Each August, on the third Saturday of the month, the serenity of a blissful Caribbean weekend morning is shattered by an almighty roar. It’s not Armageddon nor an escaped animal, but rather the start of one of the most arduous journeys undertaken annually by man and machine – The Carib Great Race. Popular global images of powerboat racing show the machines racing over smooth, glass-like surfaces; the reflective waters providing the mirror image of the boat in full cry at impossible speed. Not so with the Great Race. This route encounters the rough waters of the open ocean, forcing machines into the air and G-forces into the stomachs of the crew. Taking on Mother Nature is dangerous – her rough waters are capable of splitting the hull, as many a boat owner has found out. The point-to-point race is as much about racing the elements as racing one’s competitors. While speed remains the essence of the event; survival, experience, technical ability and nous all make the name ‘Great’ wholly appropriate for this race.
It’s a regional institution, celebrating its 47th anniversary in 2015. In that time, legends have been made and dreams have been (literally) shattered. As if the original 75 mile journey through some of the most testing waters on offer is not enough, the route has been modified throughout the years to its current 110 miles and with those modifications came more vantage points. All part and parcel of making the race extremely viewer-friendly. From the start in the relative shelter of Port of Spain’s dock, the early running takes the boats into the Gulf of Paria and onto a smattering of what’s to come with the first rough seas of the First Bocas. A sharp turn east and the real fun begins.
The competitors blast along Trinidad’s rugged north coast for 52 miles and once past the island’s north-eastern tip, the open water between Trinidad and Tobago is negotiated in frightfully quick time, as the Scarborough finish line beckons. It is a true race between two capital cities and for the boats in the fastest category that can reach 130 mph, it takes just over an hour! What began as a casual race undertaken by 18 foot wooden leisure speedboats of the 1960s and ‘70s, is now traversed by 50 feet behemoths constructed from space-age materials and closed cockpits with three-man (and woman) crews.
Where the event truly wins as a whole is in its ability to garner the public’s attention. Its Event and Sports promotion are done correctly; taking an established event and further endearing it to the public. For as long as there has been a Great Race, there has been a Great Race weekend in Tobago, meaning thousands of people in full revelry – partying on the beach day and night, awaiting the arrival of the race. Tobago is at its festive best and much like the aims of the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), it is a perfect marriage of sport with Caribbean culture.
The gruelling nature of the race ensured that the public knew the names of the top vessels and their drivers – Brian Bowen, Jeffrey Meyer, Carlos Sabga and the ubiquitous Ken Charles. Their respective boats – ‘Checkmate’, ‘Bassman’ and various incarnations of ‘Mr. Solo’ have similar mythical status so the promoters were starting from an advantageous platform to redefine the race. Along with a route change that afforded spectacular vantage points from on land or sea, the masterstroke was creating major interaction with the non-boating public.
Powerboat racing is perceived as the domain of the wealthy and elite; perhaps rightly so given the costs involved. In a case of taking the mountain to Muhammad, the promoters created a parade on land…a week before the race. The boats are towed through Trinidad’s capital and through ‘the city that never sleeps’ in St. James. There is a heavy PR build-up via all modern forums with the marine pageant promoted as a big party and the chance to meet and greet the crews. Most importantly, the public is afforded the chance to go inside the boats themselves. This creates an intimacy and better understanding of the machines, the abilities required and also builds support for individual boats. The competition amongst drivers begins long before the race in the contest to win the hearts of the fans.
They can open panels, view the engines, the cockpits and engage with the crews. While some gravitate to the larger vessels, others marvel at the smaller boats that will take up to three hours in their own class, wondering how such small boats can survive the crossing. Being Trinidad, the parade is a big ‘lime’, affording sponsors like Carib, as well as various boat sponsors, priceless publicity. The walls of elitism are quickly broken down, the parade is now eagerly awaited and the objectives attained – many people emerge with a particular favourite.
Two of those favourites have been sharing the spoils over the past few years – though everyone trails Ken Charles’ remarkable 14 victories. This creates the healthy rivalry so essential to sporting events. ‘Total Monster’ and ‘Fire One’, together with the latest ‘Mr. Solo’, provided one of the most exciting finishes in the 2013 edition with the 46 foot catamaran ‘Monster’, just holding ‘Solo’, and the two-time winner ‘Fire One’ just behind. Six minutes covered the top three places. In powerboat racing terms, this was a sprinter’s dip for the line. In 2015, ‘Total Monster’ removed any possibilities of a close finish, pulling away early to ease into Scarborough by literal miles. Several “DNF” (did not finish) littered the results sheet, as it does every year, reiterating the adage that simply to arrive in Tobago is a major achievement. Foreign boats have attempted to conquer the race and most have failed spectacularly.
The uninterrupted glorious run of the Great Race is to be held up as a prime example of taking an event unique to the Caribbean, watching it evolve within the modern world and using the best elements of the local culture and the environment to make the enthusiasm explode. A template for Caribbean sport? Most definitely.