Speed is, at least as far as cigarette boats are concerned, everything. Also known as “go fast” boats, they’re long, sleek, fast, and highly maneuverable and have reached a near-legendary status within the racing and smuggling communities.
The history of the cigarette boat is almost as dangerous, alluring, and fascinating as the boats are, and the only way to really appreciate the often overlooked and invaluable role that these boats have played in this history, and evolution, of racing, is by diving feet first into the story of the cigarette boat in an attempt to find out how they became synonymous with the anything and everything goes the world of high-power, high-speed world of racing and risk-taking.
The Living On The Edge History Of The Cigarette Boat
There are two schools of thought about how, and when the first cigarette boat came to be known by its not quite official but not an unofficial nickname.
While every fast boat enthusiast is in complete accordance with how and when the boats first started grabbing mainstream headlines due to their speed and ability to turn on a dime, they’re divided down the middle about who made them famous.
They were, and are the perfect vehicle for illicit smugglers to ensure that the wares that they’d spent so much effort procuring made it past the ever-watchful eyes of the United States Coastguard and reached the relative safety of dry land.
But the boat didn’t earn its stripes dropping off illicitly obtained tobacco products, cigarette boats actually earned their reputation as “rum runners” (the boats that carried illegal alcohol back and forth between much larger cargo ships that would dock far from shore) during Prohibition,
And the boat didn’t earn its nickname due to the fast and loose connection between less than legal hooch and cigarettes that were two of organized crime’s most dependable revenue streams during the roaring twenties.
Cigarette boats were named after the first boat that became an infamous “rum runner”, which was owned by the infamous New York bootlegger and gangster Vannie Higgins.
Higgins forged an incredible reputation for violence during his relatively short and brutal career, which ended when he was gunned down defending his seven-year-old daughter in 1932.
He was just 35 years old when he died, and while his name isn’t as infamous as Al Capone’s, and his exploits are rarely talked about outside of his native Brooklyn, thanks to the boat that he owned, and used as a rum runner, the narrow beamed racer with a long hull that he called “Cigarette”, a slightly different legend was born.
The Coast Guard boats of the era couldn’t even begin to keep pace with ‘Cigarette’, and as the boat’s reputation grew and grew, other smugglers began to use similarly designed speedboats to escape the clutches of the law.
The boats that used to be known as “rum runners” gradually found a new name, which came into being as a way for the criminal underworld to pay homage to the first of their number that had discovered the perfect way to have his illicit whiskey-soaked cake and eat it, Vannie Higgins.
The History Of Cigarettes Isn’t Quite That Simple
If the history of that boat was that simple, we could tie this up, and you could move on to find out what the fastest cigarette boat was and is, but things are rarely that neat or that cut and dried.
While it’s true that Higgins did have a long, narrow hulled speedboat called ‘Cigarette’ that he used for bootlegging, some reaching historians will gladly point out that the name “cigarette boat” didn’t actually start appearing in the mainstream consciousness until the nineteen sixties, and it wasn’t because of Higgins.
It was, in fact, due to a boat builder called Donald Aronow.
Aronow was a well-respected engineer and racer who after selling the company he founded in the early sixties, Magnum Marine, designed a long, sleek hulled boat in collaboration with Elton Cary in 1969.
And when it made its debut at the Racing World Championship, the speedboat that Aronow had called “The Cigarette” won first place.
Whether or not Aronow actually was a student of history and knew about Higgins remains open to debate, but his win helped to secure the “Cigarette” boat’s place in history.
Ironically, Aronow died the same way that Higgins did, when he was gunned down and murdered in 1987 by the man to whom he had originally sold Cigarette Racing to 1982, Ben Kraimer.
Thanks to the US Customs Service refusing to do business with the new owner of Cigarette Racing, he was forced to sell the company back to Aronow, which ultimately led to the latter’s death.
Why did Kraimer think he could do business with the US Customs Service? Mainly because he reasoned that the US would need the right tools to catch the Cocaine smugglers and cartels who were using cigarette boats to flood the East Coast with their drug of choice.
Because of the boats low profile, it was almost impossible to detect on radar, and thanks to its shape and incredibly powerful engines, and being able to reach speeds of 90 Knotts (or 97 miles per hour), the only way that the Coast Guard could catch the smugglers was with helicopters, which wasn’t exactly practical and as their resources were already stretched to breaking point, they were usually on the, losing end of the chase.
Cigarette Racing And The Coast Guard
It was the war on drugs and the fact that ultimately, the good guys were losing the fight that eventually led the US Government to increase the operating budget of the Coast Guard that allowed them to buy their own cigarette boats.
Did that mean that the Coast Guard caught all of the smugglers and turned the tide of the decades of narcotics conflict? No, but they did catch a lot more criminals in their new boats than they’d been able to previously.
And arguably, it also eventually led to some of the more lucrative contracts with the US Military that helped to make sure that Cigarette Racing is still a going concern in the twenty-first century.
Why Are Cigarette Boats So Fast?
It’s a combination of three factors. Design, the material used to build them, and the engines used to power them.
The sleek, low profile of the boat allows it to cut through the water easily and ensures that it can also cope with, and easily handle rougher waters, while the lightweight fiberglass of its hull reduces the weight of the boat and also makes sure that it’s tough enough to handle whatever the water can throw at it.
But the real genius behind the “classic” version of the cigarette boat was something that Donald Aronow really did bring to the table.
Aronow was, by the time he built “The Cigarette” famous for introducing high-performance engines to the world of speed boat racing, as the company he sold before founding Cigarette Racing, Magnum Marine established its reputation by building world-beating monsters.
Aronow’s solution of making “The Cigarette” faster than anything else on the water was simple. He doubled the horsepower that the boat made, by fitting it with two V8 engines rather than the usual single power plant.
It was a design model that stuck and today, Cigarette Racing still uses two V8 engines, each capable of producing more than one thousand horsepower to drive their boats forward.
A combination of the lightweight, durable hull, the sleek razor-thin profile, and the massive engines that drove, and continue to drive have made sure that the boat made its name running booze and narcotics became the stuff of legend even if the misguided and tragic figures responsible to for creating that myth, faded into the background of history.
What Is The Fastest Cigarette Boat In The World?
That’s a good question, and even though most production model cigarette boats can reach speeds of between 92 and 97 miles per hour on flat, calm water, the world’s fastest cigarette boat is a racing model that’s a collaboration between Mercedes Benz and Cigarette racing.
Actually, that’s not quite true as the boat is actually a collaboration between Mercedes skunk works division, AMG, and Cigarette Racing.
When Mercedez wants to transform one of their road-going cars into a track-hugging monster, they turn it over to AMG and that’s what Cigarette Racing did when they created the Cigarette Racing Team 50 AMG GTS in 2017.
They gave AMG the keys to one of their boats and let them work their incredible magic.
The end result? A cigarette boat that’s capable of reaching a top (proven) speed of 135 miles per hour, which even with the fastest pursuit vehicle in their arsenal, the US Coast Guard would never be able to catch.
The Final Word On Cigarette Boats
Whether you believe, or think that it was Vannie Higgins or Donald Aronow who gave the world the cigarette boat, at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is that this boat exists, and is still, and probably always will be, one of the worlds most instantly recognizable and fastest boats.