The lost 'SPIRIT' of 'Offshore' Powerboat Racing

Offshore Powerboat Racing history in pictures!

The start of the second British Cowes-Torquay International Powerboat race in 1962

Start of an early British national offshore powerboat race

1970's and pure raceboats have evolved

1980's and the 'cats' are on the prowl!

1989, the UK cruiser class tries to retain affordability, competition and relevance to the industry, public and boating market

The start of a modern, multi lap inshore 'cat' race at Key West Florida. A challenging course that has seen far too many tragedies!

The enduring - hitherto but now only ostensibly - 'Classic' Cowes-Torquay-Cowes, a true offshore powerboat race - but an incomprehensible class structure negates any prospect of it being taken seriously by a corporate sponsor or gaining a truly professional motorsport 'image'.  

Perhaps it mirrors current societal trends - but if the sport is to ever gain serious attention, it needs to understand the more informed public and corporate expectations. It needs to look to the well financed (European) role models - Formula 1 and the World Endurance Cars (WEC) for inspiration. 

It will not be easy but the C-T-C was recognised as the world's premier event. It can continue sliding toward an amateur shambles, or it can stand up and show the leadership its status could command. The sport demands 'World Class' leadership, to 'engineer' a set of rules that fit the economics, technology and environmental responsibilities expected in today's real world.

The P1 Story

Back in about 1991, with disillusion and a ‘diminishing core participation body’ in mind, and the UKOBA ‘Engineer of the Year’ trophy on my shelf, I found myself elected to the ‘technical representative’ position within the Power Cruiser Racing Association (PCRA). Recognising that the ‘Cruiser’ class frequently had three boats in an ‘over 34ft allows twin big-blocks’ segment of Cruiser ‘B’ Class rules, I suggested that the cruisers would look far more professional – and attract more attention and participation, if we replaced the existing ‘Cruiser A’ and ‘Cruiser B’ classes, with a production ‘mirror’ of the three recognised UIM class capacity levels – while retaining the ‘P’ prefix, denoting the ‘Production’ hulls and engines. Thus creating a far more understandable class structure to present to spectators and sponsors.

My proposal was accepted by the PCRA (The title of which I also changed to ‘Production Class Racing Association’) and I took the concept to then, RYA Offshore Technical Officer, Ron Challener. He was very receptive, and we arranged representation from both the outboard and marine diesel industry sectors for their engine capacity level input. Finally we put together the new rules for the 1992 RYA Offshore Rulebook, which listed: National Cruiser classes as: ‘P3’ at 6ltrs, ‘P2’ at 12ltrs, and wait for it, a whole new class called ‘P1’ at 16ltrs. That 1992 RYA Offshore Rulebook was the first time the term P1 was ever used, denoting, as it did, ‘Production Class 1’.  As I have said many times, I should have copyrighted it!

Unfortunately, 1991 was also the beginning of a disastrous economic recession in the UK and ultimately, also the USA. The re-born class structure immediately suffered, as did every other class racing in the UK, and in turn my ‘offshore racing’ reliant business. In fact, it was the catalyst that gelled my departure to the Antipodes!   

The title ‘P1’ subsequently became a European promoter’s ‘Brand’ name for a true UIM International class, promoted as a monohull offshore endurance racing alternative to the existing ‘open’ UIM Class 1. Unfortunately all of this occurred during that difficult economic period, where the concept apparently succumbed to financial failure. Bizarre as this amateur sport is, ‘Brand P1’ was later acquired by another promoter and pinned to a one-make outboard class, totally unrelated to Class 1. Only in offshore racing could the ‘Brand’ value then find yet another life, pinned to a US race series headed by boats, being about as far from ‘production’ as could be imagined. Then again, maybe Mercury 9ltr turbo race engines are just ‘production’ engines really!

Funny that P1 was originally motivated by ‘disillusionment’!

Class 1 engine capacity but a production hull and unmodified production engines - let's call it 'P1'..! (Photo courtesy Tony Young)

The way it was - Racing within your means!

While updating the website and the above text, I decided to retain this little story, because it epitomises the sport I loved.

 A ‘professional’ approach to racing demands rigging a boat to fit the ‘Class’ structure – not rigging at random and then expecting a class to be created for you. While ABPE served teams across the class spectrum with fuel and fluid system components, the engineering specialty was in creating ‘Cruiser’ – later called ‘Production’ – Class boats. The ‘Cruisers’ were capable of providing authentic offshore racing within more modest budgets, while having a direct relationship with the industry. Most notable, was the ABPE fleet of very successful Revengers sportscruisers.

The ‘A’ Class ‘Sweet Revenge’, is shown here racing in Guernsey in a combined A and B Class, two heat championship for the 1988 Guernsey Cruiser Class Gold Cup, in which it came third overall. P77 was a Revenger 25 SC bare hull which I rigged and installed a single Mercruiser 260 / Alpha One drive to comply with ‘A’ Class rules. It was funded by a business overdraft and my ‘driver’ financing the engine. Its record of consistently beating all but two B-Class boats, and its unbeaten national A-Class speed record, enabled a sale at the season end, which repaid the debts and made a small profit – a motorsport unicorn! It also instilled the confidence in two clients to commission me to rig new ‘B’ Class, Revengers.

Understanding the Rise & Fall!

I called this page ‘Spirit’ because I felt it was a word that epitomised the sport for which I developed a deep passion. It equally encompasses the respect and value I placed in the true Gentlemen and Ladies, who were the pioneer instigators, designers, engineers, administrators and participants who brought this magnificent sport to ‘life’.

As an immense responsibility now descends upon us to preserve the this planet and the life it nurtures. I see only, an ‘amateur’ sport utterly bereft of the ‘spirit’ to meet that challenge – or indeed, the moral integrity to respect those pioneers.

The Oxford Dictionary defines spirit as: ‘mind or animating principle, person’s nature, characteristic quality, real meaning, liveliness, boldness’. I rest my case!

The very first offshore powerboat race in Europe, the 1961 Cowes-Torquay, captivated me! While the boats and power seduced me and fed my passion, the subsequent years brought admiration, not only for the nautical heroes, but the industry and structure behind the racing. The designers, engineers, support crews - and not least, the entities, clubs and people administering and governing the sport.

My admiration evolved during my formative technical years when motorsport became my focus, ultimately reaching its zenith in a truly professional motor racing team. Brief as it was, those years included building race cars and being part of a Formula 5000 team pit-crew. This was the early 1970’s when the Formula 1 season included at least two UK ‘non-championship’ races for prestigious trophies – where the UK based F1 teams were joined by the top F5000 teams. The experience for me was, not only mind-blowing - literally rubbing shoulders with my heroes of the track and icons of the industry – but a value-forming education in how a commercially viable, professional sport/industry was administered and governed.

Ultimately, I gravitated back to my childhood passion, where my technical qualification and experience enabled me to join the leading UK marine engine company active in offshore powerboat racing. The following analysis goes some way to understanding the attraction – and ultimately the degree of contempt I now feel!    

A sport is borne:

Authentic ‘Offshore Powerboat Racing' was conceived by the compelling urge to take motorsport to the ocean. Its spirit descended during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, when ‘Gentlemen’ of the time, instigated offshore 'distance’ races for powerboats. The Miami-Nassau (USA), Cowes-Torquay (UK) and Viareggio-Bastia-Viareggio (Italy). The contest was as much about seamanship – and the endurance of man and machine against the elements - as it was competition. The boats averaged 25-35ft and engines 250-350hp each. The trend was set for this unique ‘Spirit’ of competition to evolve.

Sporting spirit embraces passion, aspiration, preparation, determination and achievement – ideally authenticated within a structure that is disciplined, fair and comprehensible to both competitor and spectator! By the 1970’s offshore powerboat racing was showing those qualities. The pioneers upheld the direct relevance and benefit the sport contributed to the development of fast seaworthy leisure craft. The class structure ultimately reflected the logic of the technology, availability, economics and marine adaption of engines derived from the auto industry – in harmony with revered designers and boat-builders capable of creating fast, seaworthy hulls.

Much like the preceding equine and auto sports, it was evolving from being a classy but amateur ‘Gentleman’s’ sport – toward respect as a true authentic, disciplined, international motorsport. Properly understood and managed, ‘Sporting Spirit’ is an unparalleled force that captures attention and admiration. It is recognised in commerce and media as a substantial and valuable force that can be leveraged to touch hearts, evoke passion and forge loyalty.

The ‘Classic’ Era:

If we look at the evolution that took place in the 1970’s and 80’s we can positively say it was a Classic – some would say Golden – era. We can then ask what made it so successful – and indeed, what went wrong?

Consider engine capacity, hull dimensions and costs considerations, forming the class structure that evolved quite logically, based on product availability and the economics of the era. Above all, it presented a clear and comprehensible, level playing field sport, that began to attract substantial corporate partners. It was indeed the classic era, and this was the sport that seduced me. However, it may well be considered to have been too successful! The money poured in, then what could be called the first disruptive factor in the evolution occurred. The catamaran hull was a stunning advancement – and the first true offshore cat success triggered a revolution. Then came the surface drive revolution. Meanwhile the power available from the specified engine capacities was escalating and huge advancements in diesel power, created a further dimension!

Technology advancements in motorsports are welcome. They are the ‘value factor’ in motorsports that move us forward and contribute to commercial technical advancements. But a bigger hammer hitting the same size bell eventually destroys the bell. The engineers may have heard it, but the owners were deafened by the magnitude of their egos. The reality was, the available power had far exceeded the rational safe limits of the hulls. It was no longer an endurance challenge of man and machine versus the elements. It became bravado versus death! People were dying – along with the spirit and that ‘Classic’ era!

The rational path – the path professional motorsports take - is to recognise the problem first, and then the symptoms, and then engineer rational solutions. Offshore powerboat racing took an aviation approach to crew protection, presenting ‘boats’ as people capsules, enabling a bizarre path of bigger boats, and even multiples of the more powerful engines to evolve. Inevitably, this extended the economic distance between a wealthy minority, and a rapidly diminishing core participant body. This was epitomised for me, when I heard a senior figure in the sport – after presenting awards to the ‘cruiser’ class winners – announce, “now let’s move on to the real boats”. Ironically, this statement was made at the event for which the main trophy and core philosophy of its revered instigator was: “to improve the breed of sea going fast cruisers and safety at sea”.  

Rather than retain the initial technical structure discipline, the freedom that ‘amateurism’ presented, took the sport in the direction dictated by wealth controlling the decisions. Rather than looking at the wider opportunities and implications of developing a professional, commercial structure, the lust and power-image of having the biggest gun, in harmony with contempt for the more modest ‘authentic’ competitors making up the body of the fleet, was fatal. And the legacy of those years prevails today. Look to professional motorsports to understand the gaping chasm between the shambles of trying to please all the people all the time - and structured engineered level playing fields, where true competition prevails and winning actually means something.

Within a very short time the sport changed substantially. In the USA the cats embraced the people-capsule concept and the short, circuit-sprint style of racing, essentially creating a different sport. The same ultimately evolved here in Australia. To apply the auto metaphor, US Offshore became NASCAR rather than Le Mans, but engine capacities remained an obscene indulgence in an era where the realities and causes of climate change became known and recognised. Again, as acknowledged and acted on by their professional motorsport counterparts and respective corporate partners.

The US administrators, in trying to be seen as responsible, started a bizarre retrograde technology step, of restricting engine power - not capacity – in an attempt to attract some, albeit minority, degree of both media and commercial support. Acknowledging that the US is a different planet in respect to the wealth demographic that may show interest - and some efforts to embrace more affordable classes - the focus remains on the biggest and fastest. Retaining, it must be said, complete contempt for any notion of environmental consideration and placing the sport in the same category as drag racing, in essentially amateur US motorsports.

Ironically, as I am writing this (August 2021), I learn that the biggest team sponsor in offshore racing in the US has withdrawn, effective immediately, half way through the season!? Dare I say, ‘I rest my case’!  

Meanwhile, in the UK, a bizarre array of miss-matched vessels try to uphold some semblance of authentic offshore ‘distance’ racing. However, having struggled through economic roller-coasters, both the culture and the structure remains totally amateur - ultimately fully succumbing to the temptations that are the hallmarks of that status. Inevitably any attraction for commercial support diminished as the discipline of the former class structure was abandoned, and sacrosanct international rules are dismissed, allowing a confusing array power, and egos to run rampant. Again, enabling wealth to dictate who wins – even when they don’t!

The consequence for the actual racing, is that 'the tail wags the dog' and the Cowboys run roughshod over the rulebook. A very small minority, affording the ‘biggest gun’ mentality, dominates – when they don’t break and fail to finish, while a few restored antiques from the 1970’s/80’s contribute to the bizarre parade of ‘gas-guzzling’ indulgence.

It appears there isn’t a brain capable of even remotely connecting offshore powerboat racing to the actual concept of motorsport!

Put simply, two 9ltr forced-induction petrol, or ‘who knows’ how much diesel power, is clearly obscene in an era where Formula 1, the biggest TV motorsport in the world, announced as far back as 2014, that it was reducing engine capacity from 2.4ltr – which was down from 3ltr previously – to 1.6ltr-turbocharged. That announcement stated the reason being: “In order to make Formula 1 more environmentally aware and to attract more commercial partners”. This was a professional decision, not a USA view or an ego driven view - and it says everything I would want to say about the current paradigm and total lack of public interest in offshore powerboat racing!      

Note: The current debate regarding future Formula 1 engine technology, is focussed on relevance to the auto industry and ultimately taking the sport fully into the era of net-zero carbon.

I don’t have a problem with restored vessels from a bygone era. I do have problems with 8 litre carburetted or mechanical injection engines, of archaic design, running in a 200 nautical miles endurance race. In fact they should not be in any modern offshore race over perhaps 50nm.

In a 2019, as a member of a UIM working group, I emphasised that there is a place for these ‘Classics’, just as in the auto sector where there are events, festivals even, specifically for such classic gems. But they don’t race Lotus 72s in the Monaco Grand Prix or Porsche 917s in the Le Mans 24 hours. The correct place for the 'Classics' is a 50nm race, perhaps concurrent with a properly structured main event. Needless to say, this suggestion, along with other concepts seeking to bring the sport into the 21st century didn’t make it in the final cut. Such suggestions clearly conflicted with other agendas, as ‘amateur’ and environmental contempt prevails even there!

Again we can ask, why is this sport so utterly dysfunctional? The first answer is that regrettably, common sense is actually not very common! The second; again I’ll emphasise, the sport’s nemesis is its amateur status.

Oxford Dictionary again: Amateur: ‘…doing something as a pastime, not as a profession’. Amateurish: ‘…lacking professional skill’.

This has become the fatal factor, it enables those ‘lacking professional skill’ to be in control. If it were indeed true ‘Gentlemen’ still administering the sport it may have retained the direction it was heading. Regrettably, an amateur ‘authority’ soon becomes a sycophant of those, who consider wealth or inherited social capital, bestows privilege, entitlement and their own ‘authority’, showing utter contempt for even the enshrined and sacrosanct international rules of the sport - and indeed, any shred of moral integrity or respect for the sport's revered forefathers.

Base instincts in Human nature - that’s what went wrong!

How popular is Offshore Powerboat Racing?

For reference, I researched sport popularities and then ran through various charts of sports, and then narrowed it down to motorsports.

In a chart of the 100 biggest sports globally these are the positions of sports that have any possible comparison to powerboat racing – in any form:

  5. Formula 1

19. Moto GP


26. Rallying

32. Touring cars

36. Indy cars

44. Sailing

53. Rowing

69. Motocross

73. Drag racing

83. Waterskiing

93. Rafting

97. Jet Ski Racing  

Powerboat racing in any way shape or form does not appear anywhere in the top 100!

But what about the motorsports lists? Sorry, still doesn’t appear anywhere! I wonder why?