Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson on: airboats

Yesterday, I cheated death when my 100mph airboat capsized in an alligator-infested swamp. It may be Sunspeak, but it's true.

For years, I've argued that boats are far more dangerous and exciting than cars. Formula One inshore racers accelerate faster than even the fastest GP bike and their offshore Class One cousins can hit 145mph these days.

Few competitions bother to book return air flights to a powerboat race because, on average, two people can expect to finish each season smelling much, much worse than they did at the beginning.

You see, a race track is designed with safety in mind. Bumps are ironed out, Armco barriers are set back from the racing line and huge swathes of the infield are filled with gravel to help slow cars that have gone out of control.

There are no such luxuries on the water. You can go round the Old Hairpin at Donington a thousand times and become inch-perfect but, at sea, the surface is always different.

Down the main straight at Silverstone, I could beat Damon Hill, if I had a faster car. But in a boat, how fast you go in a straight line is all down to buttock-clenching bravery.

Rarely does the sea allow you to reach the boat's preposterous top speed, so you choose a safe speed and watch your mirrors to see what everyone else is doing. If the boat behind is catching up, you ease the throttles forward a tad. The ride gets rougher, the boat is airborne for longer, it smashes down harder.

And still the guy behind is catching up. It's suicidal to go faster but you're a racer, so you do. And then the onus is on the other guy's anus. How much can he pucker it up?

It's a giant game of aquatic chicken and you can forget all about marshals and gravel traps if it goes wrong. Chances are, if the boat flips, you will be dazed, confused and underwater. If you still have a head, you'll lose it.

Now, I've driven the world championship-winning Class One boat, and last month I had a go in its inshore Formula One equivalent - but neither get close to the ultimate waterborne transport, the airboat.

Basically, you have a tray, which can be up to 18 feet long. And at the back, there's an engine driving a propeller.

"It’s a giant game of aquatic chicken and you can forget all about marshals and gravel traps if it goes wrong"

If your engine is powerful enough - and one bloke I found was using a turbo seven-litre motor from a Cadillac - you can drive your boat on dry land. Indeed, we filmed him doing just this for my series, Big Boys' Toys, which goes out in a year's time.

Then we piled all our gear - worth about £100,000 - into another airboat and set off to see some Florida rednecks race. We never got there.

When the pilot turned on the power, the back end settled down, water poured into the hull, and it was Herald of Free Enterprise time.

To make matters worse, passengers sit four feet off the deck so they don't block airflow to the prop. This means the centre of gravity is in the clouds somewhere, so we were upside down in the time it took the director to say, "Fu..."

So there I was, fully clothed, wearing a crash helmet, in 15 feet of water. And our kit was at the bottom, being eaten by snakes and alligators.

But I got back in again because an airboat is huge fun. The acceleration is vivid - like, say, a VR6 - but the steering is not. You push a lever and the rudders swing, causing you to turn... at some point in the future.

And here's another difference between cars and boats. Racing cars have carbon fibre brake discs; air boats have nothing. Come off the power and you start to slow down a bit - but with no prop action, there's no draught to turn the rudders.

Umpteen times, I found myself with the rudders hard over but the boat surging forwards. In the nick of time, I'd remember to hit the gas and, whoa, the boat would spin on its axis and hurtle the other way. Even if you get it right, there's always a delay between steering and turn, and all corners are done in a huge powerslide.

You'd call it oversteer in a car, and people like Tiff and Nik Berg would get all excited. But they've never done it in a boat, at 70mph, on water, with a hazy Florida sun making the lilies bright orange.

When it comes to excitement, cars are good, bikes are better - but the airboat is the king of the hill.

This article was first published in 1997.


Jeremy Clarkson, Column

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