From August 4 to 6, 2017, the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario played host to some of the biggest names in the offshore boat racing community for what’s known as The Can-Am Poker Run (officially the 2017 Sault Ste. Marie Can-Am President's Cup All-Inclusive Poker Run). Anyone familiar with boating in Ontario—the waters, the scenery, the tight-knit community—could easily see why Sault Ste. Marie is the ideal location for this type of event. While the organizers stress it’s not a race, as the winner is determined by the best poker hand collected at each of the five pre-determined locations, there was no shortage of fast, exotic, and expensive speed boats on-hand, and all who attended had designs on first-place cash prize of $10,000.
In addition to the main event, organizers offered participants and fans a host of other activities to fill out the weekend, some directly related to the Poker Run, and others year-round attractions that are part of Sault. Ste. Marie’s thriving tourism industry.
Our team was in town for the entire weekend covering the Poker Run—and had arrived unusually early—so this gave us the rare chance to play tourist. Our first stop of the day was at The Soo Locks.
Constructed in the mid-1800s, this engineering marvel provides a vital connection between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Used primarily by merchant ships, tugs, and barges, the 21-foot lift is 100% gravity-fed and an astonishing 86-million tons of cargo pass through the four locks annually. In our time at the locks we only saw a few smaller vessels pass through, but that didn’t stop a steady stream of people from congregating in and around historic site.
Our next stop was to one of the Soo’s trendy new restaurants, located just minutes from the locks. The Mill Steakhouse and Wine Bar struck me as something I’d find in a posh Toronto neighbourhood, with its modern décor and extensive wine list. The prices were surprisingly modest for the high quality of the food and fine dining environment. I later declared it the winner, hands down, for best tasting chow of the weekend.
In addition to all kinds of restaurant options, the downtown has a main street with various shops and stores. If you're not much of a shopper, then perhaps you’d be happier to find yourself playing the slot machines at The Gateway Casino Sault Ste. Marie (formerly OLG), located smack dab in the downtown core. Whenever we passed by, I couldn’t help but notice the parking lot was full.
On Friday night, participants were invited to The HD Sports Grill for a reception before the live music portion later that evening. HD is located right next to the water and many of the participants' boats were docking as competitors looked on—it was quite a spectacle to be seen. I found the general attitude of boaters to be a pretty tight-knit group, with respect given to the top dogs of their sport.
Despite some lousy weather rolling in, fans and participants migrated next door to The Roberta Bondar Park Tent Pavilion for the live musical stylings of The Hustle Brothers, a local cover band. The Pavilion is a unique outdoor venue, perfect for live music with a permanent 90-foot double canopy sporting a 360-degree view. Fans were treated to airtight cover renditions, complete with a 4-piece horn section. Strong winds blew through the pavilion as the night’s storm approached, but to the band's credit, they kept on playing like true professionals.
The next morning, the previous night's rain had diminished and we were greeted by brilliant sunshine and only moderate winds. Fans had congregated around the marina next to the Bondar Pavilion, where all the boats were docked and final preparations were underway before the big run. As motors fired up, the smell of high-octane fuel permeated the air; the sound of so many high horse-power engines in unison was a sweet sound to any true gearhead. It’s similar to the feeling you get when a loud thunderstorm rolls through, except this thunder was man made!
One by one, vessels idled out of port and lined up for what’s known as "The Parade of Power." This saw close to 40 vessels ranging from 25 to 50 feet idling out together, then blasting off once they hit the open water. This signified the start of The Poker Run. There were five pre-determined locations for participants to acquire cards: The Roberta Bondar Marina, Richard's Landing, Thessalon, Hilton Beach, and, then, back to the Roberta Bondar Marina for the final card.
Despite strong winds picking up on shore, where I was stationed with my camera, water conditions were pretty good with only a light-to-moderate chop. This allowed for some impressive speeds, especially from the leader boats. The undisputed front-runner—in speed, price tag, and crowd attention—was “My Way,” a 50-foot bright red Mystic Catamaran. This rocket ship is powered by two helicopter turbine engines and, not surprisingly, held the world speed record of 224mph in 2013. Despite the whole “this isn’t a race" mantra that was pushed by organizers, "My Way” never relented the lead position from start to finish—and by a large margin at times. With its $2-million-plus price tag, this was also not surprising at all.
After a couple of hours on the open water, the boats congregated in the sleepy town of Hilton Beach for lunch at The Tilt'n Hilton. Camaraderie and spirits were high between boaters as we all scarfed down a prefix menu of delicious food. I was taken aback by the size of crowds that filled such a small town, all there to catch a glimpse of the offshore "missiles." Curious spectators squeezed onto the docks to get an up-close view of the cockpits and massive engines.
Once everyone had a good seat, each boat paraded out of port one at a time and into the open water, headed for the location of the next card. The rumble of tens of thousands of combined horsepower was defining to the ears. All-in-all, it was a moment I won’t soon forget. “My Way” jumped out front with a massive "rooster tail" of water trailing behind it. The “Outerlimits” boat was hot on its heels and all the other boats soon followed. I found a great spot on the side of a bridge where the boats sped right underneath me. I managed to get some spectacular aerial style photos as they headed back to The Roberta Bondar Marina to conclude the run.
The Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre hosted the awards dinner for participants —we’d soon find out who not only had the best poker hand, but who was to pocket the large $10,000 novelty check. After a lot of laughs and showmanship by the MC, the best hand was revealed to belong to Bill Tomlinson, owner of “My Way.” There were plenty of prizes handed out to second and third place winners and all the participants feasted on good food and drinks. The celebration continued on until 11 pm, at which point shuttles arrived to take any night owls to the casino to see if they could get their hands on $10,000 another way.
I had a blast at my first offshore event. I didn’t really know what calibre of boats would participate in an event so far north of the traditional warm waters of the southern ocean, where offshore boating events typically take place. I was quite surprised after doing some research online that the calibre of vessels in Sault. Ste. Marie was as fast as anything raced further south. If you’ve got an interest in offshore racing, but can’t muster the motivation to head south to the Florida Keys, I urge you to come north for next years' Can-AM Poker Run.