Ask around a bit and you’ll find that, generally speaking, poker run attendance is “off” this season. There are exceptions of course—the Florida Powerboat Club’s Miami Boat Show Poker Run in February saw its biggest fleet in years—and this season’s reportedly less-than-impressive overall attendance numbers do not spell doom and gloom for the poker-run world. Poker runs are here to stay. But it’s safe to say that the boat numbers for many of this year’s event, from Desert Storm to the Jacksonville River Rally, haven’t been as gaudy as those in years past.
A notable and impressive exception to this trend is the upcoming Buffalo Poker Run taking place August 10-11. Last year, the annual event, which is celebrating its twenty-second anniversary and happens on Lake Erie and the Niagara River, had 36 pre-registered boats. This year, there are 56 boats already registered. Last year, 62 of the 64 boats registered participated in the run. This year, the organizers for the Western New York Offshore Powerboat Association, the club that hosts the event, say they expect more than 80 boats.
“We were a little scared going into it for exactly that reason—the decline in poker run participation this season,” said Tony Scioli, the event coordinator for the club. There are a lot of expenses involved. Even though we are a not-for-profit organization, you do take something of a risk in a bad economy.”
Scioli continued, “Plus, this year, our run is on the same weekend as the Poker Runs America 1,000 Islands Poker Run and that’s only 3-1/2 hours from here. Obviously, that worried us, too. Fortunately, that only happens in a Leap Year, and if we didn’t have to book out our host venue two years in advance it wouldn’t happen at all.”
That venue is Templeton Landing in downtown Buffalo, and according to Scioli it is a major factor in the success and growth of the run, which attracts participants from as far away as Arizona and Florida.
“We have the number one premiere waterside restaurant in the area, and we put on a super high-quality event,” Scioli explained. “We pretty much take over the place with our run for the weekend. We serve two great dinners, one Friday night and one Saturday night. The poker runners are on their own for lunch. The run ends at Cabana Sam’s on Sunset Bay Beach, and there are two restaurants there they can choose from.”
As in years past, the Buffalo Poker Run fleet will include everything from a 22-foot Wellcraft Scarab to a 42-foot Fountain Lightning. In the event of foul weather and rough water, the organizers provide an “alternate course” for the smaller boats, as well as larger boats for owners who prefer calm water.
“We haven’t had to run that course for many years,” said Scioli. “It only happens if the rain picks up, because wind is not a big issue on our main course.”
For insurance reasons, the organizers cannot allow canopied boats to run in the event, and according to Scioli a few owners of such boats have expressed interest. “In the future, we would like to be able to allow those boats to participate in our run,” he said. “It’s something we’re working on.”
Particularly compelling for many of the participants, especially those from the Buffalo area, is the charity that the run benefits. Called Excalibur Leisure Skills Center, the local, non-profit, all-volunteer organization is dedicated to providing free adaptive boating and fishing opportunities for disabled and disadvantaged individuals.
“They have a powerboat, I think it’s about 30 feet long but I’m not sure, that has been completely refitted to accommodate people with physical disabilities, wheelchair access, everything,” said Scioli. “Our run puts gas in the boat for pretty much the whole summer. We discussed switching to a larger, higher-profile charity, but we decided it wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. Our little chunk of money has a much bigger impact here than it would if we gave it to a larger charity.”
Scioli added, “There are a lot of us locally who have strong ties to that organization. One of the guys in our club is the captain of the boat that takes out the kids.”
Of course, for their $265 (driver and boat, additional passengers are $80 each), participants take home keepsake items including two event T-shirts and a goody bag. And, naturally, there are prizes for the best poker hands: $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second place, and $500 for third place. But beyond that, after expenses including the two previously noted dinners are covered, the remainder of the funds go to the charity.
“Last year was kind of a flat year for attendance, not much more than the year before,” said Scioli. “We couldn’t be happier with what we have so far this year, and what we expect to have by the time run starts.”
Editor’s Note: Offshoreonly.com contributing photographer Tim Sharkey will shoot the 2012 Buffalo Poker Run.
Matt Trulio is an award-winning journalist who has covered the high-performance powerboat world since 1995. He wrote for Powerboat magazine for 17 years and was the magazine’s editor at large until it ceased publication in 2011. Trulio is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site that covers the high-performance powerboat realm. He’s also the editor of Sportboat magazine.