It’s easy to imagine that powerboat racing is the preserve of playboy millionaires - all white teeth, fat wallets, exotic seascapes and rip-snorting 150mph missiles. In some of the higher profile, bigger budget, international race events, that’s pretty much accurate, but here in the UK, if you’re a recreational boater with racing ambitions, a place on the start line is more easily achieved than you might think.

Having raced briefly in the British Thundercat (P750) series, I know the truth of that first-hand. From sitting on the settee at home to gaining a provisional RYA race licence was a very simple process, defined more by inclination than endeavour. After an induction day, a training day and a brief medical, that was pretty much it – my expectations of an uphill battle replaced by the reality of a starting place in the first event of the season. But with so many race classes now available, each bringing their own rules, regulations and training requirements, how do you get started?

Powerboat racing: Jet Sport racing

Jet Sport racing is as accessible as it is varied.

Racing basics

The UIM (Union Internationale Motonautique) is the governing body for world powerboat racing, overseeing a huge variety of racing disciplines. The RYA (Royal Yachting Association) is the guardian of standards and protocols here in the UK. In the interests of simplicity, there are three basic types of powerboat racing: Jet Sport, Circuit and Offshore. These three classes encompass plenty of scope for you to find a race series that suits you, with all kinds of formats, from personal watercraft to outboard-powered Thundercats, hydroplanes, fast monohulls and P1 Superstock race boats. Some classes are one-design, while others are more flexible – and although the more advanced classes require a greater degree of training and experience, others happily welcome relative beginners. If you hit the ‘Powerboat Racing’ button on the RYA website, you will find explicit guidelines on each of the classes, as well as the latest rundown on the powerboat racing rules and explanations regarding the necessary licensing for you and your boat.

Jet Sport racing

Jetski (or Personal Water Craft) racing is brilliantly accessible, with opportunities for a variety of models from different manufacturers in stand-up and sit-down variants to get involved on both inland waters and the open sea. It’s not all about screaming around a circuit at breakneck pace either, as Freestyle competitions are widespread and extremely well attended both domestically and on the international scene. The most pronounced international barometer of the sport’s popularity, however, is currently P1 AquaX, brainchild of London-based sports promoter, Powerboat P1. Split into SPRINT for the stand-ups and ENDURO for the sit-downs, with Pro, Amateur and Pro Am classes for each format, its reach now extends from Europe to America and down into Asia. While the RYA can offer some useful input on Jetsport racing, alongside details of courses available to the keen PW rider here in the UK, the Jet Sport Racing Association (JSRA) is also a useful resource for up-to-the-minute input from authentic enthusiasts.

Powerboat racing: Thundercats

P750 (Thundercats) use a two-man crew to keep the boat flat and fast.

Circuit racing

Circuit racing can be a surprisingly affordable motorsport. Often (though not exclusively) hosted on inland lakes, it tends to involve relatively compact powerboats, with three basic types on offer – monohull, catamaran and hydroplane. There are plenty of classes within each, but in line with common sense, you tend to have to gain experience on the smaller, less powerful classes before progressing to the upper echelons of the sport.

P750 (otherwise known in the UK as Thundercat racing) uses 13-foot tunnel-hulled inflatable surf boats. They can run either on inland waters or offshore courses and are powered by compact outboard engines from 551cc to 750cc. The two-man crew comprises a pilot at the tiller and a co-pilot, who moves his weight around the boat to adjust the trim and to maximise speed and control.

While T850 monohulls look more conventional, like compact, low-slung ski boats, with stock 70hp or 90hp outboard engines and speeds in excess of 65mph, hydroplane race boats again tend to look quite distinctive. They come with twin hulls in the forward part, narrowing to a single hull aft. The pilot often kneels or even lies down to race and, with engine sizes from 125 to 850cc, speeds can easily exceed 100mph. There are a great many different forms of hydroplane in the National Championship (including various Open classes, denoted by the prefix ‘O’), but they all race together, making it quite a spectacle.

Other classes of Circuit boats include the GT series. GT15 uses ultra-affordable monohulls with 15hp, 350cc engines and speeds of around 40mph, making it the ideal class for kids as young as nine years old to get started on the road to the senior classes. GT30 is another entry-level Circuit Monohull class for drivers ages 14 and upwards, with unmodified 30hp engines, racing in excess of 55mph and minimal running costs. F4 uses closed, twin-hulled craft with standard, unmodified 850cc factory engines and brings with it competitions at National, European and World level. And F2 is the flagship series. With twin-hulled powerboats, 2,000cc engines and speeds in excess of 120mph, it represents the pinnacle of Circuit racing in the UK.

Powerboat racing:  Hydroplane

Hydroplane race boats are rapid, agile and amazingly affordable.

Offshore racing

Administered by the RYA in association with its affiliated clubs, there are again plenty of divisions both to help get the novice involved and to keep the more seasoned racer engaged and challenged as his skills and experience develop.

The iconic V24s (otherwise known as Bat Boats) are fast, loud, gull-winged, closed-canopy, 24-foot race boats, which use inboard, small-block 5.7-litre V8 engines for a power to weight ratio in the region of 215hp per tonne. They’re great to look at and wonderful to listen to, but in terms of their popularity, they are outdone by Offshore Class 3. Sub-divided into 3A, 3B and 3C, this class is seen by many as the grass roots platform. It involves a whole range of open and closed boats, with single and twin hulls, but uniformity within each class is defined by (among other parameters) engine size, power, boat dimensions and weight.

Powerboat racing: Superstock

P1 Superstock is a very well subscribed one-design series.

The one-design P1 SuperStock Championship is another conspicuous highlight. Competitors fight it out in identical boats on tight, two-mile courses, close to the shore. There are two classes of boat in the UK Championship – the P1 Panther 28-SS with Evinrude 250 High Output engines and the more modest P1 150 with Honda engines. According to P1, you can get involved by purchasing a new or second-hand boat, leasing one for a season, or taking up a P1 'Arrive and Drive' race package, bringing the cost of a season’s racing down to as little as £20,000.

However, now, as ever, the most challenging form of offshore motorsport is Marathon racing. Events like the (rather sporadic and faltering) Round Britain Powerboat Race and the world-famous Cowes-Torquay-Cowes event have provided an ideal proving ground for some of the world’s most capable offshore boats. It is, by its very nature, a flawed spectator sport, but for the competitors, it remains the premier class.

Powerboat racing: Marathon racing

Marathon racing is seriously tough, for boat, engine and crew.

Taking part in powerboat racing

If you want to take your first steps in powerboat racing, joining your local RYA-affiliated powerboat racing club is a great way to get involved - not least because it enables you to meet other enthusiasts at a basic level and on a similarly modest budget. It will help acquaint you with the best way to enjoy the race circuit without having to re-mortgage your house; and getting on board with your local club will also allow you to discover how fast your boat is and how capable you are as a helmsman. If racing really is for you, you will know it very quickly and you can then seek additional race training in a bid to tailor your knowledge and skills toward the needs of your favoured discipline. You can find details of powerboat racing clubs and powerboat race training centres on the RYA website.

Otherwise, if spectating appeals more than participating, keep an eye out locally or check pout the sites of the various disciplines mentioned for events near you.

Written by: Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a journalist, copywriter and magazine editor with a long history in boating and a happy addiction to the water. He’s worked on boats, lived on boats, bought boats, sold boats and – when he’s not actually on board a boat – he can generally be found in his Folkestone office, tapping away at the computer and gazing out to sea.