A poker run isn’t like playing a hand of poker; there’s no need for impassive expression. At the Sault Ste. Marie Poker Run, contestants are often seen cheering and waving as they race their boats from 60 mph to in excess of 100 mph. The Soo isn’t the biggest city on the Great Lakes, but it’s hard to find a better straight flush of hearts.
“I didn’t think my boat was big enough or strong enough,” recounts poker run contender Gord Milne who is also a long-time member of Hilton Beach Marina. An article in the local paper on the high-powered, out-of-town boats competing in the poker run caught Milne’s eye, but it was Poker Runs America publisher Todd Taylor who convinced him to compete.
“He happened to be driving by the shop,” recounted Milne, “where my Donzi was docked and he said, ‘Why don’t you enter that in the poker run?’”
As per traditional poker runs, the event is part race, part luck. Entry boats race from one location to the next, collecting a playing card at each stop. The route for the Sault Ste. Marie Poker Run has five card stops: Roberta Bondar Pavilion, Hilton Beach, Thessalon Municipal Marina, Richard’s Landing, and back to Roberta Bondar. But in the poker run, being the fastest boat doesn’t guarantee a win. “It’s just the luck of the draw,” said Milne. No matter who finishes first, the best hand takes home the $10,000 prize.
Milne owns a trucking business in Sault Ste. Marie City and he’s been boating out of Hilton Beach for many years. Two years ago, Milne entered the game in a 33-foot Donzi. He couldn’t beat the jet-set boats with all the bells and whistles, but he did manage to hold fifth place.
“I knew the water,” explained Milne, when asked about how he beat out much faster boats. After Milne’s first year in his 33-foot boat, he traded up for a 42-foot Fountain Executioner, Bad Company. Last year he started out as the lead pace-boat, going 70 mph when the drive broke. Although he wasn’t able to finish the race, the judges determined he could still receive all five cards to compete in the poker game.
When he’s not competing, Milne enjoys taking his dad on his 30-foot Sea Ray to the Hilton Beach Marina where they can share a peaceful meal together and take in the scenery from the mile-long boardwalk.
“I go out to Hilton Beach quite often; it’s just a very friendly place,” said Milne. As one of the North Channel’s largest harbors, the marina boasts 160 slips and provides modern amenities like Wi-Fi access, showers, and laundry facilities.
In addition to the welcoming atmosphere, Brad Clark, a volunteer marshal for the poker run, was impressed with the efficiency of the marina’s manager and staff during the event. Clark believes that being a marshal for the poker run gave him the best seat in the house to watch the event. Last year he positioned his 35-foot Monterrey cruiser at a spot before the lunch stop at Hilton Beach to direct the racing boaters with bright orange flags.
“The joke of the whole thing was they were an hour ahead of schedule,” laughed Clark, describing the speed at which the Hilton Beach team snapped-to. “We got lucky because the spot we picked was this section where they’d come whipping around the corner.” As Hilton Beach serves as a card stop and the day’s lunch venue, quickly docking boats and getting the participants fed and set up to continue the race is no small task.
Out of more than 20 volunteer marshals, Clark was awarded the plaque for Best Marshal Boat at the closing ceremony. The best hand isn’t the only award granted in the Soo. Best-dressed crew comes with a certain level of bragging rights for the year and there are plenty of opportunities to win prizes. However, even if you don’t win any titles or prizes, the poker run is one more way to have fun on the water.
The Poker Runs America (PRA) organization is responsible for the poker run and they have expressed appreciation for the unmatched hospitality of the community in and around the Soo. This assertion was supported by an example in a January article published in Poker Runs America magazine. In the article, Milne was remembered for having allowed racers 24-hour access to his trucking shop in order for them to fix and prepare their boats the night before the poker run.
“This is the place to come if you’re going to do a race,” offered Clark. “People who have nothing still find a way to give.”
The community’s warmth and hospitality are returned by the boaters who come to race. Often, the out-of-town racers stick around after the event to give boat rides to members of the community and gift proceeds to local charities.
“These people don’t do it for the money, they do it for the love of boating,” said Clark. “There’s so much open water and beautiful scenery that they’re even driving all the way up from Florida just to do it.”
Volunteer marshals such as Clark have spoken so highly of their experience that hopefully there will be a higher volume of them on the water this year.
“We can never have enough marshaling boats,” endorsed Clark. “And thank God my kids like it!”
Several of his friends are looking forward to being on the boat with him at this year’s poker run. His 12-year-old daughter is even hoping to join her dad at his post this year.
For More Information:
Hilton Beach Marina
Poker Runs America’s Sault Ste. Marie