X-treme: Racing across the ocean wave

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The Independent Culture
Adventure sports offer adrenaline junkies the opportunity to experience situations beyond the normal remit of the human body. The paradox is never more striking than when surrounded by water.

Tony Dowley started racing powerboats in 1989. Together with a fellow enthusiast, he created a company which specialises in providing powerboat trips at weekends in an effort to reduce the high costs of running a race boat. Reefer Racing was set up two years ago and offers corporate hospitality trips and a thick slice of white-knuckle action.

"I've been around fast boasts since I was a kid," says Dowley. "Racing is something I've always wanted to do. The boats we use weigh between two and three tons, and when they're on the water they practically fly. If you're travelling around 70mph at sea it feels like doing 140 or 150mph in a car. For some reason the sensation is always greater on the water."

Dowley races a Cougar Thunderboat, designed by former World Champion Steve Curtis (currently leading the Class 1 World Championship). Their boat, Thunderbird, is 32ft long, 7ft across, weighs 2,500kgs and, courtesy of a single V8 engine, offers more break-horse power (800, to be precise) than a week at Cheltenham. Thunderbird travels at speeds in excess of 90mph. A mere pounds 100,000 can buy you a similar vessel.

Powerboat racing involves completing pre-defined laps with navigational boards. Off-shore events are similar to some rally competitions where two drivers plot a course with a map, compass and no small skill.

"While racing, the most dangerous obstacle is the wash from large vessels," says Dowley. "When you have flat conditions you `trim the boat out' - that means that you're trying to get the maximum amount of the boat out of the water, leaving the propeller in. If you imagine running on a flat surface and suddenly putting a ramp in the way, you know what to expect.

"When you hit rolling wash, the boat launches itself into mid-air. It's the one thing which has caused a lot of accidents. You have to be able to read the conditions. We race on a constantly changing circuit - there's no equivalent to that driving on land."

I've driven around Brands Hatch at speeds of more than 100mph and skidded across a woodland rally course, but sitting next to Dowley, travelling at more than 70mph, was an unforgettable experience.

The sensation of racing at speed across the water is incredible. Sitting directly in front of the speedometer, I could gauge exactly how fast we were going but, as the boat picked up speed, it was hard to see anything further ahead as the water streamed from my eyes.

When I did manage to glance in front of me, a very large ferry was approaching. Dowley steered the boat wide of the ferry before doubling across the back of the boat. I just had time to see several wakes from the ferry's engine heading towards us before the first one hit.

The front of the boat left the water and I felt like I was about to be thrown overboard. Dowley eased back on the throttle before the next wake hit and we leapt into the air again. The boat felt as if it wanted to take off and I just held on for dear life, muttering exclamations into the collar of my jacket. We never topped 80mph, but I swear that I've never travelled so fast in my life.

"You need quick reactions and the ability to anticipate what the wave is about to do to the boat," says Dowley. "You also need common sense, and good eyesight helps, too. Reading the water comes from experience."

An hour later, I was exhausted and glad to see dry land again. There were no feelings of sea sickness - we were travelling much too fast for that.

So many sports claim to be extreme, but fail to deliver. Whoever coined the phrase "white-knuckle ride" must have travelled in a powerboat. It's definitely not one for the faint-hearted.

For additional information on where to watch or take part in powerboat racing call the Royal Yachting Association on 01703 627 400

FIVE PLACES TO TRY POWERBOAT RACING

Reefer Racing

724 Dundee Road, Slough, Berkshire SL1 (01753 577 266)

Team Powerboating

Bodymoor Heath, Sutton Coalfield, West Mids B76 (01543 492 344)

West Wales Windsurf and Sailing

Haverford West, Pembrokeshire SA62 (01646 636 642)

Chase Watersports Centre

Chasewater, Staffordshire (01543 270 750)

Lancashire Powerboat Racing Club

Carr Mill Dam, St Helens, Lancashire (01625 433 500)

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