Powerboats: Curtis happy riding close to the edge

A Briton who was once declared dead has just become the first offshore powerboat racer to win three world championships.
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WHEN BJORN Gjelsten, the Wimbledon FC director and part-owner who won his first Class One world offshore powerboat championship last week, returned home to Norway he was feted as a national hero. His face adorned the front pages of the newspapers, and his words were heard on television screens and radio sets.

His partner, Britain's Steve Curtis, had a somewhat different homecoming. "As I walked into my house the first thing I came across was a letter from my bank manager informing me that, once again, I was overdrawn," Curtis says, with a wry smile. The night he won with Gjelsten in Dubai was no better either. "I wasn't too well," he recalls. "I'd just achieved a sporting first and, by way of celebrating, I spent four hours on the toilet. It wasn't exactly a giggle."

It may not be the best-known fact in Britain right now, but the 34-year- old from Hythe, on the Solent, has just become the first man in offshore powerboat racing to be crowned world champion for the third time. In countries such as Italy and France, the Middle East and, indeed, Norway, this is a very big deal. In Britain, Curtis is better known for his daredevil feats, rather than for his sporting talent.

"I wouldn't mind a little more fame and wealth," he admits when we met the day after his triumphant return to his bank manager's correspondence. "Bjorn's the best thing since sliced bread in Norway right now. He'll probably get the Norwegian equivalent of the OBE. I think people only know of me through a few headlines I've made, and those rarely appear in the back pages."

Indeed not. In 1990 Curtis was hailed a hero when he dived beneath the choppy waves of the Mediterranean in a brave but vain attempt to save the life of his fellow racer, Stephano Casiraghi, the husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco.

In 1993 he was declared dead when his powerboat broke up in Italian waters spitting Curtis, to use the man's own phrase, "out into the sea like a melon seed". He managed to swim ashore to a pasta bar, where the genial host offered him food and copious amounts of wine. Meanwhile a rescue team, in failing to find a body, assumed the worst.

So why does he spend his time staring death in the face? "It's just the thrill of racing, and the competition," Curtis explains. "A powerboat is an incredible piece of machinery, and when you're racing close to 160 mph on a forever changing surface such as the sea you're constantly living life close to the edge.

"When you're racing it requires 100 per cent concentration. It's like a twilight zone you enter, when everything else apart from racing leaves your mind. You merge with the boat and almost become one entity. I become attentive, anticipatory, and also fearful, of losing as much as of the danger. Believe me, powerboat racing is like a drug to me."

Maybe, but doesn't he spend a few moments worrying over how his personal cards are dealt? "No," he says. "Not really. I'm a very positive person. I think you have to be. When I have a big accident I think: `Good, that's my big accident out of the way for another three years.' I know some people may think I have some kind of death wish. I'd accept I've been lucky on occasions, and eight of my close friends in the sport have been killed. But I argue that I have a life wish. I don't want to be a spectator, I want to be a player."

Nobody can deny that Steve Curtis is a player. His hat-trick of world titles is a first in his sport, but not his personal choice in the achievement stakes. "Winning my first title back in 1985 meant more to me because I became the first Briton to do so," he explains. "Someone, one day, will win four world titles, and then five. Maybe it will be me. But nobody can ever take away the fact that I was the first Brit to pull it off."

Curtis and Gjelsten won this year's world championships at a canter, confirming their status in the penultimate race of the season in Dubai, and then winning the final grand prix, also in Dubai, for good measure. It rounded off a highly successful eight-race season for Gjelsten's boat, The Spirit of Norway.

During the course of the past year the world's best Class One teams have raced around the world circuit in places as diverse as St Petersburg and Istanbul, Norway and Rome, Guernsey and, indeed, Dubai. The two-man crews, consisting of a driver who steers, and a throttleman who powers and controls the boat, sit in an enclosed canopy based on F16 fighter cockpits. Twelve, 4.5 tonne boats began the campaign, but only 11 finished. One sank, while another, which also sank, was replaced.

The Spirit of Norway, however, avoided all the obstacles. "We didn't have the quickest boat, nor the most powerful one either," Curtis says. "But we had great reliability and Bjorn drove extremely well. Our experience helped, and we limited our mistakes. Everything slotted into place, and it was our consistency that won the title."

And what of Curtis, recognised to be the world's best throttle man? "I adjust the speed and turn the boat," he explains. "While it is the job of the driver to drive and navigate, making sure that the boat travels the shortest distance, I monitor the gauges. It's a team sport, and we both have to work in full unison, especially these days, when the sport has become so much more professional."

Gone are the days, then, when powerboat racing was just the hobby of a few rich, playboys. According to Curtis, the glamourous image is now a distant memory. "It's true that the teams have a great deal of money pumped into them. The Royal family in Dubai fund their own teams, and Bjorn financed most of our boat this year, although next year we expect to have full sponsorship. But the days of the fantastic parties and good life are over. The teams today are out there to win. The millionaire backers are professionals who want to be winners, and they don't see their boats as merely toys any more."

So what now for our triple world champion? Will he continue to ride his luck and pit his considerable skills against both the opposition in the boats and the unpredictability of the sea?

"I can't see me stopping just yet," he says, as he prepares to leave again for the Dusseldorf Boat Show. "I'm happiest when I'm in that boat racing. I've been doing it for God knows how many years now, but I still have the enthusiasm of a teenager."

He smiles, a self-conscious confession that soon dominates his face. "Besides," he adds. "What else would I do with myself?"