Powerboating is an endangered species

Conservation interests are making it harder and harder to hold offshore racing events

It was in my October 2002 Motor Boat & Yachting column that I wrote a spoof about the restrictions we could face in attending the centenary of the Titanic departure ten years later.

It was supposed to be a big joke with visions of paying £10 for dropping anchor anywhere in Southampton Water, naval patrols in the Solent against possible piracy, a total ban on gasoline making diesel power compulsory, an age limit on all amateur skippers and restricted no-go areas controlled by congestion-style cameras. Little did I realise this would later mean egg on my face.

Few will disagree that the Venture Cup Prologue offshore powerboat race between London and the Channel Islands in June was an outstanding success despite earlier scepticism by certain pundits.

It was the first genuine offshore powerboat event since the third Round Britain in 2008 and one likely to encourage a return to safe offshore sport where seamanship and physical endurance rather than outright speed wins the day. But it didn’t happen without a great deal of organisation and strict adherence to health and safety and rules on conservation which now severely restrict much pleasure time afloat.

Powerboat racing on open public waters has always been in for knock. Animosity also exists in some areas of the sailing world against what is described as ‘stink boats’ and ‘gin palaces’: both opinions illustrating a dangerous naivety.

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We all want to feel free afloat and provided one observes local regulations we generally are but unlike yacht racing, inshore and offshore powerboat sport is the one boating area that suffers most. But how much longer will it be alone?

The number of conservation areas that restrict boating activity is growing year by year not only in Britain but also in many European waters. It was only recently that the RYA won a battle against an anchoring restriction in Studland Bay, one of the most popular anchorages on the South Coast. No one knows more about this type of restriction than I as press officer for the Round Britain Race in 2008.

I was constantly harassed by conservation groups around the coast. One in South Wales even accused the event of causing pregnant dolphins to miscarry in the southern Irish Sea. This resulted in a live interview on local BBC Radio where I pointed out that in over 50 years’ involvement with all forms of powerboat racing I had never heard of any type of fish being injured.

I was then accused of wasting the world’s precious energy in the form of fuel and only won the day when I said that the entire event would use less than the energy it takes to transport premiership football supporters to a single game. The BBC immediately terminated the interview.

The race suffered similar problems off the east coast of Scotland as well as several other areas that were all declared exclusion zones attracting time penalties for any competitor not observing the restriction, in some cases costing their chance of final honours.

The recent Venture Cup Prologue faced similar problems. Although allowed a symbolic start in London, the Port of London Authority insisted the fleet was led downriver at non-racing speeds to Southend before being flagged away. It was wrongly felt higher speeds would create a dangerous wash which of course is not true. A large wash is far more likely when travelling at a lower speeds.

One leading competitor was rightly given a large time penalty for driving at 80mph-plus past Dover Harbour entrance, a penalty which was to cost him the overall prize.

The were several other no-go areas which were all keenly observed but if powerboats are considered dangerous when current craft use surface propellers that are hardly submerged, what effect does a high-speed sailing yacht have on wildlife?

Sir Ben Ainslie recently set a new record of under three hours for rounding the Isle of Wight. In strong wind conditions his large catamaran is easily capable of 30mph (48kph) and like all racing yachts today has a sharp deep keel and rudder blade silently cutting through the water. How much more of a threat to large fish and mammals is this against a non-submerged roaring powerboat heralding its presence long before arrival?

I wait with keen interest the point when the sailing world is given similar exclusion zones as those suffered by enthusiasts who chose power rather than sail.

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