On Thursday morning, I hopped on the new Cigarette Racing 515 Project ONE, and became the first non-employee to experience the potency of Formula One at sea. Its top speed is a delirious 140 miles per hour, and it’s capable of a face-numbing 3100 horsepower. I’m still feeling the tingle of wind burn.
We glided out to sea at a smooth crawl, and once in open waters, the skipper cranked up the throttle. “Wooooo!” I screamed, along with a few expletives, as we coasted along the water. The wind scraped against my cheeks and billowed my clothes. Forget about scrolling through your phone when the Project One is on the move. My eyelids flickered from the force of the rushing ocean air. A mixture of euphoria, suspense, and a wee bit of anxiety passed over me as we quickly gained speed, zipping through the waves. When I glanced down at the 24-inch Garmin display screen, I noted that we were traveling at a speed of 119 miles per hour. (The skipper later said he held back slightly to due mild chop on the sea.) But anything over 100 miles per hour in a boat is both ridiculous and thrilling, standing or seated. In powerboating, there are no seatbelts.
If this boat’s persona sounds like an outlaw, its getaway qualities are genuine. Originally called rum runners, powerboat racing grew out of the speed boats that evaded authorities during prohibition. Self-made millionaire and power boat enthusiast Don Aronow founded Cigarette Racing in 1969. In the ‘70s, Cigarette Racing became the marquis brand in the sport. By the 1980s, powerboats became synonymous with the illicit cocaine trade and scenes from Miami Vice of Crockett and Tubbs chasing bad guys across the bay. Cigarette Racing became steeped in its own true crime drama. In 1987, Aronow was executed at close range in the Miami streets, and though his murder is still unsolved, it’s alleged that the mob ordered the hit.
In 2002, Skip Braver bought Cigarette Racing out of bankruptcy, reviving the storied boating legacy. The former successful Nintendo rep had sold his business and was looking for a new challenge. He’d long been interested in exotic cars and planes, but knew little about the powerboating scene. Despite its rocky past, he found that Cigarette Racing was a company of good people, and he was eager to learn.
Sixteen years later, he is the face of the brand. He now has 68 employees and his son, Scott, a Purdue University graduate engineer, leads the company’s engineering efforts. “Cars, planes, and boats — it’s all speed,” Braver said in an interview with The Verge at the Miami Boat Show, where his new flagship model launches this weekend. “I used to work on the ski patrol. I like being outside. The water to me is very relaxing,”
The Miami Boat Show is a big deal in Miami. By Thursday morning, the traffic was already at a standstill. Here, Braver is a celebrity. Everyone has a hello, a handshake, or a hardy congratulations for him on the launch of the Project One. Braver is easy to spot on the docks. He has spiky hair, bright blue eyes, and a deep tan that hints at days spent in the sunshine. He’s a storytelling type, and has a laid back manner, and lacks any sign of outward pretension. I first met Braver two years ago, and he doesn’t forget a face. The Miami Boat Show feels a bit like a billionaire boys club and Braver’s company has the swankiest display at the show. A clay model of the Mercedes AMG Project One, the F1-inspired hypercar, is on display in front of the six- and seven-figure boats he manufactures. Both car and boat are outfitted in matching matte black and silver paint.
Cigarette Racing has a long time partnership with Daimler’s AMG division. The 11-year relationship with AMG, Daimler Benz’s performance arm, played into the DNA of the new boat, and also inspired its design. Gorden Wagener, Mercedes-Benz design chief, worked with Braver on the design of this flagship model. It has the same sweeping, minimalist exterior design cues that suggest serious aerodynamics. Cigarette Racing also leaned on the AMG division’s F1 program for engineering trickery. What both brands share is the eternal quest for speed.
Cigarette Racing is intent on being a trailblazer in boating tech, and Braver says the advances they’ve made in propulsion, using different composite technologies, impacts the entire boating industry. Its deck is made from carbon fiber and other lightweight materials. “It’s a weave carbon, for every 16 grams, that’s the entire hatch. It’s how we’re putting it together and the tremendous amount of engineering time. It goes from the skeleton of the boat up to the tub of the boat, like on the race car.” It’s the eternal quest to make a lighter, faster, and safer boat. The Project One weighs at least 5,000 lbs less than another Cigarette Racing model, the 41’ SD GT3.
Technological advances are everywhere beneath the skin. “The technology has changed. It’s more than carbon fiber to build the boat,” Braver said. “It’s combination of Kevlar, E-glass, and different things from Formula One. This boat has become our halo R&D. What we learned is what no one said we could do, we took a boat and made it longer and wider.” The Project One is a sweeping 51 feet 5 inches in length. It holds up to six passengers in its spacious, cushy cabin.
Cigarette Racing works with various partners. The Garmin screens are customized to minimize glare, to communicate with the boat’s engine systems, and to read the pitch of the propeller. Though, they could make the boat faster, safety and ease of use is also a priority.
Altogether, Cigarette Racing makes six or seven different products with different engine configurations. The boats start at $450,000 and the Project One has $2 million price tag. The powertrain alone is over $300,000. “Our philosophy is that we’re a luxury brand project. We want people who really appreciate technology, fit and finish. Maybe some of the traditional ways people are building boats is not really the way we’re doing it.” Braver and his team are already at work on another boat that will launch next year.
Very few people will experience one of his boats, and most who invest in a Cigarette Racing boat aren’t first time boat owners. The company doesn’t even offer regular test drives. “We let very few people go on the boat. You pay a third, a third, and third to buy one.” In the over-the-top world of boating culture, the need for speed comes at a steep price.