What kind of drive gets a man to organize the first-ever powerboat race around the world? Call it crazy or weird, but for Ralph Brown, it’s simply what he is called upon this world to do. A former US Marine, Ralph was consumed by grief over the eight men who died during Operation Eagle Claw in the 80s – a mission he was supposed to be part of. Vowing never to let these brave men’s names be forgotten, Ralph pushed himself to achieve great powerboating feats in honor of these heroes, eventually achieving four world records, including the longest non-stop ocean voyage in a flats boat and the first to cross the Atlantic on a flats boat. In this conversation with Penny Zenker, he recounts some of his fondest memories during his longest voyage. He also shares his plans to continue honoring the Eagle Claw 8, notably CupRoyale, a powerboat race around the world, and the Eagle Claw Award. Listen in for more.
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In Honor Of Heroes: Race Around The World With Ralph Brown
On this show, we’re looking for unique individuals with unique experiences that are going to help you think about things a little bit differently. We certainly have a great time for you. We have Ralph Brown with us and he is the creator of the , the first ever first annual power boat race around the world. He’s the world record holder for number one, the smallest powerboat to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Number two, the longest nonstop ocean voyage in a small water boat and a flat boat. Number three, the longest ocean voyage in a flat boat. Number four, the first flat boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean. He is a former Cocoa Beach surf bomb, a former US Marine, a former weekend volunteer to project areas in Chicago and LA, a former high school Math and Science teacher, a former financial planner. This guy has done a lot of stuff. He’s a father of three and a husband of one. Ralph, welcome to the show.
I appreciate you having me.
You earned it. You’ve certainly done a lot of interesting things. What is the drive or the thinking behind wanting to cross the Atlantic Ocean with a small powerboat? What drives one to do such a thing?
I don’t know. I don’t have that desire. Tell me the story.
Years ago, I was in the Marine Corps and they told me, “You’re too young to remember this. If you remember this, you do a good job of hiding it.” In 1979, the American Embassy was taken over by a bunch of terrorists in Iran. I was in the Marine Corps at that time. A couple of months later in March of 1980, I got a phone call, “You get your behind back on base. You’re going to Iran.” I got back on base. I went to my girlfriend’s house first and hung out as long as I could. I’m looking at the clock as long as I could. I then made a mad dash for the base because I knew I wasn’t getting back off for a while.
I never went anywhere. I was on standby red alert. In April 24, 1980, a couple of weeks later, a group of Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army went into Iran. They had a refueling issue and a chopper hit the C-130. I can give you a long explanation of what happened, but you don’t need that. All you need to know is that day, eight men gave their lives. Three of them were John Harvey, George Holmes, and Dewey Johnson. Those were the three US Marines. When I learned about it, I felt like they died in my place. I went in a little corner somewhere with my hands and knees. I promised God that I’ll make sure with the best of my ability that those names were not forgotten.
I then totally forgot about it like everybody else. My stepfather passed away and he was former military. We went to Arlington for the funeral and that’s in Washington, DC. I’m walking through Arlington with my wife and kids, and there’s two big golden-covered reefs to the men that died in Operation Eagle Claw. I stopped and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I suddenly remembered the promise I made 30 years ago and I didn’t keep my promise. My kids are going, “Dad, why are you crying?” I said, “I didn’t keep my promise.”
Was that connected to the pilgrimage to cross the Atlantic?
It’s connected to everything that we’re doing. Put that story aside, it helped you understand the rest of it. Prior to me rediscovering that I was a jerk and forgot to do what I said I would do, I had been out with my boys on a boat fishing on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I got one daughter and two boys. My wife and the daughter went Black Friday shopping as they loved to do. I can’t stand Black Friday shopping. Wall to wall of people, I don’t want to be there. My boys and I are out fishing with a friend and we hit a rock and we broke the motor and ruined the fishing day. Larry’s kids were there too. Being the great parents that we were, we allowed our children to paddle and we sit around and talk.
Either do it or shut up. Click To Tweet I got to stewing about how to make a better boat. At the same time, I was in the financial planning industry working for Blue Cross Blue Shield. They were sending me two hours each way in a car, four hours of driving every day. They would give me a hotel room, but I did that one time and only once. I spent the whole night on the phone with my wife and kids and I don’t want my kids to grow up without me. I’ve been in too many homes that way. I chose to do four hours of driving every day so I can kiss my kids every night. That was something that was super important to me. In that time of driving on the way over, this is back when cell phones didn’t work very good between Tampa and Orlando, and they still don’t work pretty good, there’s nothing out there.
I would spend that whole time dreaming about how to make a better boat. I had no idea this was becoming an utter passion to me. We would have breakfast out on Saturday mornings as a family. We would go to this little breakfast shop and I would take a napkin, turn it over and start diagramming boats. Soon all three of my kids are diagramming boats on that napkins too for fun. How to make a boat run over the top of those rocks and still be seaworthy enough to cross the ocean? I told my friends that I want to do that. They’re like, “You’re nuts.”
The best plans are the ones that people tell you you’re nuts. Steve Jobs’ quote is like, “The crazy ones think that they can change the world, but they’re the ones who are going to make a difference.” I didn’t get it right, but it’s something like that.
It’s basically along that line. There are plenty of boats that are made for big waves and there are plenty of boats made for shallow water. You can’t get them both. I got the opinion I could. I kept thinking and dreaming about it. My mother-in-law took us out to eat. This was right before our anniversary. I got a napkin, and Red Lobster has cloth napkins, but you ask the waitress and they’ll give you a paper napkin. I turned the napkin, started diagramming boats and calculations all night. I had no idea how rude I was. I was consumed with it. A couple of days later, my wife asked her mother if she would like to come over for our house for dinner.
She said, “Are you kidding me?” She paid for the Red Lobster too. “I took you guys out to Red Lobster and Ralph didn’t say two words to me all night long. All he did was draw boats on a napkin.” I had no idea. I was oblivious to how rude I was. To every man out there reading understands what I’m talking about. My wife explained it for about two hours that night how I was driving everybody nuts. “Insurance, financial planning, investments and stuff, that’s my job. Do your job. Forget the stupid dream,” and then she made the crazy part to end it with either do it or shut up.
She should have left to go shut up. She went to bed. I walked the hallway and started thinking about it until about 2:00 in the morning. This is June 2nd and I got on the internet and formed a corporation called Dreamboats. I had no idea how crazy I was, but the next morning I told my wife what I did it. She says, “You’re crazy. You’re not going to do this.” A couple of days later, she came back and said, “You’re supposed to do this. You have to do this thing.”
What changed her mind on that?
I don’t know exactly, but she thinks I should do this.
Probably because she saw how it lit you up. I want to create a teaching moment for people who are reading as well because sometimes we don’t always connect other people’s stories to some of the lessons that are there. I do think that people have to listen to what you cannot do. We all have something that calls us that we can’t not behave a certain way or do a certain something. It is under our skin. We do have to pay attention to that because it’s a calling. It’s something that you’re meant to do, that you’re passionate about, that lights you up. If you either shut up or do it, we have to take action and make that a reality.
For me, it was something to move forward. I hate to tell you how much money we spent. We spent a lot of money building boats and building a part. You could go get any boat and make it work. That’s no big deal. My goal was 3.5 inches of water. I did accomplish that. I got down, got video of my boats running in an inch of water and safe enough to cross the ocean, but it took a long time. It took several years to get it to work and a lot of money. I got ready to take one and go to Bermuda and back. That’s 700 miles one way off the coast of North Carolina.
I had a friend named Patrick who was coming with me. I thought, “I’m going to pull a publicity stunt out of it.” I called a couple of reporters and told them I will do it. One of them is a real big ocean reporter here in Tampa Bay named Bob Hite. He said to me, “That’s a world record.” I said, “That’s not a world record.” He said, “Yes, it is.” We checked it out. It was going to be a world record. What do you know? I spent a couple of months putting together the longest ocean voyage in a flats boat. When you have lots of shallow water, those are called flats. Boats that can run in real shallow water are called flats boats.
A lot of people think of it as a flat bottom boat. Mine are not flat bottom at all. They’re designed to run in shallow water. This other guy named Patrick was coming with me and the local Tampa Bay reporter was with me in the boat and we were out doing final testing. This is a day before we’re leaving. I’d already spent a couple of thousand dollars with tickets and sent people for advanced cruise and everything else. Patrick got a phone call every ten seconds and he would pick it up and say, “It’s not as dangerous as you think.” What happened was it’s his mother. This is a grown man.
His mother is calling every fifteen minutes and he has to reassure her?
No. She called every friend he had, every relative, every person you can think of. All the neighbors, the people that aren’t neighbors, people that don’t like him. He must have got 45 phone calls that day of people trying to talk him out of it.
How many entrepreneurs who are reading have had neighbors, family and friends try to talk them out of it? It’s a thing. They don’t understand what’s driving you and they want to talk you out of it. How did he and how does one explain to people? Do you even bother to explain to people why you’re doing it?
For me, I’ve had many negatives. You just push on.
You ignore it and dismiss?
My phone rang at 8:00 that night. I saw the caller ID before I picked it up. It was Patrick. He said he’s not going. He had some excuse and it wasn’t because his mom talked him out of it.
He was influenced by the 45 callers.
I go home and my wife says, “Why do you look gloomy?” I said, “Patrick bailed on me.” I would have gone by myself. She says, “I’ll go with you.” I’m thinking to myself, “I want to stay married.” If something goes wrong on a small boat, there’s nowhere to go. The days are out at sea. She said, “Why don’t you call your brother?” I called my brother Bob. Bob wasn’t home. Jill answered the phone and said, “He can’t go.”
The next day I’m getting ready to go. Bob calls me up and says, “Jill said you called last night and I want to know what you want.” I explained to him I was going to go from North Carolina to Bermuda in a boat and testing the boat, etc. The guy that was going with me bailed. Bob said, “I’ll go.” That simple. The funny part is he then turned around and called his wife, Jill, at work. He’s a dental hygienist. He doesn’t know where he was going. Bob looked at a map, I’m on the way to pick him up. He calls me and says, “Ralph, that’s 700 miles.”
“When I’m dead, it’s not going to be my problem.” - Ralph Brown Click To Tweet He had no idea what he got himself into.
He was camping with a few friends and I was going to pick him up on the way. His friends were all out there and they’re all laughing. There’s no way it’s possible that you’re going to go to Bermuda in that boat. This is the boat we took to Bermuda. This is the smallest powerboat to sail across the Atlantic Ocean because a couple of weeks later after we went and set a world record for the longest ocean voyage in a flats boat, I called him and asked if he wanted to go with me across the ocean.
He said, “Sure.” It turns out he was on a roof doing some roofing work. He said, “Going by boat for a couple months and roofing, I’m doing the boat.” This is us leaving Iceland. This is the southwest corner of Iceland. It’s inside of what’s called Westman Island. It is a volcano. The harbor is inside of volcanoes, which is amazing. It did erupt once since they built the harbor and they were able to get all the lava to go to one spot and it did not ruin the town. We took this boat all the way from Tampa, Florida to Germany, 8,312 miles.
It is the smallest powerboat that’s ever cross the Atlantic Ocean in the history of the world. This is my favorite picture. There’s this guy that showed up and started taking pictures of us in Iceland. He said he was a casual reporter, but when he took the camera and stuck it to my face and turned it sideways, I said, “This guy is not some casual reporter.” It turns out he was a magazine reporter for some magazine in Germany. Changing the oil was always a lot of fun. We always had to get the boat out and change the oil. Everywhere we go, we could talk somebody into changing our oil for free. We’re good at that.
Why does it say, “I Am Second?”
I Am Second was our sponsor. It means God is first. This is the trip. We started in Tampa. We went around the state of Florida, all the way up to Canada, to Greenland, off the backside of Greenland. Nobody lives there, nothing but icebergs and whales. There’s a town up here called Tasiilaq. It’s 500 miles from down here. There’s a whole story. We started that trip without enough fuel. No one wanted to sell us any fuel. There’s a town down here called Prince Christian Sound. The whole area is called Prince Christian Sound. We thought it was going to be a big town when we got there.
They got five people. They got more dogs than people. They said they had about 200 liters of gasoline, which is about 50 gallons. They were not going to give us any of it. We had a choice to either go back all the way across the country to go to a gas station and get gas or give it a shot. We decided to give it a shot and we made it. We went to Iceland all the way down the Coast of England and down into France, and then to Germany. It was cool.
How many days did that take?
At sea, we were 76 days.
It’s a crazy amount of time. Normal people would be scared and would be concerned with some of the things that they might encounter. How did you deal with the aspect of fear?
Here’s the reality, when I’m dead, it’s not my problem.
It’s everyone else’s problem. You’re not afraid to die. Is that one of the aspects? If it’s your time, it’s your time kind of thing?
That’s my mentality. I jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, climbed all over mountains, hung off cliffs. I’m scared of a lot of stuff. I’m scared of interviews like this one, but your point matters, you run towards your fears. We got caught in a bad storm between Canada and Greenland and we used up almost all of our fuel. We’re talking on the edge of the Arctic Circle and the wind was blowing out of the North and we’re freezing to death. The Coast Guard from Canada said they would come get us. It was 400 miles to come get us. They don’t usually go anywhere near that far. We had met them earlier and they said they’d come get us. We said, “Don’t bother. I’m not getting off the boat.”
We drifted around for a couple of days in the North Atlantic with a sea anchor. It’s a parachute you throw in the water and it keeps the boat because you’re in several thousand feet. You can’t anchor in several thousand feet, unless you’ve got several thousand feet of water, which we didn’t have. An interesting thing about anchors and quartz, we got ran over by an iceberg on this trip. We were anchored in Greenland. We normally had this huge rope and we had used it for the sea anchor, the parachute we threw in the water. Being lazy that we were, you pull it out of the water and you stuff it in the anchor box. We had another rope that was light. We want to anchor in the south and we used that thin rope. Thank God, because it broke. Had it not broke, the iceberg would have sucked us under the iceberg and would have killed us. That’s one of about five times we almost got killed.
Everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t meant to be your time.
That was our laziness. This is us in London Harbor. This is our first iceberg. You can see my brother, Bob, he’s out wakeboarding on that iceberg. We got caught in the remnants of Hurricane Dennis. They sent a search and rescue helicopter out there. I don’t know what they’re there for. They watched us for about fifteen minutes and they left. We’re 40 miles northeast of Scotland. What’s funny is they gave us about three minutes of the footage and the rest of it turned up on a show. Here in the United States, we have a show called Cops and Robbers. They’ve got a couple of shows over in Europe called Ships, Trawlers, and Rescues and The Deadly North Atlantic.
The footage of us being filmed showed up on that, which is interesting. We were already off the coast of England and there was another hurricane out there. They made it a big deal that London area has the vicious waterway in the world. There was only one thing moving in the whole area and that was us. The Coast Guard kept coming on the radio like, “Don’t you understand that nothing else is moving? There’s a reason for that.” They came out and wanted to put a rescue line on us.
You could hear this guy on the radio. He’s wanting to put a rescue line on my boat and tow me. I’m like, “No way. We’re 100 miles from a world record. We had come 7,000 miles. They’re going to tow us and disqualify us?” You could hear the argument going back and forth. They had this gigantic spotlight on this boat and they kept shining this gigantic spotlight on my boat and in my face. I’m trying to drive. I can’t see anything. I’m on the radio yelling, “Turn that stupid spotlight off.” We’re trying to get it out of a storm into a harbor and they’re out there filming us.
We didn’t know they were filming us at that time. We just know they were shining this stupid spotlight. We finally got out of the storm and got in. This guy come running up to us with a big old camera. He’s from the television show In the Discovery Channel. He has a show over there, The Deadly North Atlantic. If he would have said, “I’m filming you for Discovery Channel,” I would have said, “Sure, put the spotlight on,” but they wouldn’t tell me that. They’re shining that gigantic spotlight in my eyes. We started this and this was called the, “I Am Second Wounded Hero Voyage.” It was in honor of the men that gave their lives in Operation Eagle Claw, all eight of them, not just the three Marines but all eight of them.
We’re also putting together the Eagle Claw award that’s going to be attached to the race around the world. I represent the race around the world, but I also represent Team USA. We are creating this powerboat race all the way around the planet. There’s never been a powerboat race all the way around the planet. We like to think of it as a combination of Formula One and the America’s Cup. In the America’s Cup, people don’t realize that the sponsors put their name on the side of the America’s Cups for $100 million. That’s the low end.
On a Formula One car, some of the high-end cars has over $300 million to put your name on the side of that car because it’s the cheapest advertising you can get to advertise to the whole world. I’ll advertise on the internet and everybody will see me. There are 100 million other companies advertising on the internet at the same time. How are you going to get in front of all of them? People don’t realize this, but the British team for the America’s Cup pick up a sponsor, $153 million for INEOS and then they picked up a couple more sponsors added up to a total of $213 million to put your name on the side of one boat.
Race towards the crash. By the time you get there, it will be gone. Click To Tweet What are you going for?
We are creating this race around the world. Our sponsorship is going to be cheap originally. Somewhere around $3 million or $4 million in year one, about $12 million in year two or if you want to come in with $12 million upfront, we’ll give you two years. We have an offering together. This is the offering document.
I know I’m in real estate. I’ve been involved in selling my company and those contracts are ridiculous.
It’s 213 pages. You get a PPM that they download off the internet and you can buy for $100 and you put your stuff in. It’s about twenty pages.
It’s also not that solid if it’s a twenty-page PPM.
It’s as legal as it is. We partnered with a venture capital firm and they’re putting together an $18 million round for us. We’re putting all of this together. We had 213 pages of this, but we’re looking to create something like Formula One on the water. Formula One is traded on the NASDAQ at $8.6 billion to $8.7 billion valuation. It was over $11 billion before COVID hit. It dropped to about $6 billion. It’s back up close to $9 billion. This is our cool thing. We’re going to create this race around the world. Before the race starts, Team USA has a special event that we’re going to be doing. Not every other team. We’re only allowing one team per country to enter the race and it’s not nonstop. Nonstop racing will be boring and dangerous.
We race twenty harbors around the world. We stop in twenty different harbors as we go around the world. The plan is we’re going to start in San Diego and we’re going to race all the way around the world, back to San Diego. That’s the current plan. We’re talking to Chicago, Bermuda and a couple other places that want to be the headquarters. They’re going to fork over some money because it costs money to create this race.
We’ll see if we end up at one of those places. Most people don’t realize that in Chicago, you can get to the ocean to and from there through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. We’re going to race all the way around the world, but the night the week before we start the race every year, Team USA is putting together the Eagle Claw Award. The Eagle Claw Award is for an entrepreneur that’s prior service military or prior service first responder. The sponsor we’re talking to has already agreed to this. We’re going to give them $1 million.
For those people who are reading, this is a huge opportunity. Tell us how to qualify. Is there a website that they can go to check out more information?
It’s still being pieced together. The Eagle Claw Award is in honor of the men that gave their lives in Operation Eagle Claw. We’re looking for an entrepreneur that has to be a for profit. We’re not looking to give a donation to any nonprofit. We understand that nonprofits are important and I don’t want to belittle any of them, but there are hundreds of them.
It’s a for profit business, entrepreneur. Any other requirements?
You’ve got to be doing something that one of the eight men might have wanted to do had they lived.
Do they have to create that argument as to this would be one of the things that they would want to do? Do you have a list of things that you knew that those people would do?
It’s up to you to pitch us. You are going to give the pile to some active duty military. They can condense it from a pile to 10 or 15 names. We’re going to fly the 10 or 15 names in. We’re planning to start in San Diego. San Diego is a big military retired town. A lot of retired military is there. That would be appropriate to have it in San Diego, but it’ll be a Shark Tank type event. We’re going to bring their families in with them. I knew how much $1 million would have made. In my career, I’ve raised a lot more than $1 million. It wasn’t at one time. It was in little pieces, and how hard it was to get those little pieces.
It was hard to get other people to believe you that you were going to get enough little pieces together to make it work. If someone had come in and helped us with that amount, it would have helped us like you wouldn’t believe. We want to pass it forward to somebody, but it’s got to be an entrepreneur. They’ve got to be operating a business. It’s an honor for the men that gave their lives in Operation Eagle Claw. That’s only because that’s my button because I was told I was going. I had nothing to do with it. I’m not going to give you any, “Pat me on the back.” I sat in my dear area where other men gave their lives.
I do want to do this in their honor and we’re going to look for an entrepreneur that’s living a life or creating a business. It’s got to be for profit. I’ve seen a lot of people that are out there. I’ve got 1 or 2 that I like, but I only get one vote. There’s going to be probably 10 or 15 votes. We’re going to try to bring on some active duty people to help us pick them. The sponsor’s going to get one vote. I’m going to get one vote and everybody else is going to get one vote in there. I’m impressed with one girl that’s got her leg blown off and she climbs mountains. She goes out and gives speeches on tenacity.
Some amazing people and amazing stories. What you’re doing is incredible. What do you think is the biggest thing that you learned from your adventures?
I’m going to take it to an old car racing movie. There’s a racing story that’s says, “Race towards the crash.” If you race towards the crash, by the time you get there, it’s gone. Most of the things that we worry about and I still worry about things like you and everybody else. If we go towards it like it’s not there, by the time we get there, it’s gone. It’s a non-issue. In my life, all of the things that I thought were impossible, manage to take care of themselves. The things that I thought were going to be easy, they weren’t easy. That would be my one lesson if you go towards your fears. I’m as scared as everybody else is. I’m scared of big waves like anybody else is. I’m scared of jumping out of an airplane and I’ve done it. I’m like everybody else. I’m scared of that blonde hair thing that stands about this tall in my house, that’s my wife. One of the things that motivates me is not to make her unhappy.
It’s good that you’ve got your fears correctly organized.
I hope you’ll follow the CupRoyale. There are lots of ways to partner with us and be involved in and sponsor. There’s still some room for some investors and a couple of things along that line if anybody has an interest in those kinds of things. I’ve sucked up enough of your time, Penny. Thank you for taking my time.
Thanks for telling us your story. It’s an incredible story. There are lots of other great bits, pieces and perhaps we’ll have to circle back around and hear in-depth some of those stories as well.
You can watch the series. There’s a series on Amazon Prime. It’s eleven episodes. You can Google I Am Second Wounded Hero Voyage and you’ll find it. Thank you.
Thank you, Ralph. Thank you all for being here and reading to what seems like a crazy story that Ralph decided that he was going to get a world record and build a flats boat and travel around the world. The truth is that whatever you’re going after, whatever your goal is, think bigger. Ralph said, “We think things are impossible, but things take care of themselves when you head in that direction.” The fear that you thought that you had falls away when you see that it wasn’t as big of a challenge maybe as you thought it was. It’s challenging, but if you go through it, you will learn an incredible amount and you will experience life at a whole other level. I encourage you all to think bigger and go after your dreams. Thank you. We’ll see you in the next episode.
About Ralph Brown
Over 50 years of age, four world records, getting ready to set another world record and creator of the CupRoyale, Race Around the World. Current World Record Holder for: 1. Smallest Powerboat to Cross The Atlantic Ocean, 2. Longest Non-Stop Ocean Voyage in a (shallow water boat) Flats Boat, 3. Longest Ocean Voyage in a Flats Boat, 4. First Flats Boat to Cross the Atlantic Ocean. Former Cocoa Beach, Surf Bum, Former US Marine, Former Weekend Volunteer to Project Areas in Chicago, and LA, Former High School Math and Science Teacher, Former Financial Planner, father of three, husband of one wife. As a US Marine, I was told I was going to Iran to rescue the hostages in April 1980, I did not go, that day Sgt. John Harvey, Cpl George Holmes, SSGT Dewey Johnson, Maj. Richard Bakke, Maj. Harold Lewis, TSG Joel Mayo, Maj. Lyn McIntosch and Capt Charles McMillian gave their lives, while I sat on my behind and did nothing.
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