arguments they would have between Orange Beach and Miami, but how many they would have between the channel and open water.