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Former yacht captain, hydroplane racer, slows his speed with gondola tours

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Capt. Roy Conklin runs about one hundred knots slower than he did when he raced boats and 15 knots slower than when captain on a 78-foot Marlow. About a year ago, the 77-year-old started running leisurely tours with his Riverfront Gondola Tours boat in Ft. Lauderdale.

“This is the perfect speed for a retired captain, this is the ultimate,” Conklin said.

It is surprising that Conklin is content with the speed of his American version of a Venetian gondola.

“I used to race hydroplanes, the fastest boats on the water,” Conklin said. “They ride on a tunnel of air and can reach, and exceed, speeds up to 120 mph.

“This,” he said, pointing to the 18-foot electric boat, “tops out at 6 knots.”

Capt. Roy Conklin runs  tours with his Riverfront Gondola Tours boat in Ft. Lauderdale.

Capt. Roy Conklin runs tours with his Riverfront Gondola Tours boat in Ft. Lauderdale.

Conklin remembers his racing days fondly. He described how he lay on his stomach to drive the high performance German engine, which ran on methanol alcohol. The 11-foot-9 boat weighed about 120 pounds with foot pedals to run the wheel and throttle.

“Your eye level is on the water and water conditions change second to second,” he said of the constant danger running this type of boat.

“It is very unique racing,” he said of the mile course with 12 competitors. “We had running starts and four laps. You have to be alert and hold it wide open to win.”

And he did once win a world championship.

Conklin grew up on the shore waters of Long Island and has spent his life behind the wheel. After racing, he ran the Marlow from Maine to the Bahamas and the Caribbean for about a decade.

Now he runs tourists and locals on scheduled and chartered cruises on several Ft. Lauderdale waterways. Guests can order food to be delivered or bring their own, while Conklin supplies dishes, cutlery and linens. Dinner, Valentine’s Day and holiday night light tours book up quickly. Prices start at $33 for an hour-and-a-half tour.

Even while leaning back on comfortable cushions behind the wheel of the gondola between tours recently, Conklin talks about power and the speed of his boats.

“The yacht was powered by Caterpillar C-30s with top speed about 28 knots, cruising at 22 knots, happy at 10,” Conklin said. Now he settles for more battery power for LED lights and music onboard. The Duffy gondola came with eight batteries, but he added eight more.

Conklin is proud of his diverse boating career and is grateful he survived hydroplanes. And he is not ready to get off the water.

“I don’t know know how I’m still here,” Conklin said. “But everytime I go on the water, I thank my lucky stars.”

For more details visit riverfrontgondolatours.com.

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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