Getting high on water

It can be frantic and frustrating but powerboat racing is hard to beat in the adrenaline stakes, says Alistair Weaver
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This is not good. I'm bobbing around Southampton docks at the wheel of a 150hp powerboat and my bladder feels like it's about to burst. How will I survive 30 minutes of racing without succumbing to the call of nature? The situation seems desperate but then I remember the words of one of my fellow competitors, Stella Charman: "You always feel like you need a pee before a race. This sport does that to you, but you'll forget about it after the start."

This is not good. I'm bobbing around Southampton docks at the wheel of a 150hp powerboat and my bladder feels like it's about to burst. How will I survive 30 minutes of racing without succumbing to the call of nature? The situation seems desperate but then I remember the words of one of my fellow competitors, Stella Charman: "You always feel like you need a pee before a race. This sport does that to you, but you'll forget about it after the start."

It seems a strange way to spend a Saturday, but then the Honda Formula four-stroke race series is full of eccentricities. The brainchild of five-times Class 1 World Powerboat Champion Steve Curtis, it is a series that allows enthusiastic amateurs to race in some of the UK's most challenging waters. "We want to build a whole structure of amateur racing," he says. "People can step up from the 150 to a 225hp class and we're about to introduce a new endurance series next year."

New boats cost the not inconsiderable sum of £31,122. The price does not include a trailer, and to be successful, competitors also need a communications system (to allow driver and navigator to hear each other) and a GPS navigation system, which measures speed and location. Our borrowed boat has none of these niceties, so navigator Matt Hancock and I are relying on simple hand gestures and strong vocal chords.

The starter raises his flag and 20 identical boats form a line. The flag drops, Matt shouts "Go" and I bury the throttle as 150hp is applied to a tiny, ferocious propeller. I swallow a gallon of spray as I jockey for position. At least I've no time to worry about my bladder.

The boats are powered by four-cylinder engines, similar to that found in the Honda Accord car. They are driven flat out and instead of braking for a turn, you adjust the boat's attitude using a "trim". A tiny lever on the dashboard adjusts the angle of the engine and hence the position of the boat in the water.

On the straights, the Hondas "plane", skimming their way across the dock, with the bow making only minimal contact with the water. But for tight corners, you lower the trim and dip the bow into the wake, which helps the boat to turn. Skilled drivers watch the pattern of the waves and then choose their cornering line to conserve as much momentum as possible.

Powerboat racing is a team game. From the driver's seat, it is almost impossible to judge the proximity of other boats and it is up to the navigator to decide when to affect a pass. Sadly, team Weaver's first race is compromised by a fuel-flow problem which causes the engine to stutter alarmingly through the tightest turn. This drops us to the back of the field and we suffer the ignominy of being lapped by the winning boat. Still, at least there's tomorrow's race.

Back on terra firma, Charman is celebrating victory. She navigates for her husband, Paul, and she insists that the arrangement does not create domestic tension. "We work on the basis that the driver is always right, so we can't argue," she says with a grin. There are eight race weekends throughout the year and it's promoted as a friendly, sociable series.

Sunday's race is a championship decider and lasts for 45 minutes. For the first couple of laps we engage in a thrilling three-way tussle. But then a combination of my inexperience and some lingering boat problems relegate us to the back of the field.

We've come last again, but at least we're still grinning. The Formula four-stroke series might be a challenge for the bladder, but as an adrenaline pump, it really has no equal.

www.formula-four.com

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