Racing Waves: A History of Offshore Powerboat Racing

Joel Harvey

If there’s one inescapable fact about us humans, it’s this: we like to race things.

At ridiculously high-speeds, if at all possible. And it doesn’t matter if we have solid ground – or the ocean waves – beneath us, we will be racing one way or another.

Humanity has been taking to the high seas in boats since prehistoric times. Which makes sense really, seeing as the planet is around 71 percent water and how else could our Neanderthal cousins have gone on holiday? On the back of birds? That’s ridiculous.

Throughout history since then, boats have played an integral role in human existence. Prior to the invention of the airplane, it was the only way to get around the planet. And as much as boats were an essential tool for shipping and travel, they were also used for pleasure and relaxation by many people. Well, people who had a tonne of money at least.

The very first motorboat didn’t ride upon the waters until the late 19th century. But inevitably, it wasn’t long before we were taking them out to the rivers and seas in order to pit them in races against one another.

Gar Wood & The Harmsworth Trophy

Within years of the invention of motorboats, the first offshore international competition was up and running – the Harmsworth Trophy. Founded by publishing magnate, Alfred Harmsworth (a viscount, don’t you know), the first race took place in 1903. It was an international contest between countries, not individuals. But ironically, it became dominated by one individual – Gar Wood.

Wood was a veritable speed-demon on the water. He was the first person to break 100 mph in a motorboat. And he would lead the Americans to victory in the Harmsworth competition on no less than eight separate occasions as a driver.

These races would prove highly popular, drawing in monumental crowds of up to 400,000 each year. Because of this, offshore powerboat racing became a recognized sport and it grew in stature. But despite the surge of interest, this form of boat racing was not something that an ordinary person could ever afford to take up.

Powerboats were hugely expensive and even if you could get your hands on one, you needed the water to test it on too. And the local fishing pond would not be an acceptable testing location. Due to this, the sport over the years has been dominated by very wealthy drivers and organisations, such as Gar Wood and his own business empire. Maybe this untouchable allure of affluent racers, played a part in the appeal and fascination of the sport in the eyes of average Joes and Janes.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Harmsworth cup died out and was only sporadically contested. But many other races rose in prominence to take its place. And one in particular would continue to maintain the glamourous, high-cost nature of the sport.

The Class 1 Money Race

There were many offshore powerboat racing competitions that sprung up around the world in the late 20th century. But the one that perhaps holds most in common with the Harmsworth trophy, was the Class 1 World Powerboat Championship. First held in 1956, the original iteration of this race was ran from Miami, USA to Nassau in the Bahamas; fancy locales for a fancy sport. Since then it’s grown into a breathtaking, dangerous race involving some of the most potent powerboats in the history of the sport.

And once again, the competitors were not from working-class backgrounds – they were rich. Very rich. One of the early winners of the championship was one Richard Bertram. “Dick” owned his own boat at the age of 8. No, not a toy boat. Not something you played with in your bath; he owned a real boat. Money was clearly of little consequence for these affluent boat-racers.

In case you were in any doubt about the amount of cash involved in powerboat racing, then have a look at who runs the most successful team in Class 1 history: Victory Team. It’s a man called Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who is also the owner of the Emirates Group and has a net worth of around £19 billion. This is not a poor person’s sport in any sense of the word. In order to race powerboats, you’d likely need financial support akin to that of running for the President of the United States.

It’s An Offshore Thing

And so, the world of offshore powerboat racing continues as a global venture. But it no longer affords the fanfare of the common man anymore. Although the high-priced, exciting sport might be spectacular to watch, it feels too out of reach for most of us ‘norms’ these days.

Perhaps we’re not so enamored by shiny powerboats anymore. Or maybe we’ve just grown less interested in seeing rich people drive expensive toys on the water. We’d much rather see them drive expensive toys on race tracks instead.

Despite this, powerboat racing is still a thing today. And with billionaire owners backing it, it’s still very much an offshore thing; wonderfully elusive and wholly exclusive.