Variously described by politicians, the Mayor of Sydney and ex-PM, Paul Keating, as a 'speedfest' run by 'plastic boat manufacturers', wreaking havoc on the serenity and ecosystem of Sydney Harbour, the inaugural Superboat Grand Prix has also raised the ire of Yachting NSW. CEO of the organization, Adrian Steer, says that on behalf of its members, particularly the Clubs around the Harbour (numbering around 20), he has expressed their concerns about safety and their objections to holding similar events in future on Sydney Harbour.
'We believe that there are major safety issues, also there are concerns about churning fuel through the water and it certainly prevents our members from going about their regular activities. That’s the stance of Yachting NSW, the Board and Member Advisory Board.'
The tragic fatality, that of 10 times Australian water-ski champion Peter Eagle, occurred outside the competition but marred the event, overshadowing coverage internationally. 51-year-old Eagle died when his high-powered Bernico boat flipped near Balls Head Point west of the Harbour Bridge.
CEO of Maritimo, Offshore Racing Council member and seven-times Australian offshore powerboat champion, Bill Barry-Cotter said at the time that at the pre-race briefing competitors had been reminded tthat vessels must adhere to the harbour’s speed limit outside of dedicated race times.
He defends the safety of the sport and its role in drawing the public to recreational boating, listing the many benefits an event like the Superboat Grand Prix brings to its host city. 'It’s the marine equivalent of Formula 1 and it’s popular all over the world. In Europe, Offshore Racing enjoys a TV audience of one billion people.'
It is also one of the safest sports involving precision machines and racing. 'In 30 years, there have been two fatalities,' Barry-Cotter explained. 'Class 1 is very safe. 18 years ago when Prince Rainier of Monaco’s son in law, Stefano Casiraghi, died, there was a massive investigation, obviously because he was so high profile. The US doctor, Dr Matthew Houghton was put in charge of safety for every race meeting and he has been doing that role to the letter ever since.'
Barry-Cotter himself was involved in 'the worst accident ever' in Austria in 2003. His boat was a $1m write-off, but Barry-Cotter emerged with a scratch on his shin. 'We were doing 150 miles an hour and our boat was totally destroyed. Dr Houghton inspected me and he was furious. Even a scratch or a sprained ankle was unacceptable to him in this sport.'
Then in 1997 prior to a race scheduled for Tunisia, the President of that country declared that helicopters could not fly above the Palace. Barry-Cotter recalled: 'The rules state that ‘at any point on the course, participants have to be 3 minutes from a trauma hospital by helicopter’. The new route was going to make the trip 4 and a half minutes, so we packed up the entire race and shifted it to Europe.'
So confident is Barry-Cotter in boat technology and stringent safety standards, he has put his own 19 year-old son (and winner of the weekend’s race) Tom into a Maritimo boat.
'He’s been racing in Europe for the past season, with the Norwegian team that is five-times world champion. The whole sport is so incredibly safety conscious. A boat is lost almost every race and there are no injuries. Officials conduct investigations like an aviation crash. Every season something changes as a result of those investigations. There will be a change to the shape of the seat or cockpit, they look at the way the boats break up and change materials and padding. It’s all in the technology and the attitude to safety.'
In addition to returning Sydney to the international spotlight it enjoyed during the 2000 Olympic Games, events of this calibre are healthy spectator sports and have the potential to convert observers into boating enthusiasts.
'The whole thing is about showcasing and selling the boating technology to the world and the boating public,' said Barry-Cotter. 'For my company, it’s our means of promoting Maritimo.'
Comparing powerboating to sailing Adrian Steer would not comment on how many fatalities there have been over the years during or in the lead up to races like the Sydney to Hobart, or on deliveries back from the race or in the race itslef.
'Safety (in powerboat-racing) is just one of our concerns. The perception, and that’s what matters here, from the point of view of the average punter, is that it’s a dangerous sport. The reality is, the event tied up the Harbour for other users and prevented Clubs from going about their scheduled programs. Why couldn’t the powerboats schedule events for the mornings when there’s less wind and less chop, then Clubs can continue with their programs?'
As to whether the Clubs would be more accepting of the event should it run next year if there were the appropriate collaboration, consultation and communication, Steer believes the concept is not compatible with the fairest use of the Harbour.
'Clubs organize their sailing calendars a year in advance, taking in to account community events and activities. I don’t think Clubs will be happy the powerboats are locking down the Harbour for days at a time.'