101 POKER RUNS
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO JOIN A POKER RUN? WE FIND OUT FOR YOU.
TThe first thing to know about poker runs is that it’s not about the poker. The five-card hand is incidental. A poker run is also not all about the boats — who’s the fastest, the brightest, the loudest, the newest. For most participants, a poker run is about camaraderie and friendship among members of a pretty exclusive club.
We spent a June weekend immersed in poker run culture at the 10th Annual Four Horsemen Poker Run on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a gathering that drew 74 gofast boats and more than 250 participants. We were among people who crave high-performance boats and the experience of going fast on the water. For many owners, a poker run is the best place to mingle with other performanceboat enthusiasts and feel welcome.
“When I try to launch my Outerlimits at McKinley Marina in Milwaukee, I get a frosty reception,” said one Four Horseman participant who asked that we not use his name. “I’ve been told I’m not welcome, even after I installed turn-down outlets to quiet the exhaust. I get the stink eye from the sailors, which ruins the fun of going out. At a poker run we are celebrating these boats and are welcomed by the local community.”
“IT’S A TURNKEY WAY FOR PEOPLE TO COME FROM ANOTHER AREA AND ENJOY NEW WATER AND THE COMPANY OF OTHER FAST-BOAT OWNERS.”
The idea of a poker run probably originated with motorcyclists. A group ride is organized with five to seven card stops, and at each the participant draws a card. At the end of the route, the best poker hand wins cash or a prize. Motorcycle poker runs have traditionally had a charity angle, with an entry fee that covers expenses and the prize kitty, and the remainder going to a good cause. These motorcyclists could just gather and ride together, but adding the card-stop element gives the outing some structure. Somebody else has handled the logistics, and the riders can just have fun.
This is exactly the premise of a powerboat poker run.
“Our poker run events are a vacation for powerboaters,” says Stu Jones, owner of the Florida Powerboat Club, based in Pompano Beach. “It’s a turnkey way for people to come from another area and enjoy new water and the company of other fast-boat owners.”
Jones has been organizing poker runs as a business for 25 years. The 2018 FPC schedule includes 10 events in Florida, the Bahamas and Europe, plus a fly-in trip to Cuba.
“The original idea was to explore Florida venues with boaters who have a passion for this lifestyle, and that has not changed over the years,” Jones says. “We provide a structured event and organize the docks, the hotels, the fuel, the course, the food and the party. Some participants are looking for fun competition and want to show off their boat and their skills, to put on a good show. Others are there just to be around the scene. They may not have a jaw-dropping boat, but we put people from different social and economic levels in the same playground, with just a few rigid rules regarding safety.”
That same formula was in play at the
Four Horsemen run. Granted, Oshkosh is not Miami and Lake Winnebago is not the Florida Keys, but this event has been growing each year despite some past bad luck with weather. This June the weather was great, and the docks on the Fox River in downtown Oshkosh were lined with a dazzling collection of performance boats from across the Midwest. I counted 23 different brands, and boat lengths ranged from 21 feet to 53 feet.
My partner for the weekend was Matt Trulio, editor/co-publisher of speedonthewater .com, who covers poker runs across the country and personally attends six events a year. This was his first Four Horsemen run, but I was a made man hanging with Trulio, who had already seen many of the boats and their owners at other events across the country.
“You start attending these runs and you make friends everywhere you go,” says Vinnie Diorio of Richfield, Wisconsin, owner of an Outerlimits SV43 and his trucking company, who attends seven or eight runs a year from Buffalo to Lake Havasu, and Miami to Lake of the Ozarks. “When you come back to a run, your buddies from the area are all there. It’s about the camaraderie.”
Four Horsemen organizer Sharron Radtke hooked us up with Glenn Kennedy of Milwaukee, owner of a spectacular Outerlimits SV43 powered by a pair of 1,385 hp Teague Custom Marine engines. Kennedy was accompanied by friend and navigator Justin Hart. Kennedy is the COO of a manufacturing company and a button-down guy, exactly the captain we wanted for the day. He’s been having fun with fast boats for about 18 years, starting with a 38 Scarab and progressing through a Donzi 38ZR, a Nor-Tech 36 Super Cat, a 43 Outerlimits Closed Canopy, and a 47 Fountain.
The riverfront Dockside Tavern served as event headquarters, hosting music and fellowship on Friday evening, and breakfast and a driver’s meeting on Saturday morning. We snapped into Type III life jackets and shoved off at about 10 a.m., heading upriver past the Mercury Marine Plant 33 test center and into Lake Buttes des Morts, where throttles were dropped with the fast group (boats capable of 100 mph or more) leading the way. The first card stop was a cabin cruiser flying a giant weather balloon, anchored in Lake Poygan
above the town of Winneconne. Hart clambered to the foredeck and snatched a large envelope clipped to a long pole offered by a hand on the cruiser. Our first card. And we roared back down the river.
Rather than complain about the racket, locals turned out in force to watch the boat parade. Runabouts and pontoons were anchored along the route, and one buffoon who parked his pontoon right in the middle of a narrow channel on Lake Buttes des Morts got a close-up view of some very fast boats. Lunch was a buffet at the Emprize Brew Mill in Menasha on the north end of Lake Winnebago.
Trulio commented before the event that a poker run tends to reflect the culture of the area, and he was interested to see how that
would translate to central Wisconsin.
“At the Tickfaw 200, you get the wild, anything-goes attitude of New Orleans,” Trulio says. “At the Florida Powerboat Club events, there are lots of girls in bikinis staffing the card stops. Oshkosh is more familyoriented, but there may be more celebratory drinking after the run.”
There were bloody marys at breakfast, and lunch was at a brewery, but our captain had a soda. During lunch the wind picked up and very shallow Lake Winnebago got rough, and Kennedy announced that he was heading back to the dock, not willing to beat us up or to invest valuable engine hours running 65 mph through a stiff chop.
“Nothing over 1,000 horsepower is easy to live with, and I’ve got 28 hours on these engines already,” he explained.
I spent the rest of the afternoon prowling the dock, starting each conversation with a simple request: “Tell me about your boat.” Everyone had a story.
My favorite crew was the “Sexy Six,” three couples from the Minneapolis area in a 2004 Outerlimits 39 Quattro owned by Tom and Stacy Derner. Tom’s in lawn irrigation, and Four Horsemen was his first outing with this boat. He traded up from a 33 Baja like trading a Camaro for a Porsche. The men wore matching event shirts, and the women dressed in orange tops that matched the Outerlimits. This crew was having a blast.
“We did our first poker run in 2007 in a 25-foot Larson Senza, not really a performance boat,” Tom Derner said. “But everyone was great, and we had so much fun and were hooked. Now we’ll do four runs a year, including a trip to the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout.”
Registration for Four Horsemen was $350 plus $150 for each crewmember. Derner
I COUNTED 23 DIFFERENT BOAT BRANDS, AND BOAT LENGTHS RANGED FROM 21 TO 53 FEET.
estimates the weekend cost him $2,000 including hotel, fuel and the tow down from Minneapolis. The Florida Powerboat Club events fee is $750 for captain and first mate, but it’s a more-deluxe experience that includes aerial photography and video, and a new car for the winner.
A full-house hand won the $2,500 Four Horsemen poker prize. At most events the winners give cash prizes right back to the associated charity. Because it’s not about the poker.