The Florida Powerboat Club brought the party to Key West, Fla.
By Gregg Mansfield
Photos by Tyler Jones, Florida Powerboat Club
When it comes to bucket list poker runs, Florida Powerboat Club’s Key West Offshore Poker Run would rank up there for most performance boaters.
The poker run delivers it all from the beauty of the Florida Keys to the thrills of watching championship offshore racing in one of the best venues in the country.
Its why Guy Wilson has run in the Florida Powerboat Club Key West event five times, piloting a 39’ Nor-Tech with co-owner Ron Paul and his family.
“The races add to the overall boating experience and being able to boat down to Key West is certainly a plus,” Wilson said. “You put the two together and It’s really hard to resist.”
Florida Powerboat Club President Stu Jones started the popular poker run, which runs in tandem with Key West Offshore World Championship every November. The 2023 Key West Offshore Poker Run had 250 boats making the run from Miami to Key West.
Club members have the option of leaving on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday for Key West. For Jones and his staff, the challenge is managing the boats so they don’t overwhelm services and restaurants along the 165-mile route to Key West. The club arranges a buffet lunch at Gilbert’s Resort in the Florida Key’s Key Largo and a stopover in Marathon for fuel.
With the popularity of performance center-console boats, the event dynamic has changed with the club requiring larger docks and more hotel rooms, both of which are in short supply in Key West during the World Championships.
“The size of the boats and the crew counts have increased dramatically,” he said. “A center-console-style boat means an owner doesn’t restrict his crew to four or six people, now he’s got 10 or 12 people on the boat. The sheer numbers of people and the sheer sizes of the boats for me as an organizer had a profound impact on how we ran our event.”
Members lean on Jones’ expertise, who leads each departure day, to make the trip to the southernmost point of the U.S. Jones has made the trip by boat hundreds of times since founding the club in 1993.
Don Hadden is one of the members who appreciates Jones providing a structured event to Key West. Hadden used to ride motorcycles and traded it for a 44’ Concept center-console boat.
“We wanted to go to the Bahamas and the Abacos and Key West, and we wanted to go with people that knew where to go,” said Hadden, who lives in North Augusta, Ga. “We kind of used them to find our way, but it turned out we were meeting a lot of good people, it was fun, and they were organized.”
In Key West, Florida Powerboat Club operates a poker run village that serves as a de facto clubhouse. Once the poker runners arrive, the first stop for most are the bars and restaurants on Duval Street. If you’ve never had a Prohibition Punch from Sloppy Joe’s or sang “Sweet Caroline” at the top of your lungs at Rick’s Key West, you’re missing out.
Between the poker runners and offshore race fans, it’s one of the busiest weekends of the year in Key West.
During the day, the poker runners went to Mallory Square to watch the Key West World Championship produced by Race World Offshore or spend the day hanging on a sandbar in the Florida Keys
The poker runners returned to Miami on their own schedule, with a few boaters like Hadden leaving early Sunday morning to beat the South Florida traffic.
“We always run back to Gilbert’s and have lunch before going back to Miami and get the boat out,” Hadden said. “We’re trying to get above Miami on I-90 before 3 p.m.”
Jones said every member is looking for a different experience from the poker run.
“They want to have the experience of driving their boat through the scenic Florida Keys, they want to have the experience of being a part of something big where there’s so much horsepower and so many cool boats all around them,” Jones said. “They also want to have the experience of meeting new people and the camaraderie that is so powerful. That’s the whole magic of the group setting and that’s what attracts people to big events.”