A life on the ocean wave
When you’re riding with him you could be forgiven for thinking Steve Curtis is to powerboats what the Marquis de Sade was to human rights, but when it comes to throttlemen there are none better than Britain’s low-profile champion
It’s an unnerving thing, but whenever I think of Steve Curtis I tend to think of the more vulnerable parts of my anatomy. Freud might have had an interesting time with that, but I prefer to consider it an innate echo of self-preservation. There were two times in my life when I seriously wondered about my prospects of fathering children. The first was when I discovered my inability to do a rising trot while horse riding on honeymoon; since then I have been of the firm opinion that as many horses as possible are desirable when one is handling machinery, but they’re trouble when they come in ones.
The second was when l went powerboating off Guernsey with Mr Curtis.
The name may not spring immediately to mind. But Steve Curtis is that rarest of phenomena: a British World Champion virtually unknown by the media. Indeed, he was the first, and remains the only, Briton to have won the Class 1 title in offshore racing.
In his sport he is Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna rolled into one, but with the nature and charisma of Derek Warwick, who not surprisingly is a close friend.
The Times columnist Simon Barnes once summarised him brilliantly when he wrote that he is the sort of man about whom you worry when telephoning the day after a race to see how he got on. In the back of your mind is the concern that this time he might finally have prodded the tiger once too often.
Curtis, you see, is not like most other men. As if being a normal, amusing, uncomplicated person whose company is always good fun isn’t quite enough, he is Abnormally Brave. And he is Abnormally Brave by the true Joe Scalzo definition: he just doesn’t know that there is a line to be drawn, let alone where one might draw it if one had a mind to. Throw in that his father Clive founded Cougar Marine with the late James Beard, and that Curtis Jnr knows the company inside out and has access to its wares, and you have a dangerous combination.
Anonymity in his homeland doesn’t bother him. Suggest that he’s virtually unknown to Joe Public and he laughs in agreement. “Totally. I would think! This has always been perceived as a playboy’s sport. I think the fame must be nice for a little bit, and everyone would like to be sort of recognised in places here and there. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world. At the end of the day at least I can go into a nightclub and act like a complete and utter drunken idiot, have a complete blast, and not get written up in the papers the next day for doing it!”
In the world of offshore powerboating the craft are now moving into a heady realm. Like Formula One cars they are now making serious use of carbon fibre and Kevlar and they are enormously strong, but at four tons and more than 40 feet, and with engines such as twin 960bhp Lamborghini V12s pushing them across rough seas, they need to be. The best craft are now beginning to nip at the 150 mph mark; 40 years ago that was the fastest a boat of any sort had ever travelled, and on smooth water at that. In the interests of weight crews usually comprise only two men now, the helmsman and the throttleman. Ask anyone and, though they won’t denigrate the former’s role in steering the craft and navigating, they will all tell you that the throttleman is the key, for he controls the power and trims the boat, and he must be able to read the water and maximise every wave. Curtis predictably, is the first to point out the contribution of his driver Lamberto Leoni, long-time Formula 3000 driver and entrant who dabbled briefly with F1 (with Surte and Ensign in 1977/78).
Among throttlemen, Steve Curtis is regarded as a god.
I have never forgotten that ride off Guernsey, when we sped to Herm and back. He admits cheerfully to having a mad streak, and it is never more obvious than when he is at the wheel! Our mount that day was a Class IIIB craft – F3 to offshore’s F1 – and I’d just realised that there wasn’t actually any sort of life-prolonging grab hand when we began leaping skyward with both props screaming. My left hand was wound so tight round a rope that it began to cut into the skin, while my right was locked desperately round the curve of the sea. Staying aboard became the focus of my existence.
I don’t think I ever saw the sea ahead us. Instead all I saw of our forward passage was framed by sky and the nose piece of it borrowed helmet as it occasionally shifted (there was no way I dared to adjust it, least not without growing another arm). What sea I did glimpse was about an inch from the side of my head as Curtis heeled the boat over hard before slamming in the opposite direction as its vee hull began chining violently as we quartered a stretch of only roughish water.
The airborne leaps became greater, the jolts and crunches therefore harder. I began to feel as if a mighty but malignant force was smashing a sledgehammer down atop my head, while another was similarly employed from the underside of the seat. If you have a universal joint between your neck and your skull, then mine must had lost 5000 miles off its life, and those other delicate little parts of me were receiving some cruel treatment every time the sea came back up to meet me. I began to realise what it must be like to fall out of a third storey window.
It’s the most exhilarating feeling, as one moment you are weightless, suspended in mid-air in seconds of eerie silence as the boat peaks in its flight and you tense yourself for the next terrible jolt.
I kept sneaking glances at Curtis who sat serenely at the wheel, apparently oblivious to the damage he was doing, and as I realised that he was operating at six or seven tenths I relaxed as best I could as the water pounded our glass fibre hull and we skipped away from St Peter Port at 65 mph. This was only warming up to him.
There have been times when he has been rather less in control. I remember watching the news screen on a 747, without sound, and suddenly seeing Bagutta, Curtis’ 1991 boat, apparently sitting on an island in the middle of the sea. The recollection brings an immediate guffaw. “It wasn’t an island, it was Torquay! I drove right up the beach! It was a foggy day, we had to win that race to be level on points in the championship going into the last race, and I was with an Italian driver. We were in the lead as we went down past Portland and we’d done the fastest average down there ever, 102 mph. And we turned into this heavy fog. No one had told us it was there. And we hit the first two buoys spot-on. Great! We then had to go between a pier and another buoy in this bay and then go back to Torquay. Great again. We were bound to be in the lead. No question. And my driver said yes, he knew where we were going. But instead of going over there,” – he gestures to the right – “we went over there.” he gestures left. “So what I thought was two miles to this point, actually turned out to be 200 yards. So as we went trundling through, suddenly out of this fog was this mountain! And we hit it! It kippered the boat. . . 300 feet up the beach!”
There was another time when the steering had broken and he was using different throttle settings for each engine to maintain direction when he hit a tanker. “The funny thing was there were all these people on it looking at us, pointing at the boat, and it caught a wave and just kissed this thing and bounced off. And all these people were running backwards. I’m sure they thought it was going to be like something from James Bond, and the whole lot was going up!” They carried on to finish sixth.
Then there was the race at St Tropez this year, which kicked off the championship. Curtis wasn’t running the new four-speed gearboxes which have been developed for 1994, but was nevertheless running third behind the all-conquering Victory Team boats run by wealthy Arabs Khalfan Hareb and Hamed Buhaleeba. Then, as conditions began to worsen, he mounted a challenge for second place.
“We were running all right and it got a bit rougher and I got up into second place. Down the flat part of the course, on the finishing straight. Victory 7 just outdragged us, and as we came across the line they just chopped across in front of us, we hit them. We did this spiral, about 40 feet in the air, came in backwards. . .
“I think they just didn’t see us and they were avoiding other boats which we were lapping, and we were all only about six second behind the leader, so it was a very tight race.”
He describes the incident in a laid-back, matter-of-fact style reminiscent of Gerhard Berger at his best. And it’s not bravado; he really does just regard it as just another incident, just another part of racing.
What he achieved that day was the equivalent of Jordan or Sauber getting fully to grips with Benetton or Williams and challenging for the lead in dire conditions.
It is no surprise, but a measure of this happy-go-lucky racer, that he was on the victory rostrum shortly after his flight, to receive the third place trophy. And that he should shrug and say: “It had to be done, didn’t it? I was actually, about five hours later, drunker than a skunk in a bar!”
Since then, financial problems have prevented the team from producing the new boat it intended to run, while repairs have inevitably added weight and upset the fine balance of Bilba. In Curtis’ words it’s now become something of a “slug” in comparison to its opposition.
He and Leoni were fourth in Sanremo, third in Valletta in Malta and again in Dundee. But Arendal in Norway epitomised his approach to racing. “We had to go for a win. The new boat was on stop, and basically we’d used most of the budget. So we shot off into the lead, in the rough stuff, and we really were out of control. We had the smallest boat and were definitely running over the edge. And we crashed. . .We stuffed it! We hydraulicked an engine. And that was the end of that, really:
To the offshore racer, rough water is like rain used to be in F1, a great leveller. Few really like it, but Curtis revels in such conditions and is one of the elite who can draw advantage from them. “If it’s rough we can be up there. We’re not in the best boat, but we can probably outdrive a few people. . .”
Accidents really don’t bother him. “That collision in St Tropez was the first I’ve had, and the first time I’ve been upside down. I’ve had accidents where I’ve been going too fast for the conditions, but there’s been, hopefully, basic reasons, the biggest being that I wanted to win. “You can’t let accidents affect you. Basically you’ve got to forget about it, otherwise you wouldn’t race anything, would you? If you’re going to drive a car really fast, you’re going to get stopped by the police, or you’re going to have an accident. If you do the same on a motorcycle, it’s going to happen. Hopefully, the boats are built to have accidents. Pretty much, if you’re going to race and I’ve been racing now for nine years you’re going to have an accident at times otherwise you’re not going to win diddly squat. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve had my fair share of winning. I think I’ve now won more races than anybody, in comparative terms. About 50 odd, I think. . .”
By 1985, when he was 21, he’d won his first World Championship; the second followed two years later. He’s been runner-up twice. Despite all of which, his country barely knows him.
The one time, rightly, that his name really made the headlines was when in 1990 he tried desperately to rescue Stefano Casiraghi, Princess Caroline of Monaco’s husband, as they raced off Monte Carlo. “It was a funny old situation. They have the mistrals down in the south of France, and we were running along by the beach in the second race. We’d come second in the first, and Paul Pitot who’d won the first broke down just after the start. We thought we were in great shape, all we had to do was back off a little. We were in the lead round the first bend and went into a big head sea, so we backed off a little more and Stefano went by. He was running like a train, the boat looked fan-tas-tic. Then when I looked over Stefano’s boat had just sort of landed. So we looped back around, because we were quite close, and I dove into the water because I’d only seen one crash helmet. I swam over to the boat which just had its pickleforks sticking out of the water, went down on the wrong side, no-one there. I saw the steering wheel, so I knew it wasn’t Stefano’s side. So I went down again the other side and saw him there. By then a diver had arrived and we went down again, but Stefano’s neck was all broken. . .”
This was a selfless attempt, like Mike Hailwood pulling Clay Regazzoni from his burning BRM at Kyaiami in 1973 or David Purley with Roger Williamson at Zandvoort later the same year, and the papers had a field day. Curtis has always played it down.
“We went back to the shore, but that was it, really. The whole town went dead, they cancelled the championship. Loads of papparazzi turned up and asked funny questions, so I just disappeared off and got out of town, really. We’d got debriefed what to say by the Palace.
“Amazingly, I couldn’t believe how quickly the papers got down there. It impressed me, actually. . . it happened that day, and they were there. The Sun turned up quick as you like. Suddenly they’re my best buddies on the ‘phone!”
For all that Steve Curtis has a bit of the lack the Lad air about him, he is extremely serious about his profession. But offshore racing isn’t quite like F1, where such prodigious talent would instantly be snatched up. It is a sport in transition, where the amateur sponsor-drivers of yore are gradually giving way to professionals, but some have found to their discomfort that their own desire to win is very much exceeded by Curtis’s, to the point where they are not prepared to take the same risks that he is to ensure victory. Amazingly enough, he has found good rides hard to find because of his reputation for all-or-nothing racing. Equally amazingly, he regards the situation without rancour.
“A lot of the guys want to race,” he concedes, “but they don’t want to race hard. And they want to win but they’re not willing to push it. That’s great, but don’t hire me!” He laughs, shrugs again. “And that’s how it’s been. You know, I’ve found it tough. Last year and the year before it was very tough for me to get a ride.
“The thing is, when Nigel Mansell goes out there, or Michael Schumacher” – he pronounces it Shoemaker – “or Ayrton when he was racing, people know what they can expect. Maybe they’ll be a bit over the top, but he’ll do well for us. But suddenly, like the old days, you used to be taking your sponsor along with you! His thoughts that ‘He’s going a bit hairy,’ would become ‘We’re going a bit hairy!’ And ‘We might have an accident!’ So it all changes around. A lot of these guys have family, kids, they’ve got to go to work on Monday morning. . . But that’s changing. Now the people who have got money want to win, and they want to win bad. When they race they race to win, so they’ve now got the right attitude. There are very few Sunday drivers.”
He has the trappings of success, the Lamborghini Countach, the flat in Monaco, but not the overbearing F1 ego to go with them. “Right now I could use the money!” he laughs when you mention the car. So what keeps motivating him? “I just still love racing,” he replies instantly. “I think one day you turn round to yourself and say, ‘Look, I’ve had enough of this. I’m burned out with racing.’ And I think that’s the time to stop. But that hasn’t happened to me yet. Trying to find a ride has perhaps made me even more determined, and I’m working on a super deal for next year. And I really feel, if I get the drive, that I haven’t been in a decent boat for the last couple of years. And I think if I do get in a decent boat I stand a very good chance of winning the championship again. I desperately want to do that.”
Steve Curtis looks completely normal, and most of the time he sounds it, too. He’s a straightforward, likable character that it must be hard to get offside with. But you would never guess about his nerve problem unless you were out in a boat with him, and then you realise just how incurable it is. His nerves have no endings. He subscribes fully to the belief that people only remember winners, not who came second, and he drives that way. Glory and risk are his friends. Ask him to quantify his best asset you have to stress that you are talking about racing as the face beneath the curly mop of ginger hair starts to smirk and he quietens for a moment.
“I haven’t got a lot of fear,” he admits flatly. It’s apposite, therefore, that No Fear clothing is one of his sponsors. “I think I’ve got better as I’ve got older,” he continues. “I can control it a bit, I’m not so wild, though I can still get out there. Whereas before, if I was in second place I hated it. I’d just do anything to get into first place, even if it was impossible. Nowadays, I’ll back off if I’m not going to get into first anyway, because I’m wiser that way. Although, I don’t think if I hadn’t started off that way I’d have got some of the opportunities that I got.>
“The only time that I go back to being wild is when I’m hacked off. Then I tend to drive like a complete and utter maniac again. In Norway, when we had the accident, I was just hacked off with the whole situation and I’d decided I wasn’t going to get a win this year unless I did drive like a maniac. Everyone was asking what was wrong, but there was nothing wrong with me, it was just that the boat was a brick.”
In offshore an ace on the throttles can make more of a contribution to the overall package than he can in F1, but there are times when you feel that he has, perhaps, been lucky to make 30. Ask him his philosophy of racing, and the response is also disarmingly simple. “To win.” Then you hear echoes of Villeneuve. “My perfect scenario would be that we wouldn’t go for a championship, but every race was a race. Then you just want to win every one. Unfortunately, as it is the first race kicks off and you try and win that, then you start thinking, ‘I’ve got to race for the season, so a second will do here. . . I ran a season like that in ’92 and everything was fantastic. We were way ahead in the championship, with two wins, a couple of seconds and thirds, and then the last four races we didn’t finish. We could not finish. Things were falling off. Just one of those things. It blew our championship chances, whereas if I’d have said at the start, ‘Right, we’ll win every race,’ we’d probably have won the first four or five. Been a bit on the ragged edge and taken a few risks, we’d probably have done that and then probably have won the championship. So who knows, maybe it was God looking down and saying: ‘You shouldn’t race like that. That’s not your style! Go and give it some! Try and win every one. . . ‘”
He admits quite happily that he is addicted to taking risks, that he’s happier that way. “It’s more fun, isn’t it? Otherwise it’s boring. You might as well put a cabin up the front and go to St Tropez and cruise around. It would annoy me to get out of a boat and think that it could have won. That would just kill me. I’d rather not do it, to be quite honest.” Curtis follows motorsport, particularly F1, perhaps because of Cougar Marine’s past involvement with Toleman. He started his career in junior motorcycle scrambling but, though he likes cars, his size he’s six-two and weighs 92 kg militated against any serious involvement. “They’re all midgets, the blokes who race them, aren’t they? You’ve got a hell of a lot of discomfort if you get in a car, if you’re big. Whereas if you’re little you sort of bounce around. If you’re Alain Prost you can go and have a dance in one!” Ask him if he feels that there is a current driver whom he resembles, and his response is interesting, and perhaps telling.
“I don’t really know. I mean, everyone used to say Steve Curtis is the Ayrton Senna of offshore, and sort of stuff like that, but I don’t know if that was true because I think he was brilliant. I didn’t really know him. I only met him twice, because of the Toleman involvement.
“I quite like Eddie Irvine’s style. I met him down in Monaco, only briefly, but I thought he was quite a cool guy, actually. I was with Chris Witty and we dropped in to see Eddie Jordan I quite like his style as well and Eddie Irvine wasn’t racing there and obviously he was upset about that. I don’t know whether I could be compared to him because I haven’t seen him race, but I liked his attitude.”
Any day now, possibly even by the time these words appear in print, Curtis will have swapped Bilba and gone from his third place in calm water off Guernsey and jumped into his latest project, Pringle of Scotland, a 450 bhp 35-foot composite racing monohull which takes on board rigid inflatable boat technology to launch an attempt to establish the fastest-ever circumnavigation of Britain. He aims for 35 hours (10 less than the current mark) and an average in excess of 50 mph, refuelling at Falmouth, Portpatrick on the west coast of Scotland, Scrabster to the north and Grimsby. Cheerfully he laughs at the voyage facing his navigator, journalist John Walker, and helmsman Pete Currington, and tongue-in-cheek says, “I expect we’ll use a few guys up in the process.” I’m sure they know what they’re letting themselves in for, and hope they take the necessary precautions. Years after it would have done me any good, Curtis finally lets slip that experienced offshore men protect their assets by judicious use of the right underwear and strategically sited tank tape. . . I really wish I’d known that. D.J.T.