Lib' and Shell' make a dash for the shops before walloping the boys on the water...

Powerboater Libby Keir reports from the Tyneside Grand Prix, where she and driver Shelley Jory are defending their 2005 title in their boat Team Raymarine, in the Honda Formula Four-Stroke 225hp series…

So. Following on from a tricky start in the Isle of Man, Shell and I travelled to Tyneside last week with a certain amount of trepidation. Everyone had been keen to point out how rough the North Sea can be, and we were expecting the worst as we drove up the long road to South Shields…

It’s probably not a good thing, but I am a firm believer in signs (aren’t sailors meant to be superstitious?). Therefore, both Shelley and I drew a huge amount of comfort from the sight of a huge shopping outlet village right next to our pits. Surely this was a sign that Tyneside was welcoming the girls? Not women to miss a credit card bashing, we had barely let down the jockey wheel on the trailer and we were off. An exhausting six hour drive to Newcastle? Pah! The Team Raymarine girls followed that with a monster two hour shopping marathon.

Having proved our stamina on Thursday evening, Friday was taken up with scrutineering and testing. There have been a number of teething problems with the new propellers with which we have been issued this season, and we were nervous about how ours would run. A small vibration at low revs going up the river had Shell and I preparing for the worst, but once on the plane around the practise course, we were happy with how the boat performed. The course itself looked very short and so would be hard work for Shelley who would be coming out of one corner to go straight into another, but the water was flat calm. A result.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and Shelley and I tried to follow our tried and tested formula for race preparation. This is an incredibly involved process which is made up of eating bananas, drinking Lucozade, listening to Bodyrockers, and avoiding the boys. However, Race Control needed us in our boats in plenty of time to get up the river, and this didn’t help pre-race nerves. All the racers seem to feed off each others’ anxiety and you will get some races where everyone is cool as a cucumber and some where people are bouncing off the walls. This race seemed to fall under the latter category.

As we tooled up the river on the way to the course, we became more and more conscious of a thick mist rolling in over the bay. By the time we were at the muster area, it was almost impossible to see from one end of the course to the other. For navigators used to getting round on line of sight, I’m ashamed to say that this was going to challenge our skills.

The start run was perfect – our officials have really clamped down on boats jumping the start this season, and are carrying a camcorder on board the start boat for video evidence. This has really sharpened everyone up and you could have drawn a ruler line down the fleet!

It was very close racing straight away – we all need to push each other off our ideal racing lines, but I am pretty keen on maintaining a safe distance from one another. However, Shell and I have toughened up a lot since last year, and are much less phased by some of the tactics the lads employ – we are less likely to back off these days! We came round the first mark in second place behind Negotiator. Then, after one lap, a navigational error took Gavin and Nathan off course and put us in the front! Hooray!

I can honestly say that the remainder of this race was the most exciting I have done. We had Jack Glendinning and Simon Bucknall in Stopbox sitting right behind us, and they stayed there lap after lap after lap. I tried to remember every defensive tactic Neil Holmes had ever taught me, and had Shelley crawling all over in front of them. I am proud to say that the boys were soaking wet from our rooster by the time they finished the race! Shelley was flying around the corners and really showed everyone how hours in the gym with her personal trainer, James Seilo, have given her bags of energy for the racing.

We managed to hang onto a very narrow lead until the last lap. The water at the top end of the course had become more confused as the race had progressed, and on our last time round, both boats hit some major air. Jack and Simon came down a lot better than we did and so maintained their speed. Coming round some backmarkers, they increased their lead slightly more, and the chequered flag was waiting for them before we had a chance to claw back. Although gutted to lose out on a first after leading for so long, both Shell and I had loved every minute of the race and were proud of our second place.

I felt fantastic about our racing that night, and enjoyed a rare night out with the boys. We had an amazing party at St James’ Park (what a beautiful stadium!) and then some serious dancing with the Claygate, Cider Daze and English Heritage teams. All this fun and hilarity was led by a certain Miss Caroline Flack – our fab new Channel 4 series presenter!

Sunday’s racing was almost as exciting as the day before. Luckily, the visibility was much better, but we were on the outside of the start run (HF4S reverses pole position order on the Sunday race) and so had a greater fight down to the first mark. This time Stopbox got a much greater lead at the beginning, and Negotiator followed them in second. We were in third place, but Evans Heritage was always close behind. In races like this, your pit lap can make or break your strategy. We made a successful call on ours, and Shelley and I just about squeaked through to retain our third place until the chequered flag. Another podium was a solid result.

And what of the rest of the boats? The 150s had thrilled the huge Tyneside crowds with some very exciting racing. Claygate’s Nick Clemson and Paul Trow-Smith (the 2005 150 Champions) enjoyed great success on Saturday, and have successfully continued their campaign to retain their title this year. However, the Sunday race threw up a surprise win. Rose Lores in Honda Happiness became the first woman driver to win a 150 race – a fabulous result for the girls! Congratulations to Rose and her navigator Jason!

A slightly less cheery story from the weekend was that of the Heights of Abraham team. Rupert and Lee are one of the most professional, highly prepared crews in the series, and had enjoyed two solid second places so far. Unfortunately, disaster struck on one of the last corners on Saturday’s race, and their boat hooked and barrel rolled. Both driver and navigator came out totally unscathed, but the boat remained the wrong way up. Their determination to race the next day saw them working late into the night with our fantastic team of engineers from Honda and Cougar. Sure enough, they were there on the start line on Sunday. Although the boat will need a full overhaul before Plymouth, it was brilliant to see them racing, and I really hope that Rupert has his boat back the way he wants it before too long!

And as everything wound down at the end of the weekend, Shell and I realised that we too had not escaped entirely unscathed. Shelley had been conscious throughout Sunday’s race that the boat lacked the guts it had the day before. Although she didn’t mention it to me, a couple of times I was aware that I asked for more speed and there was no more to come. Things became clear when we craned the boat out at the end of the race. As I stood under the stern, oil poured down onto me – we had blown our engine mounts. Quite how we finished the race without losing our engine is a bit of a miracle. From helicopter footage, we can see our engine bouncing around more and more as the race progresses – Shell did amazingly to steer through this. And such is the wonder of Honda warranty and Cougar aftercare, within days of returning home we had new engine mounts and our boat was back in the water as good as new. The two of us felt very lucky to have finished the race, let alone enjoyed such success.

So there you go. A fairly eventful weekend. I wouldn’t expect any less. There are only two weeks before Plymouth so we have lots to do. We are sitting in third place on the leader board and there is everything to play for. I’ll keep you posted.

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