A 'Class' Act!

Offshore Powerboat Racing - A Class Structure Template

The story so far:

This discussion follows a series of articles examining the evolution and issues in offshore powerboat racing and questioning its future. It concluded that the conceptual notion of the sport as a true offshore challenge has eroded as the ‘speed’ element usurped every other quality. 

There was an era where the offshore ‘spirit’ peaked and we have all questioned the subsequent decline. I put forward the suggestion that the style of racing suited to high speed multihulls, is not offshore racing as originally conceived and the disparate attempts to embrace both factions and rekindle the spirit have created the compromised circumstances that exist today. Not least, this trend has ‘priced’ the sport out of reach – and thus, its relevance to the wider market and industry.

My conclusion is that true ‘offshore’ needs to stand alone, and, as in other forms of motorsport, it must re-establish ‘relevance’! To do so, it needs to dramatically reassess its values and priorities, while adopting a more professional approach to the realities of our time! 

Ultimately, I accept, it’s no good criticising if you can’t offer an alternative initiative!

A ten-point wish list for a ‘new-era’ offshore powerboat racing model:

If a blueprint for recapturing the essence of offshore powerboat racing is to be created, it must remodel the successful elements, while harmonising with contemporary realities and expectations. The last article in this series put forward a ten point wish-list. I will now briefly address and expand on each point.

·         Reasonably simple to understand and regulate.

Mechanical sports are complex by nature; this is exacerbated when decisions are made without fully understanding the implications. Speed limits, torque sensors, and Heaven forbid, stated horsepower categories, have no place where a professional ‘racing’ image is to be presented. ‘Simple’ is understandable. Minimum essential classes, specific engine capacity levels and hull dimension limits, make sense to all stakeholders. Easy to regulate, means easily measured factors in regard to hull specifications and engine modifications. UIM Marathon D and E go some way toward that ideal.

In a structure that reflects the auto endurance class model, I would propose two race-boat classes, reflecting the original class 1 & 2 – plus a production sportscruiser-based class.

The top level must reflect the original Class-1 role of projecting the pinnacle charisma - emulated, and indeed challenged by the second-level and production aspirants.

·         Dimensionally seaworthy and safe.

Accidents cannot be totally eliminated, but obvious factors, observable statistics and direct experience can help understand causes and consequences. We need to face some facts and understand precisely what factors are in the ‘seaworthy’ offshore raceboat equation.

When ‘offshore’ is the race format, location, distance and lack of immediate safety cover mean focussing on two specific criteria: The first, is reducing the chance of an incident happening. The second, is reducing the chance of serious consequences if an incident does occur.

There are three primary factors relevant to a seaworthy raceboat; they are: power-to-weight ratio, hull length, and most neglected, freeboard. It’s worth reflecting on that ‘classic era’ and consider the freeboard of boats that were designed, not just for speed - but safe speed in true offshore sea conditions. Equally critical are engineering factors: including steering system integrity, propeller rotation and the danger of naïve ballast placement. This is where understanding the physics of vessel dynamics, is so important in the formulation of technical rules.

Safe offshore racing is for level headed participants who want to engage in serious, level playing field, challenging competition. The competition is not about who can take the biggest risk, it’s about who is the best offshore racing ‘team’. The ‘team’ competes on every aspect of fast open water competition, from interpretation of the rules, to rigging, preparation, navigation, helm/throttle control, human and mechanical endurance and ultimately, smart seamanship!

·         Challenging within a safe speed range.

Let’s get some perspective: In 1988 I rigged and raced a 25ft Revenger hull with a single 5.7ltr, 260hp (small-block) Mercruiser / Alpha sterndrive – straight out of the box, unmodified. The boat/engine fitted the UK National Cruiser Class A. Only one other boat was running in Class A.

Class B allowed 2 x 290hp small-block engines, or a single big-block around 380hp. If your B class hull was over 34ft you could run two big-block engines. I did six races with my A Class boat, each time there were 6 to 10 cruiser class boats racing – and each time, I finished first in class and third overall. This included the two-heat Guernsey Gold Cup in which 12 boats entered – and I was the only A Class boat! At year end, I smashed the A Class speed record on Lake Windermere, recording 57.68mph over a flying kilometre. An immensely challenging and successful season – all at less than 60mph!

The really relevant ethos across many of these headings, is that ‘big-block’ petrol/gasoline engines are like coal, they are part of our history – but now we know better! In 2018 they are economically and morally indefensible. We are now approaching the third decade of the 21st century, where, despite oil interests and venal politics, the automotive industry – from which we draw the majority of our modern marine engines - now regard engines and biofuels as ‘an integrated system’ within the design process. The superior oxygenate/octane characteristics of alcohol fuels have enabled the design of smaller engines with higher compression ratios and/or turbocharging pressures – and the corresponding higher specific power outputs. Ultimately, alcohol fuel blends make adequate power from smaller engines. As in professional motorsports – this must be acknowledged and embraced.

In creating a new-era class structure, petrol/gasoline engines are the logical base capacity/power levels, to which diesel and outboard options can be balanced.

Acknowledging ‘new-generation’ product availability, my first choice, for many reasons, would be a top level capacity total of 11 litres (twin engine total). However, the wider product choice suggests a top level capacity of 12.5 litres may be a fairer and more acceptable peak level as the sport strives to reclaim some degree of sanity. Therefore, 12.5 litres and a minimum of two engines, is the level I would acknowledge as the new-era pinnacle. The V8 charisma is retained – while embracing a whole raft of other economic factors that enable a wider participation demographic.

Power-to-weight deliberations were a strong factor that really pointed to my first choice of the top level being at 11ltr (2 x 5.3lt/350hp) 700hp total, which would also give the V8 diesels a better chance. The downside is, it would eliminate a competitive new-gen Mercruiser petrol/gasoline option at present.

By the same factors, the second level would logically be 9ltr twin, or 6.2ltr single. This covers the production V6’s, or a single V8 and again, opens far greater participation economics. Note: this is bigger than the original UIM Class-2, which was 8ltr!

The first and second level would be subject to minimum weight limits.

After much deliberation, I would pitch the production sportscruiser level capacity at 11ltr twin, or 6.2ltr single – with ‘maybe’ an 11.5ltr twin ‘grandfather’ clause initially. This encourages new-gen 5.3lt engines - but allows existing boats with fuel injected / catalyst equipped versions of the previous generation 5.7lt engines in, for perhaps a further couple of years.

A power-to-weight ratio figure – rather than a single minimum weight, would encourage variety and entry level participation.

For reference: basic prop/speed calculations for this two level, plus production sportscruiser class-structure, taking present product availability at these capacity levels, produced:

1. 76 – 80 mph.  2. 72 – 75 mph    P. 65 - 70 mph.  

Again for reference: over about ten years, the UK National Cruiser Class never experienced a fatality or serious injury.

·         Economically viable to wider participation.

I used several input factors to design a structure that reflects realistic participation levels. One factor is the cost and participation level that exists in sailing/yacht racing. I have argued this many times – fuel cost is not the big difference. Carbon-fibre, Kevlar, Dacron and Captain Morgan Rum don’t come cheap! Sponsor engagement is another factor. Major yacht regattas attract hundreds of sailboats. We must acknowledge and learn from this!

Reduced engine capacity and limiting modifications, particulalrly at level 2 - and standard production engines at the P level, caps cost. Again UIM Marathon D and E are reference points.

Smaller engines mean less cost, less weight, less fuel and easier logistics.

·         Embracing the ‘new era’ of environmental responsibility.

This is a vital area of importance – even if many in the marine industry are less than enthusiastic. Modern engine technology is appearing in the marine sector and this is the cornerstone of the ethos. It is a critical difference in understanding commercial market value in the rule structure. As proven in professional motorsports, every economic and moral aspect of the sport stands to benefit - there are no downsides! Catalyst exhausts and any available retail blend of ethanol or biodiesel must be mandated. Yes, technical application advice is available if needed.    

·         Balanced and fair but encouraging technical initiative, variety and self-expression.

One of the aspects I have always loved about authentic offshore powerboat racing is the freedom to choose your preferred choice of power and hull dimension – within the rules.

True motor sports are a far deeper challenge than simply the driver’s level of skill and/or bravado. The challenge starts with a full understanding and comprehension of the technical rules. Petro/gasoline, diesel or outboards; all have their values and followers. The competitor selects what suits their experience, budget, product knowledge and engineering scope. The top level should have the most freedom, the second level demands certain limitations, while production level needs to be pure ‘production’ hulls and engines, albeit with certain freedoms in rigging and preparation for safety and reliability. At each level the product choice must be free.

The key factor here is rules that allow the freedom - but retain the balance.  

·         Logistically practical.

Logistics are a hugely significant factor in establishing the classes, dimensions and competitor engagement. It is unquestionably a factor in competitor budgets and ultimately, participant numbers. Let’s be realistic! It’s likely that the average aspirant, keen to engage in the sport, can neither afford nor justify a commercial truck/semitrailer. I have therefore taken the conventional trailer and towing law benchmarks in Australia and simply reverse engineered the numbers back to boat weights – which in turn, guides acceptable power-to-weight ratios at each class level. I’m sure this is not far off the trailer laws applicable in other countries.

At the top level, the ‘full size’ US sourced pickups – Chevrolet/GMC, F250, Ram, etc., are usually permitted up to 4500kg on a conventional hitch. Assume an aluminium triple-axle trailer weighing (‘Tare’) about 800kg, this gives a boat weight about 3700kg. Two 500hp engines (= 1,000hp) suggests about 3.7kg per HP. For reference: P-2-W of a Class 1 offshore boat in the ‘classic era’ was around that figure.  

The second level takes the typical big Australian ute/pick-up or 4WD wagon as the benchmark. A Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Holden (GM), Jeep, etc., has a towing weight limit of around 3500kg. Assuming an average tandem-axle aluminium trailer ‘Tare’ of around 700kg, we get a maximum boat weight limit of 2800kg. At maximum weight, two (unmodified) 280hp (= 560hp) engines suggest 5kg per HP. For reference: that just happens to be the maximum P-2-W ratio rule applied at the ‘Super-Sport’ level in the original UIM P1 Marathon series!

The level suggested for the production sportscruiser class is a maximum of 11ltr (2 x 5.3lt/350hp) 700hp. P-2-W ratio would be around 5.2kg/hp assuming a 3700kg hull. At the production sportscruiser level, some degree of parity can be maintained by the P-2-W ratio figure being applied across the class – enabling a smaller, entry level boat/engine package to retain an, essentially balanced, level of competitiveness.

I should also emphasise, the above figures represent the ‘maximums’ at each level. I will refer back to the A Class story. A 25ft sportscruiser with a single engine on a tandem axle steel trailer, totalling about 2200kg, hauled all over England by a 2ltr Transit van.  

A further point that may be considered under the logistics heading, is the prospect of international competition and the economics of fitting into container freight space dimensions. I have imported performance boat hulls, not in containers but on pallets that fit container spaces. The prospect of a global class structure suggests that boats may need to be shipped internationally. Moderating dimensions enables efficient and economical shipping.

Obviously none of the above suggestions are set in stone!      

·         Conducive to close, competitive and entertaining racing.

The key challenge here is to get all the factors: engine capacities, degree of modification permitted, diesel and outboard options, drive system options and minimum weights - all as agreeably balanced as possible. ‘Close and competitive’ is simply a level playing field. Every competitor has to be, and feel, they are an important part of the competition and are in with a fair chance.

My guess is that critics of having just three classes, will be those, at present having the budget and resources to dominate overall. If I may use metaphors: the current impression is a few sledgehammers and a bunch of irrelevant rubber mallets, all aiming to crack the nut. It presents a demoralising circumstance for competitors and it’s not entertaining racing. My question would be, why fear a level playing field?  

‘Entertaining offshore racing’ could be regarded as an oxymoron in the circumstance where the action can be miles out of sight. Which then questions, why do people flock to every major yacht race venue? I recently witnessed thousands of people keen to view the visiting Round-the-World Clipper yachts, just sitting in a marina! More specifically, why are we claiming that offshore powerboat racing was at its best, representing a ‘classic era’ - when it was truly ‘offshore’?

I will forever claim that the most exciting part of any powerboat race is the rolling start. The true ‘offshore’ race fan will then be gauging the positions if there is a second or third observable pass - or listening-in to race-control VHF radio. As with the longer auto races, the ‘tension’ can be relayed and maintained even when it’s not visible – camera drones are changing the notion of needing aircraft cover! The fact is, now more than ever, technology can bring the action right to screens and your handheld device. The live focus comes back on for the finish, which can indeed often be ‘entertaining racing’.

However, we must realise, much of the commercial psychology here, is the ‘event’, the attraction and ‘buzz’ that is created and promoted. We know a cool boat on a smart trailer passing down a street will turn every head. An ‘event’ promoting many really cool boats together in one place is guaranteed to draw a crowd. Stay tuned because the ‘event’ will be the subject of a future analysis.  

·         Commensurate with corporate, host venue, media and public (market) values and expectations.

Yes, all of the foregoing is dependent on marketing partner investment. The vital factor now is to Change the culture! Recognise what is valuable and embrace the future. Be part of a progressive sport, engage with the energy of progressive corporate initiatives, environmentally aware venues, supportive media that ‘get it’ - and the energy of young aspirational minds with higher expectations.

The culture must reflect responsible custodians of the authentic ‘offshore’ spirit, nurturing its evolution in a fresh and enlightened era – in a synergy with the commercial imperatives of equally committed partners.   

·         Commercially related to the marine industry, product availability and market realities.

Oddly enough, this is probably the toughest nut to crack – but just imagine the kudos for those that step up!

The marine industry at the distributor level, particularly in the power sector, has a culture of sublime belief in their product. You could get the feeling they regard you, the ultimate customer, as irrelevant! Their focus is on the dealers and volume OEM boat manufacturers, whom they hope will give them big orders for their product. They don’t seem to relate to the fact that it’s the retail buyer who ultimately choses a brand. Sure, huge $$’s are invested in advertising propaganda, but for many the value of customer engagement and actual ‘real world’ evidence of their product performing, simply isn’t comprehended.

Industry apathy is perhaps understandable if we acknowledge that the sport at present, has almost entirely divorced itself from relevance to the marine industry!

I will enjoy mentioning an exception that proves the rule. To cut the story short, in the UK both the Yanmar importer and Mercury importer came and went. EP Barrus subsequently took Yanmar and more recently took Mercury. EP Barrus provide great customer support to offshore raceboat customers, including display of a 38ft Yanmar-powered Fountain 38 and a 32ft Mercury-powered Phantom at the London Boat Show. The success of those teams and the synergy created, is of immense value, presenting as it does, a true test of product quality and service - and authentic ‘professional’ engagement with the sport.

The new-era concept I have outlined would present outstanding marketing value and opportunities for entities whose products and engines fit the classes and suit the application. The aspirational market sector, that ‘was’ sportscruisers and performance boats – and their engines – can be resurrected if the emotional triggers are understood.

This can only happen if the sport is ‘relevant’! Then we are on the same side, support the sport – and the sport will support the industry!

One more thing!

It was interesting to look back over the previous five articles and contemplate the issues that were identified, to which ‘considered’ solutions are now proposed. Creating this template is just a starting point on which a professionally administered ‘world class’ structure can be engineered.

Above all I want to emphasise, being a millionaire must not be a prerequisite to engaging in authentic offshore powerboat racing – the only prerequisite must remain, simply, the passion and determination to engage, and do it!

Please comment via the FB page and share your views – positive or otherwise!

Adrian Bright Consultant Marine Engineer ABN: 15 414 870 185, asserts ‘Rights Holder’ status and ‘Copyright’ to any initiative, concept, blueprint, template, outline or proposal, including all original information presented here, in the document titled: ‘Offshore Powerboat Racing – A Class Structure Template!’