Many motorsports are considered dangerous. Some can inflict pain and injury. Then there’s Offshore Powerboat Racing, a game most definitely not for the faint of heart … By Chris Beattie. Photography by Dave Barker
Even at idle, Maritimo commanded attention. The staccato cackle of its massive twin big block V8s drew a crowd within seconds of its explosive start-up. Kids looked on in awe, dads watched with a mix of envy and admiration and I suddenly felt very alone, even though I was surrounded by a growing throng of spectators. In a few minutes time I would be strapped into the driver’s seat of this sleek racing machine that had suddenly become the centre of everyone’s attention. Soon I would be sent out on to a race course in this carbon fibre and fibreglass missile which, I had been repeatedly told, was capable of speeds that could kill me. Literally.
Only a little earlier, the man whose place I would be taking had casually taken me through the drill. We had climbed down into the ‘office’ – the small, capsule-like cockpit which I would shortly be strapped into for an experience I had been looking forward to since the offer was made a year or so ago.
Fresh from a second place in the Offshore World Championships in Key West, Florida, ‘wheel man’ Luke Durman and his partner in crime, ‘throttle man’ Ross ‘Roscoe’ Willaton were in Melbourne for the second of two races on Port Phillip Bay as part of the Australian Offshore Superboat Championships. I had eagerly accepted their invitation to take the helm of their flagship racer, and I was now, finally, sitting behind the wheel as Luke explained the various controls, buttons, warning lights and other things that I apparently needed to pay close attention to.
As I attempted to take it all in, Luke drew my attention to the “escape hatch” – actually both escape hatches – one in the floor and the other in the roof through which we had just climbed. Now when someone uses a term like “escape hatch”, I can’t help wondering why you would want to have such a thing in a boat. I mean I have been in plenty of boats with all types of hatches, but never one that is primarily designed for escape. And then there was the fact that there were two – “the one in the floor is in case you’re upside down,” said Luke, helpfully.
Adding to my growing sense of disquiet, he calmly explained that in the event of a “stack”, the capsule we were strapped into would fill with water, adding “but only slowly” as if to make me feel better. And then, just to sooth any remaining concerns, he pulled a large and very sharp knife out from under the dash board and explained that I was to use it to cut myself free in the “unlikely” event that the clasp on my race harness would not release. I wanted to say something witty and brave like “call that a knife…”, but it’s hard to compose words when you are visualising, in very graphic detail, scenarios that could lead to your demise. So I said nothing and hoped that the sweat now cascading in rivulets down my face didn’t give the game away.
A week earlier, over a quiet coffee, Luke and Roscoe happened to mention that boats very similar to the one I was now sitting in had become watery tombs for three of their competitors in Florida. They had paid the ultimate price for their need for speed and I would shortly be following in their metaphorical wake.
Team boss and Maritimo luxury boat building chief, Bill Barry-Cotter had also explained, in very colourful terms, how many ‘incidents’ this particular boat had endured in its racing career. “It’s had a fire and two major accidents, but it’s still a very good boat,” he said, a bit too casually, I thought. “Actually, there is hardly anything of the original boat still there.” I could only hope that what remained was worth keeping…
Further undermining my confidence, Jack, my own 15-year-old flesh and blood, who was with me on the day, left me in no doubt as to where he stood on Dad’s coming adventure. “If things don’t go well out there,” he said, looking out on the race course, “is it OK if I have the Harley?”
Fortunately, offsetting this somewhat grim outlook was the knowledge that I was in the hands of one of the world’s most professional and capable racing organisations. Headed by Bill Barry-Cotter, the Maritimo team has competed in world championship-level events for the past 15 years. With relatively meagre resources in comparison to some of the Arab oil financed, mega-wealthy teams that contest the European and Middle East centred world championships, Bill and his sons Luke Durman and Tom Barry-Cotter and their crew mates have acquitted themselves extremely well, waving the Aussie flag high in a sport that, at its highest levels, eats money like a school of blood-crazed piranha.
It is a sobering experience hearing the roof hatch clunk shut knowing that it will only be reopened by a member of the crew – or a rescue diver. Roscoe checked and tightened my six-point racing harness which snugged me down into the high-tech seat. Earlier, Luke had explained that the seats in Maritimo employed race car suspension systems borrowed from the US Indycar series. Sophisticated shock absorbers took the brunt of the impacts on the water, leaving throttle man and steerer to deal with actually keeping the boat on course and out of harm’s way.
Roscoe sat in the port seat. As throttle man, Roscoe is a bit like that mythical one-armed Lebanese wallpaper hanger – he is kept busy controlling two pairs of levers: two throttles (one for each engine) and the trim controls for the props. Where each lever is placed is dependant on far too many variables from what I could make out. On a second-by-second basis, Roscoe apparently takes in such critical information as boat position, including whether it is going into, or coming out of a turn, the prevailing water conditions, local currents, the position of other boats and, for all I knew, the temperature of the beer back in the team’s trailer. Talk about multitasking…
My job was simply to “hold on and steer”, which was beginning to feel like two too many things to do, considering I also needed to breathe and try not to scream.
With a thumbs-up and a grin, Roscoe activated the starter motors for both engines. Suddenly everything in my world was simply either noise or vibration. Nothing else existed, at least within our sealed cocoon. It seemed every pulse of each engine was transmitted directly to the base of my spine, while the angry cacophony of internal combustion directly behind us overwhelmed any senses still working.
After idling a few hundred metres out onto the short practice course, marked out by four bright yellow buoys just off Williamstown, Roscoe gestured to the first turn a kilometre or so distant and pushed the throttles forward.
Instantly, 1800hp erupted in an explosion of sound that I seemed to feel more than hear. It was like a world war had just broken out a few centimetres behind me. The bow dipped and everything outside the cockpit instantly blurred. I felt a surge of forward motion. It wasn’t so much a sensation of violent acceleration as it was a feeling that a huge irresistible force was pushing us faster and faster down the course. And it suddenly occurred to me that I had a steering wheel in my hands and that I should be paying attention to the turn now rapidly approaching. Roscoe had earlier coached me about not moving the wheel too far or too quickly as “things might get ugly”.
Before I could really even think about it, the first turn was upon us. Roscoe throttled back and I felt the speed wash off, but we were still close to triple figures in the old imperial speed measure. I gingerly turned the wheel, but quickly applied more force as Roscoe yelled “harder, turn harder!” through the helmet intercom. Then it was “straighten up, get it straight!” as he pushed hard on the throttles for the run down to the next turn.
This time we seemed to be approaching significantly quicker. Fortunately, the water was fairly flat, although the hulls were dancing a little from the light chop. I turned the wheel a little more purposefully and the asymmetrical hulls responded by biting in hard. Roscoe had warned that too much turn could result in a spinout, so I feathered it a bit through the corner, but the G forces let me know that the hulls had no problems following directions.
The power steering system is well balanced, giving solid and accurate feedback, while taking a lot of the effort out of turning the large carbon-fibre rudder at the rear.
TURN LEFT, GO HARD
The next couple of laps were a little like American-style NASCAR racing – turn left, go hard, repeat. Each time we seemed to be covering water a little faster. I glimpsed the dash speed readout once and I think I saw 130 (knots), towards the end of one straight. But just as I was starting to entertain thoughts of a possible new high-speed career, it was all over. Roscoe pulled the throttles back and that beautiful banshee wail subsided to a grumpy idle. The only trouble was, parts of me were still out on the course doing 240km/h – or at least that’s how it felt. I could feel my heart beating in time with the engines and I was sporting a smile way too wide to fit through any escape hatch.
Climbing back out at the docks, I realised that I was bathed in sweat and suddenly felt a bit drained. I had only been on the water for about 10 minutes, it had been relatively calm, and yet I still felt like I’d just done a reasonable physical workout. It occurred to me that the guys who actually do this stuff for real are sometimes strapped in for an hour or more. Most times the water is less than flat, in fact, it can get downright ugly at times and they aren’t out on the course alone. There are typically a whole lot of other similarly massively-powered craft, all intent on occupying the same patch of water at every turn. Huge roostertails of water make visibility difficult and other racers ask for, and give no quarter. And sometimes, not all of them go home at the end of the day.
Those few short minutes gave me a whole new respect for the people who race these finely-tuned craft. In cockpit temperatures sometimes nudging 60°C, both throttle man and wheel guy have to work as one, keeping the boat on course, while attempting to stay ahead of the opposition. I’d bet some brain surgeons don’t concentrate as hard as these guys need to when they’re threading the needle between course markers, spectator boats and other racers. Let your guard down for a second at 280km/h and the results can be lethal.
It was with some satisfaction – and a tinge of relief – that I turned to Jack as we waved goodbye to the Maritimo team and told him he’d have to wait a little longer to get his hands on Dad’s motorbike…
Grand Prix of the sea
The Class One UIM World Powerboat Championship is to boat racing what Formula One is to cars. It is the epitome of speed, technology, power, cost – and risk – that only a handful of highly talented mortals can aspire to.
The championship is run over a series of races at various venues in the Middle East and Europe, while the US conducts a one-off event each year at Key West in Florida to decide its own ‘world championship’. The 2011 US event saw Luke Durman and Ross Willaton finish a strong second overall, surprising many much better-funded and equipped teams with their efforts.
In Europe, the sport is so popular that it attracts more than one million spectators to some races and some of its heroes have to be shielded by bodyguards during official appearances.
Technical specifications for the UIM world series have become tighter in recent years to try and cut back on escalating costs. There are basically two variations allowed in Class 1, depending on engine output, boat weight and length.
Boats are expected to have two petrol-powered engines, with supercharged or turbocharged craft not to exceed 850hp for each powerplant. Maximum boat length for blown engines is 14m, with a minimum weight of 4950kg. Unblown (naturally aspirated) boats are allowed to be lighter (4500kg) and shorter (13m), but are limited to 775hp per engine. The idea is to try and create a level playing field for all competitors, regardless of engine choice. Typically, between 12 and 14 boats contest the UIM series.
The Americans, though, take an entirely different tack at their Key West decider, with pretty much a ‘run what ya brung’ approach and up to 70 boats vying for the title. And while Luke and Roscoe relied on a relatively conventional engine and hull configuration to achieve their second place in the US ‘worlds’, some of their competitors give a whole new meaning to the term ‘pushing the envelope’.
“The Americans allow a lot of different types of hulls and engine set-ups. That’s what makes the event so good,” explained Luke. “One boat had four 1000hp engines. We were racing against a lot of more powerful boats – we were around 400hp down on the leading boats – and thought we might get a third or fourth, but by lasting out the first two races we hung on for a second at the end.”
The Australian Superboat Championships comprises four categories of boat, depending on powerplants and hull types, and last year was run over six rounds at Townsville, Mackay and Redcliffe in Qld, Newcastle in NSW and Geelong and Williamstown in Victoria.
The Class 1 fleet has shrunk in recent years due to costs and difficulty in attracting sponsors. Technical specifications are similar to the UIM boats, though series organisers have made efforts to reduce costs to attract more competitors.
Crashes, I’ve had a few…
The Maritimo team has the distinction of holding the unofficial title for the world’s most spectacular offshore race boat crash. The place was Lake Traunsee, in Austria, and the year was 2003. At the time, Bill and wheel man – and current crew chief – Peter McGrath were competing in a new boat of Bill’s own design. Things were going well for the team until the Austrian round of the world titles, when Maritimo and the Spirit of Norway were headed for the same patch of water at around 235km/h. We’ll let Bill take up the story…
“We were leading at the time,” he recalled, “with Spirit of Norway very close behind. As we went into a mark, Spirit of Norway pushed us wide and I could see right away we had a problem. The choice was either finish up in the spectator fleet or turn back into him – which we did – and the wake blew us over and the boat was destroyed.
“We knew it was going to happen and all we could do was ride it out. I pulled the throttles off and was literally waiting for the bang and we went end over end first and took the front off the boat.
“Then it rolled again and took the back off the boat and then it rolled sideways and I thought we were going to end up in the water upside down, which wouldn’t have been pretty at all, but luckily it rolled over again and came down on its side. It crushed the whole side of the boat, but we got out of it fine.”
Despite the spectacular nature of the crash, both men came out of it virtually unscathed, Bill suffering just a bit of grazing on his legs. The boat wasn’t so fortunate though, with the only salvageable items being the two engines and one or two small components.
“It often comes up on that Destroyed in Seconds TV show and on YouTube,” said Bill, with what appeared to be a hint of pride.
“Afterwards, all I wanted to do was throw the bloke in the water that had caused it.”
Bill’s wife, Lesley said she was more affected than her husband by the severity of the crash.
“At the time I was actually in with the timekeepers and beside us was a big screen TV,” she recalled. “We heard the crowd scream and I said ‘somebody’s gone’ and the next thing we hear it’s Maritimo.
“Luckily, the first footage we actually saw was of them popping out of the boat so we knew they were alright. Then they replayed the crash. If I’d seen that first I think I would have fainted. We could not believe they got out of that one.
“After the crash Bill partied on for the rest of the night, while Peter’s partner and I went to bed with migraines as sick as anything.”