• Offshore Legends Series: Charlie McCarthy, "Top Banana" Part One



    Charlie McCarthy, both an Icon and Founder here on Serious, was one of the group of adrenaline junkies who decided that offshore racing would be the focus of a desire for speed as a first choice. It was not the only choice, as he has raced automobiles on tracks and across the country. Including in the Cannonball Run made so famous by Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett.

    This year he is celebrating the 10TH Anniversary of the Historic Offshore Race Boat Association. The HORBA association strives to keep the history of the sport, both by the written word and the restoration of offshore race boats, alive and well for future generations to enjoy.




    SOS: Letís start with your history, and what it was that caused you to decide to channel your energy into offshore racing and high performance offshore boat building?

    Charlie: I was very fortunate to grow up in a summer house right n the beach with Narragansett Bay as my playground. My parents allowed me to have outboard skiffs from a very young age and I was always doing something to make them faster. I "learned" through trial and error and there were a lot of errors. I remember a 10 foot flat bottom skiff that I had with a 5 HP Buccaneer outboard on. I figured out that if I could get my weight further forward, I could get the boat to plane and run faster. I came up with the high tech solution of a broomstick taped on the tiller handle, (using tape off my hockey stick.) It worked. Years later I saw someone invented the same thing and made a fortune with an aluminum shaft.

    In the beach community that I lived in, a lot of the young guys would get up early in the morning and go out in our 16 and 18 foot work skiffs and dig quahogs. For those who don't know, those are clams or little necks that you order in a restaurant. Anyway, we would dig from about 5:30 AM to noon and then sell them to the buying boats that were spotted all over the bay. Then a mad dash (race) back to our community for lunch and an afternoon of water skiing. And of course by that time of the day, the girls would be awake and down at the beach waiting or the return of all the guys....put a little extra pressure on arriving first. LOL

    So my skiff was rudely tuned by cutting yardsticks and shoving the pieces under the motor to lift it higher off the transom. Horsepower back then started in the 25 HP range in the mid 50's up to 40 HP by the end of the 50's. I had two boats then, the 16 foot work skiff and a 14 foot plywood runabout made by Whirlwind. It was like a Yellow Jacket. So one morning I decided that I would make my work skiff the fastest of the bunch. I took my 35 HP engine that was on the work skiff and moved it over on the transom and then took my 40 HP motor off the Whirlwind and added that alongside the 35 HP motor. OK, now I had a twin engine boat.....problem was both motors had a tiller that controlled the throttle and steering. I convinced a friend of mine, to ride on one side of the boat and drive one motor and I would sit on the other side and drive the other one. We really had to plan ahead for turns, but it worked and it was fast.



    Charlie in the Whirlwind, Boat #6 - Only 85 miles to go!

    With the Whirlwind, I discovered that if I moved from the steering wheel position up front and sat on the transom in the rear, the boat would raise itself out of the water and run faster. Now that as a lesson I carried with me many years later, as I trimmed my 38 foot Top Banana up to pull ahead in the Bushmills race in California. So each boat starting to get bigger and faster. Exception was I had a little 10 foot hydroplane with a canvas deck and I would kneel down and squeeze the throttle to make it go. Lesson learned in that boat was, the time I was blasting along and then..... the motor revved and the boat slowed all in an instant.......problem? Prop fell off! Learn to double check all the nuts and bolts and anything else that can loosen. A small skiff with a small outboard motor, can teach you everything you will ever need to know about how to boat safely.

    More outboard boats and then I did a marathon race of 85 miles in 1958 with my Whirlwind and won. I liked the longer format. Then finally stepping up to an inboard SK boat with a flat bottom. I was doing long distance ski races then, 50 and 75 mile races and that was a great tow boat. Then APBA racing, first circle stuff then the enduros. That was it ....what could be better than racing for really long distances or time. On land I was drag racing, but found out the better I got, the less time I raced...that was the end of that.

    So 1963, I started college in Florida and my roommate's Dad owned a race boat with a professional driver, named Steel City Special. He would compete in the Orange Bowl regatta and I got to be part of the pit crew. They were good friends with Mike Gordon who raced a SK Rayson Craft named Fish Peddler after his waterside restaurant and I got to be part of that pit crew too.



    Mike Gordon's SK Rayson Craft

    So quickly now, Mike Gordon bought a 27 foot race boat for the Miami to Key west race in Fall of 1963, from a new guy in town who started a new boat company called Formula. He needed parts for it and my roommate and I were sent to pick up the parts at the Formula factory at a place called NE 188th St in N Miami. Our instructions were...."Ask for Don Aronow, he is the owner of the company and he will have the parts for you." Back then he wasn't a legend...he was just Don.

    Once I was exposed to open ocean racing, there was no turning back.



    Mike Gordon's 27 Formula

    SOS: What is your most fond memory of the time you spent running in offshore races?

    Charlie: My fondest memories were the times when we found ourselves running totally alone without another boat in sight and nothing but horizon and empty ocean for 360 degrees. That was when you needed the mental discipline to believe in your team. To believe your navigator really had you on the right course and that everyone on that boat was willing to push hard, when there was no one to witness it. Sure we could have backed off a bit when the waves were big to take it easy and only we would have known....but we would not have won that day.



    Running Totally Alone Without Another Boat In Sight, California

    It's funny but so many years later those are the things I take the greatest pleasure in. My son was at a conference held by Professional Boat Builders Magazine recently and several of the old racers were there; Sammy James, Brownie, Richie Powers when the writer from the magazine mentioned my name. Richie Powers, who was one of the best riggers and throttle men of the sport as evidenced by his helping drivers to win seven World Champion titles, reacted immediately to the mention of my name by saying..... "Charlie was a very tough competitor, especially if the water was rough". To hear one of the people that I respect so much say something like that, made my day for sure. Only the racers that went through the same race conditions that you did really know what it takes....I think that forms the bond we all feel for each other in HORBA.

    SOS: There have been many tragedies in offshore, both on land and in the water. Would you care to say anything about your least favorite offshore experience?

    Charlie: My worst race was a Plymouth 160 one year. It was a perfect storm of a lot of things going wrong at the same time. As a boat builder from the northeast, I always tried to help in any way that I could to promote the sport. So for this particular race which was held each year on the weekend after Labor Day, I had agreed that Banana Boat Co would be there with our factory race boat..Top Banana ..and several of our customers would also race in their production boats. Motorboat magazine had contacted me and asked if they could send a writer to the race and would I allow him to ride in the boat during the race. I agreed that I would. We had some last minute checklist issues on the race boat at the shop, so I went on ahead and the crew followed later. The weather forecast was miserable, rain and fog with cold winds...winter was coming to New England and just wanted to let everyone know it.



    Guy Lombardo Race, Long Island New York

    I tested the boat the afternoon before the race and had agreed to do a TV interview with a reporter out of a Boston station. He wanted to do some flyby shots of the boat and he also wanted to take a ride in the boat to get a feel of what it was really like. I did a couple of wave jumps outside the harbor mouth and I could see he had enough of offshore racing so I turned to take him back in. A police boat was coming out with all the lights on and waved me down to a stop. I thought it might have been because I left the no wake zone too early or something like that. When they got close they asked .."Is Charlie McCarthy on board?" I answered that I was Charlie. They said..."There has been a family emergency and you need to call home right away."

    I dropped the reporter off with them and proceeded back to the wet pits dock where my crew was. No one would tell me what was up, but said to call my wife right away. When I finally found a phone (before the era of cell phones) and got through to her, she told me that my father had died that day just after lunch.



    Bushmills, 1979

    I went back to my hotel and just let it all sink in. What to do? My wife was coming later that day with the kids when they got out of school, so I just waited for her. When she arrived, we just sat and talked and talked. At first I was going to withdraw from the race, but reminded myself of how my father was really my first sponsor and my best supporter in my racing career. I was going to do the race for him in his memory. I thought it would be the first time that he could actually ride along with me in an offshore race...in spirit anyway. So I stayed in.

    Race morning and the weather had gotten worse, rain, heavy at times and fog banks. Part of the course would take us by the nuclear power plant near the Cape Cod canal where the compasses would spin and spin. It wasn't too bad in clear weather but on a day like this, I didn't want to lose my way and run up on the rocks. The writer shows up with goggles over his glasses and an open face helmet. My navigator and I have face bubbles on the front of our helmets. I take him aside and explain that the face bubbles we have prevent our faces from the raindrops at high speed, against our bare skin. We send a crew guy out to find a bubble at a local motorcycle shop...no luck. So he gets in with his goggles.



    Benihana Race,1976. Point Pleasant, NJ

    Race starts and off we go. The rain hitting his face was so bad he rode with his head tipped down to let the top of the helmet take the raindrops. Not good for knowing when to hold on, but he hangs in there. As we near the nuclear power plant, the compasses start to spin. Thinking about this problem, at breakfast, my navigator and I had decided that before we get to the area, he would take a look at the course we were on and then he would turn around and watch the wake to make sure it stayed straight. The compasses start spinning and he turns around and guides me with his thumb....go left....go right...go left. We calculated no more than 5 minutes and we would be clear. When I see the spinning has stopped I tap him and turn him around. It worked, no rocks and we are right where we should be. I said a silent prayer of thanks to my dad.



    Artist: George Bartell (I'll never look at this painting again without thinking of Charlie's Father.)

    After the checkpoint turn at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown, we are heading into big water and the ride is getting a bit wild. The rain has stopped but the visibility is still very poor as we go through fog banks. On one large wave, we leap high and the boat hits a smaller wave between the big ones. This trips the boat and now it heads in for a dive. My navigator and I have done this before so we both automatically put our head lower and with helmets down. As the bow goes under and the wall of water comes over the deck, it rolls up the windshield and breaks against the top of our helmets. The bow comes back up and I push the throttles hard to get the speed back. (Yes, as with many other drivers back then, I drove, trimmed and throttled). We get going again and I notice the bolster is empty on my other side where the writer was. Oh No....I look back and can't see anything floating in the water. I pull the throttles back and turn to go back and look for him. All of a sudden I feel something pull on my leg and I look down into the open hole in the bolster.



    Yes....we found our writer. Here he is on the floor of the cockpit. He starts to come up the hole and I see that the wave smashed his goggles and the lens is gone. But sticking out of the goggle frame through the hole where the lens should be, is his full beard, Quick check for blood (slippery under you feet) and finding none we are off. He was a wreck but hung in there like a pro. I think his jacket and pants were ripped, but he was still game, so off we go toward the finish. We won. Lots of missing boats and breakdowns, but somehow we managed to finish and win too. I give my dad a lot of the credit for this win. I really felt that he was proud of me and was glad I raced.

    SOS: Stay Tuned for Charlie McCarthy, "Top Banana" Part Two
    Comments 14 Comments
    1. Ratickle's Avatar
      Ratickle -




      24' Banana Boat - Top Banana The birth of the Banana Boat Company.

      This hull used to be the Cigarette 24. It was the first 24 foot boat made from the molds that Don Aronow took from the Cigarette production and sold to Charlie. The boat was rigged by Don for Charlie at Magnum Marine. Don owned both Cigarette and Magnum at the time.

      The deck is a 24 Cigarette deck that has additions to make the race configuration. Engines were twin 350 TRS packages blueprinted by Stan Irwin of Miami.

      Driver/owner Charlie McCarthy, Navigator Ron Morrison, and Mechanic, Dick Hart. Charlie drove and throttled the boat.

      The top photo is from the 1976 Key West Race it took first place in the Modified class. The boat also took first place in Gloucester, Plymouth and Narragansett Bay that year.

      The boat was sold in 1978 and raced for another year under the name Gone Bananas by Chuck Fogarty and Neil Cody.
    1. Serious News's Avatar
      Serious News -


    1. jetcruzr's Avatar
      jetcruzr -
      Great Stuff, Cannot wait to read more!
    1. Ratickle's Avatar
      Ratickle -
      It still amazes me to see some of the pics where the boats are so high in the air. Especially the 24's!!!!!!
    1. Serious News's Avatar
      Serious News -
    1. Top Banana's Avatar
      Top Banana -
      The two guys that raced Gone Bananas were Green Berets that had just come back from Viet Nam. They had a lot of stories and we all listened and smiled thinking...yeah, sure, nice story.

      Then one day it became real. One of these guys went to lunch in Newport with another Banana Boat owner. They had a nice lunch and after walked back to the marina where they left the other guys boat. Their path led them through a warehouse area. One of the warehouses had a big fence around the yard and as they walked by, a Doberman Pinscher came running out and came right up to the fence really barking and jumping around.

      The Gone Banana guy told the dog to ...Shut Up. The dog kept barking. Next thing this guy is over the fence and chases the dog back into the warehouse. My other customer told me that the look in the dogs eye was pure fear as he watched him climb the fence. A few minutes later he came back and jumped back over and they walked back to the boat. He was real and so were the stories. He loved offshore racing, he said it gave him the same rush as combat did.
    1. Top Banana's Avatar
      Top Banana -
      Yes, I said there were two guys who raced this boat.

      The other guy? Well, to say that he had a different way to deal with stress is putting it mildly.

      He would sit at the bar and enjoy a nice stiff drink.......and then he would eat the glass. Yup, the glass would disappear.
    1. Ratickle's Avatar
      Ratickle -
      I watched a guy eat a glass once. What a nut!!


      Any idea if they are still around somewhere?
    1. Serious News's Avatar
      Serious News -
    1. Ratickle's Avatar
      Ratickle -
      There was a 66 Top Banana and a 60 Top Banana. Were they the same boat with different numbers?
    1. Top Banana's Avatar
      Top Banana -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratickle View Post
      There was a 66 Top Banana and a 60 Top Banana. Were they the same boat with different numbers?
      The 66 was going to be my number of the 1978 season.

      As you know the boat was not ready until the 79 season and by then number 60 had freed up, which had been my first choice.
    1. Serious News's Avatar
      Serious News -
      This picture (small above) is Charlie and JC Simons together as Charlie signs the last check for the boat design.

    1. Serious News's Avatar
      Serious News -
      All of the photos in post 12 are from the first water test in Fort Lauderdale in 1978.
    1. Ratickle's Avatar
      Ratickle -
      "Top Banana"

      The phrase “top banana,” meaning the leader or boss, traces its roots back to vaudeville. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the term caught on after a leading vaudevillian, Frank Lebowitz, incorporated bananas into his act in the early 1900s; the term “second banana,” for supporting actor, also caught on around this time.