By Aaron Wasylyk

Kenny Rogers famously sang, “You got to know when to hold ‘em.  Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away. And know when to run.” Now everybody knows that he was most definitely singing about a card game, born in dusty saloons and played in the dimly lit gambling halls of the old west. And I think it’s safe to assume that he was not singing about 1,000 horsepower boats rocketing across the water at speeds in excess of 100 mph. But lucky for us, we live in the age of the internal combustion engine and as powerboat enthusiasts, we get to sing a different tune.  Because when you combine human ingenuity, with high-performance powerboats and a classic card game, you get a “Poker Run”.

Not long after Kenny released his classic ode to gambling in 1979, enthusiasts within the powerboat community drew similar inspiration. The first boating specific poker runs were very focused on speed and performance. Participants would race high-powered, high-performance boats along a pre-determined route while making stops at five individual checkpoints. At each checkpoint, the boats would receive a playing card, sealed in an envelope. Once the poker run was complete, each participating boat would turn in their collected cards and the boat with the highest poker hand was declared the winner.

Fast-forward thirty odd years and the format of the modern-day powerboat poker run remains largely the same, albeit with a few welcome and wise evolutionary tweaks. Participants still collect playing cards at checkpoints and still vie for the highest hand at the end of the day, but gone are the days of high stakes entry fees and jackpots. By making most poker runs open to any boat that can achieve a speed of at least 25 miles per hour and by offering various speed classes the focus has shifted from race to rendezvous, creating a more inclusive and family-friendly atmosphere.

The docks of Clevelands House Resort on Lake Muskoka

Perhaps the most significant change, however, is the inclusion of support for local charities by the poker run organizers and participants. The Performance Boat Club of Canada (PBCC) is a non-profit organization and a veritable powerhouse in terms of poker run generosity and money raised for charity. To borrow a poker related term, they have absolutely gone “all-in” when it comes to charitable support.  Since 2007, under the enthusiastic and expert guidance of President, Meghan Brousseau, Performance Boat Club Events Inc., has raised over $610,000 for charities in southern Ontario. All of the proceeds raised during their events are donated to charities that are local to where each poker run is held. PBCC holds a total of five separate poker runs annually, throughout Ontario, from June to September.

The gathered crowd is watching the poker run boats leave from Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst

And it’s an early morning in June when producer and host of PowerBoat Television, Steve Bull and I arrive at The Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst, ON. Glancing up at the sky we realize that the dealer may have stacked the deck against us weather-wise, as storm clouds loom threateningly on the horizon. Undaunted, we’re buzzing with excitement as we make our way down the docks for the first PBCC poker run of the season. We’re pleased to find that the threat of inclement weather hasn’t dampened the spirits of the PBCC members either, as they tend to their magnificent machines that are polished, tuned and ready to roar.

In fact, many of the boats that participate in the PBCC poker runs are kept in top-notch shape by the top guns at Double R Performance, located just south of Orillia, ON. In the days leading up to the Muskoka poker run, Steve and I caught up with Peter Roberts, the General Manager of Double R for a tour of their state of the art facility. It is an impressive operation, staffed with an army of highly trained mechanics which also offers an extensive parts inventory, dyno testing, custom painting and graphics, and a private in-water test pool located exclusively on site. It was a great opportunity to grab a behind the scenes glimpse into the poker run world prior to these boats hitting the water.

The test pool of Double R Performance

If you haven’t had the chance to get up close and personal with high-performance boats before, poker runs are the perfect opportunity to do so. Members of the public are welcomed and encouraged to wander the docks. With the boats on full display alongside the approachable and enthusiastic owners, many are happy to answer questions and share their insights and experiences about the performance boating community.

One such individual is PBCC member Brent Vernon, the proud owner of a thirty-six-foot Nor-Tech Supercat, called “Still Disturbing”. Remembering his early days of boating, he reveals, “I was one of those people. I had a smaller boat, and I didn’t get to see these bigger ones. People welcomed me on and explained stuff to me.  Educated me on it. Let me go on them and take a look at them.” And now he is happy to return the favour.

Boats idling out into Muskoka Bay, on the way to Lake Muskoka

His boat is just one of multiple Nor-Techs that seductively bob and sway dockside in Muskoka Bay, eager to toss off their reins and let loose across Lake Muskoka on the way to Lake Rosseau. Interspersed throughout the fleet are other high-end performance models from some of the biggest names in the poker run world; Donzi, Cigarette, and Fountain to name but a few. And while I mentioned earlier that these poker runs are no longer as much about racing, don’t be fooled into thinking that the participants don’t welcome the chance to open the throttle and throw up some serious rooster tails. After all, these boats were built to go fast, but by taking the focus away from racing, the non-competitive atmosphere lends itself to a more relaxed and ultimately safer event.

When it comes to safety, the Performance Boat Club of Canada considers it priority number one. Safety procedures are diligently followed and explained along with route-specific information, such as no-wake zones, at a very detailed driver meeting.  All drivers are familiarized with the pace boat leading the run as well as the chase boat that will follow along behind to assist in the event of a mechanical breakdown or medical emergency.

Our camera boat for the day also happens to be the chase boat. It’s a Renegade centre console, powered by twin Mercury Verado 300s, and is operated by Bill Jennings. Bill is a former World Champion performance boat racer who has been responsible for successfully implementing comprehensive boating safety programs throughout North America. Life comes at you fast and as a cameraman who spends much of the time with one eye closed and the other seeing the world through a 3.5-inch viewfinder, I can tell you firsthand that having a camera boat driver with Bill’s experience and skill level, not only makes my job easy, but also sets my mind at ease.

Despite the darkening horizon, the only rumbling to be heard comes from the collective awakening of thousands of horsepower. Suddenly the air is filled with a visceral throaty growling as each of these high-performance machines idle away from the docks and the poker run gets underway. What started as a low rumble, now becomes a chorusing crescendo of pure power, as one after another the boats head out across the water. Soon Bill has us racing along at nearly 100 km/h (60mph) as we sweep the route at the back of the pack.

Aboard the chase boat/camera boat with Bill Jennings

The planned route takes us through Port Carling, ON, where we once again catch up to the group as they manoeuvre into position to navigate the lock that separates Lake Muskoka from Lake Rosseau. As I continue to film and move about the picturesque park-like setting surrounding the lock, the juxtaposition of these modern marvels of marine technology now inhabiting a lock system that was originally constructed for steamships in the 1800s, causes me to pause and take a moment to simply enjoy the image of the powerful flotilla in front of me. And I’m not alone, as eager tourists line both sides of the lock, earnestly snapping photos with their phones.

A boat leaving Clevelands House Resort kicks up a rooster tail while heading back to Gravenhurst

It’s a quick dash across Lake Rosseau, past magnificent Muskoka cottages and their equally resplendent boathouses to the lunch stop at the iconic Clevelands House Resort. While the poker run participants are refueling with some much-needed nourishment, unfortunately, the weather takes a turn for the worse. But it’s like Kenny says, you got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em and the organizers wisely decide to err on the side of caution and suspend the rest of the run.

Lunch stop at Clevelands House

In spite of the weather-shortened event, the Muskoka poker run was a huge success for everyone involved. Steve and I ended up with a fantastic piece for the show, and the Performance Boat Club of Canada raised over $20,000 for Camp Oochigeas, a camp exclusively serving children with cancer.

In addition to life coming at you fast, unfortunately sometimes it also doesn’t always deal everyone a fair hand. Fortunately, however, there are incredible people like the members of the Performance Boat Club of Canada, united through their passion for high-performance boats who gather together to generously donate their time and money in an attempt to even the odds.