Hunt chases down buoy racers to prove she's got the power

The only woman among the elite of extreme boating shows her husband how to drive
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The Independent Online

Somewhere on the Solent. Difficult to say where. Visibilityis so poor. Ghostly apparitions slide past in the distance, one of which turns out to be a Red Funnel high-speed ferry, bound for the Isle of Wight. Only later, after the world champion powerboat racer Jackie Hunt has introduced me to the sport by nudging 78mph on the digital speedometer as her craft conquers the caprices of the sea, does she concede that it is "too dangerous" to continue. Now she tells me.

To the uninitiated, it is an ominous, ugly, grey swell. To Hunt, it is the practice ground for her obsession; the playground of her penchant for waterborne speed, though curiously she is no water baby. Indeed, she confesses that sailing makes her seasick. But place her in her Extremeboat, as it is named, with a pair of inboard Mercury engines producing 525 horsepower apiece amid the roughest of conditions, and it is her idea of ecstasy.

As we leave the jetty at Southampton's Ocean Village you can hear the engines almost complaining as Hunt adheres to the speed limit. They thrive on speed as much as the driver. Cruising is for wimps. Once in open water, Hunt opens the throttle of this SuperSport boat; in America, where they are manufactured, these craft contain all mod cons, and are designed primarily for what may be described as wealthy buoy racers. Hunt's version contains only the basics, with the accent on power – and safety.

It is akin to rallying on water, and, like motorsport, there are omnipresent dangers, particularly when the flag goes down. The Italian pilot Sergio Carpentieri was killed in a grand prix event in Germany earlier this year. "At the start, it's like going fast on the motorway in the rain," Hunt explains. "For three or four seconds you can't see a thing. You have to hope there's no one cutting across in front of you."

She is a remarkable woman. Off the water, you could not find more engaging company than this petite 37-year-old from Hook in Hampshire. Once on it, though, you suspect there is a touch of contempt for those who do not share her own apparent absence of trepidation about accelerating to anything up to 100mph through 12ft-high waves. In a sense, that is how she decided that her co-pilot and navigator, Mike Shelton, now her husband, was definitelyup to the job.

"When I first started, seven years ago, I used to race a speedboat, which was very light, and it used to scare the hell out of people," she recalls. "It went all over the place. I'd made grown men cry, literally. I took Mike out in it and we hit a wave, which virtually threw him out of the boat. He climbed back in and said, 'Can't we go any faster?' and I thought: 'I've definitey found the right man'."

Hunt adds: "You have to have a slight fear, otherwise you wouldn't respect what you're doing. You have to realise that what you're doing out there, you could get killed doing it. But you have to have bravery, both of you, to go out and attack those waves."

She laughs. "I couldn't have someone next to me when we're going over rough water shouting, 'Ow, ow, ow' and screaming all the time. Mike, frankly, never, ever does. If he was like that, I wouldn't have him in the boat."

It has been a profitable liaison. Hunt and Shelton have progressed to win last year's P1 Powerboat World Championships, which are one notch down from the mega-expensive Class 1 Powerboat Championship – although even this is not exactly sport on a shoestring. Their current boat cost about £250,000, and they are in the process of seeking a major sponsor. The event involves six grand prix events throughout Europe.

This season has not been so successful. They won the first grand prix, in Malta, but suffered engine problems in Italy, then in Germany had a broken propeller blade. They are standing third in the championship approaching the British Grand Prix of the Sea, which will be held at Cowes next weekend.

Hunt is the only woman driver ever to win this championship. In fact, she is the only woman in the series. She insists that being a woman has its advantages in this otherwise testosterone-fuelled sport.

"I think that women don't allow the adrenalin to turn them into maniacs, because that's when accidents happen," she says. "That's when you can lose a race. One of the worst things is to get the red mist, drive a boat too hard and break it."

However, her acceptance by male rivals did not come readily, she says. "Off the water, to start with, they were quite unfriendly," she says. "There was a time when they were putting forward new rules for the next season that weren't far off saying that a lady couldn't drive. It got to that level of stupidity. But we won a couple of races when it was very rough, and the attitude changed.

"After that, they decided 'she's one of us'. Since then, it's been fine. But I had to win their respect."

Few would doubt that this power-woman has earned it.

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