Dave Cowley first sat in a racing powerboat in mid July 2006. Three months later he had chalked up a pretty good record, including three podium places in six races.

Here’s how it all happened.

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My career as a powerboat driver began in the summer of 2006. With many years of water sports and general goofing around on fast boats, I was approached by Lings Honda (the company I was working for) to drive their race boat. I was asked to prepare the race boat and race in the Plymouth Grand Prix supporting the Class 1 UK leg in 2 weeks time. This normally wouldn’t be a problem apart from the fact we had no safety equipment, life jackets, radio, flares or anchor, nor had I been in the boat.

Six hours in the boat and two weeks later, we finally waved goodbye to the boat, to meet up with her in Plymouth after we had our new radios and intercoms fitted. We still hadn’t received our life jackets and I was only half way through the rulebook at this time.

When we finally got to Plymouth and met up with our boat, it was at this point when we were overwhelmed at how big the Class1 and Formula 4 Stroke series really were. The professionalism of the organisers and the amount of spectator activities going on was something I had never seen before at a free public event.

Being the newcomers to the series, the other race teams all came over to offer help, advice and to introduce themselves. All were very friendly and not one of them had a bad word to say about the other competitors. This friendly atmosphere made me feel more relaxed and less nervous about the forthcoming racing.

 In a ‘one design’ class you really have to prepare the boat to the highest possible standards, as even the smallest things can be the difference between 1st and last  place. Simple things such as cleaning the bottom of the boat, weight distribution and propeller balancing are among the most important factors. So we all got the polish out and gave our baby (boat) one final wax before we put her into the water.

The practice session was really worthwhile, this was the only time that I had ever been in the boat in full race kit and with other race boats in close vicinity. It was a great confidence boost for both my navigator and me. We each had confidence in each other’s ability and knew we could trust each other to make the right decision. This is undoubtedly one of the most important things to consider when finding a suitable navigator.

Finally Race morning comes and the butterflies have set in. No one could have possibly explained the feeling you get on your first ever race morning. Everything seemed to be going wrong on that morning, couldn’t find a pair of matching socks, toothpaste had run out, the restaurant has stopped serving breakfast. My nerves had really started to go overboard and, after my 5th visit to the bathroom, I met my navigator who explained he was also suffering. It was at this point I realised adrenaline really was brown.

Pulling up at the start run in a long line settled my nerves slightly as I was now focussed and on my driving abilities. I was reciting the words that were advised to us by most of the competitors – First race you need to keep a wide berth from everything to gain some experience, try not to get too involved with some of the battles that go on. Etc etc.So when the flag went to green my foot almost went through the throttle and the floor. I trimmed her out and we were off down the start straight at full speed. It was only when we were almost at the first corner that we realised there was no choice of keeping out of the way of the others as we were in 4th place, with 14 other boats at full throttle 5 feet away from us in all directions. We ploughed through the first corner and then everything settled and we managed to tag onto the leading pack in 5th position.

After the first few laps we settled into the rhythm of the racing and tried taking different lines, in and out of the corners, to try and edge up a place, None were successful, but this race was all about experience and learning how the boat handled in 6 boats wash, something that cannot be practiced. I can honestly say there was only 1 part of the race when we both felt that one of us would be thrown into the water. The boat was in a chine and refused to sit back down until I throttled off.

We managed a 5th and 6th position over that race weekend and  exceeded,  not only our own, but many other peoples’ expectations.

Two Weeks later, we were back on the scene in Cowes. I had practised more, prepped the boat better and was really looking forward to it. Practice was……. rough (no other words for it)…. We completed four practice laps and headed back to the marina. On our return I checked the boat over to find that the battery had come out of its fixings, so a quick run to the local chandlery and a few nuts and bolts later we were back to 100%. I was amazed that was the only damage.

The Saturday came, as did the nerves, and we headed out of Cowes to the start run. It was a long run to the start of the course and combine that with a force 5 in the Solent it was pretty lumpy. In hindsight I should have put my visor down, as the water was lapping over the bow at every opportunity. The start flag waved and we headed to our first mark, got there in 4th place and settled down and focused on following the right course as most of the marks were just out of our vision. Having been brought up in Lowestoft area I’m quite familiar with rough seas. I got my head focussed and got on with the job, with an occasional ouch from the banging of the boat against the waves. We sat in fourth position for most of the race but were undoubtably faster than the boat in front. The two boys raced well but focussed more on stopping us from passing them than on catching the guys in front. Finally we got past and I was determined to catch the boat in front. Two laps remained and they were 500yrds in front, the sea state was getting worse and the pain and exhaustion was setting in. I had to catch them; nothing else entered my mind, and sure enough we managed to pull alongside them just before the final corner. I had to get past them, no other option, you race to win. I made one final push and  then suddenly all I could see was the sky and hear the prop spin. I had hit a wave a little too hard and was thrown skywards, slightly hooked and came down to earth with an almighty bang. I managed to keep most of the momentum and got back on the race line to finish 3rd. The feeling you get when you do so well, in hard conditions and then have the competitors you race against congratulate you is amazing. So many people wished us well, from Steve Curtis (8 times World Offshore Class 1 Champion) who always comes to the events when he’s not racing to some we didn’t even know. Then I collapsed in a heap with exhaustion. I never could have imagined that sitting on a seat in a boat could be so exhausting. My neck had swollen up my arms had become numb and I could hardly stand up.

The next race was similar, tough conditions force 5/6. We carried the same strategy through and had an amazing race to finish 2nd. We were over the moon to say the least. Our second event and to have 2 podium finishes. One thing I did learn, and something we both needed practice on was opening Champagne bottles. We were always the last to pop the cork and had obviously not shaken them up enough!

Liverpool was the final series of the race calendar. The MD of Lings Honda had also brought his family to watch, so I had no option but to finish the season with another good performance. I had prepped the boat to its highest possible standard for this race, however I had a replacement navigator and the weather forecast was grim another force 5/6 race. The start run had begun and we found ourselves in the lead by the first corner, I carried on with the excitement in my head and the sound of my navigator in pain as we banged through what were almost breaking waves.  I had studied the tides of Liverpool to try and find that extra little bit of speed to try and get to the front and I was focussing on that, awaiting the call from my navigator to turn. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen and we missed our turn. Once we were back on course we had dropped to 9th position and I had a mammoth task ahead. I was so embarrassed with our course error I promised myself to make it up, and in 2 laps I had caught the leader back up. I think it was my experience of rough seas which helped put us back in the front, as it’s not always how fast you can go in those conditions but how smooth you can be. As we made a push for the leader my navigator screamed in agony and it didn’t stop. I managed to hear him scream ‘my back’ and so I retired form the race and asked for assistance. We got him to safety and the ambulance took him away for assessment. I met up with him later to find he was alive and well with only a couple of crushed vertebrae.

I secured a new navigator (MD of the Lings group), and raced the Sunday to come in second, and also won the Concours D’Elegance.

Steve Curtis personally congratulated us on our season and also gave some very appropriate pointers in our racing techniques, such as learn the course, and also not push too hard in a race, with adverse conditions, as not only may the boat fall apart around us, but also the navigator might break!

It was an amazing beginning to what will, hopefully, be a long career in the sport. The people, fans and competitors are what make the HF4S series so great: every event is exciting for everyone. With the addition of Lowestoft - a local venue for me - to the 2007 race calendar, hopefully, I can pull out all the stops and win there. The preparation work has now begun and I will be testing within the next week, for what will hopefully be an even better season than the first one.