If you've never heard of it, Thundercat racing boats are like powerboats on steroids. They look like inflatable catamarans with muscle engines and teams of two race them in the open sea, at times flying several metres into the air or crashing into each other. The sport is increasing in popularity all over the world but, like most young adrenaline-filled sports, is mostly dominated by men.
Nicola Fearnley, an ex-Thai boxer and mother of two, and her teammate Lynsay Crellin, the current speed record holder for Thundercat racing, make up the only British all-girl Thundercat racing team. This year they're racing in the National and European championships for the first time. And they're showing the boys that girls can get rough in the water too.
We grab Nicola and Lynsay in between training sessions for a chat about dislocated body parts, adrenaline, and what it feels like to compete with the guys...
Age? Nicola: 38 Lynsay: 22
Where are you from? Nicola: Leeds, Yorkshire Lynsay: Portsmouth
Were you adventurous as a child? Nicola: I come from a sporting background. I used to show jumping on horses as a junior, then I became a professional Thai boxer before taking up a post as a rally co driver, so I've always been very competitive. Lynsay: Yeah, I live near the sea so I was constantly on boats, in or on the water, jumping off of things. I was always an adrenaline junkie as a kid, constantly getting cuts and stitches and injuries.
How did you get into Thundercat racing? Lynsay: My dad was a two-time national champion. He took me along one day and I was really scared but I really fancied this guy who was doing it so I carried it on and ended up falling in love with the sport. I ended up beating seven records in my first year of racing, including 'female performance of the year' and 'lady of the lake'. Nicola: Well I stopped rallying because I was looking for a new challenge, something more exciting. And I found the Thundercats last season.
What are your roles in the boat? Lynsay: I'm the driver. So it's all about technical things: your propellers, your engines, how high you put your engine and how fast you're going to go. Nicola: Lynsay sits at the back of the boat and controls the throttle. But the driver can't always see where they're going so the co pilot is responsible for directing and moving the weight around the boat. The co pilot helps the boat dig in the corners to get round the bends faster and keeping it as trim as possible.
How long does a race last? Nicola: Each heat is about 15 minutes long. And that 15 minutes is totally exhausting. This weekend we also had beach runs. So the co pilots start on a line in the beach. We all stand there in our helmets and life jackets and kit and we have to run along the beach and then run through the water to jump into our boat which the pilot is holding. The pilot and the co pilot then jump into the boat together and race off.
How well are women represented in the sport? Nicola: We're the only all-girl racing team there is. Girls think it's a very tough sport and it's true that you do have to be physically strong for it. But we are now showing the lads that we can beat them! There's also one other woman who's just joined us who is co piloting for one of the teams. Lynsay: I think the reason why you don't get many girls is because it is really dangerous. I'd love to get more girls into the sport. I've got six sisters and I've taken them all for rides and each one screamed their head off and wouldn't go again.
How did you guys meet? Lynsay: We hooked up in Portugal and said let's have a go racing in a boat. When we were together it just felt right; it felt really natural and it was really fun. Nicola: I pushed her to have a go at driving in Portugal. I think that gave her the confidence to come back here and have a proper go as a pilot. And then we formed our team.
How fast do you go? Nicola: In our standard class we're going about 85 kilometers an hour.
How high above the water do you get? Lynsay: In the surf, racing can get 20 feet clear above the sea.
Have you had any injuries? Nicola: A dislocated shoulder. I also dislocate my thumb nearly every event now, holding onto the rope so tight. This weekend we got rammed by another boat that hit us and my entire body flew out the boat but I was still holding on with one hand and luckily my padding shorts had gotten caught up on something on the boat which just stopped me from falling into the water. If I had touched water that would have been red flag and the race would have been off but I managed to cling on and throw my entire body back in the boat and we carried on racing and placed second. Lynsay: I fractured my back in 2006 when I came off the boat at around 58 miles an hour. My helmet smashed against the engine and I fell into the water. When I was laying on the beach the sun was in my eyes so they put a blanket over me and everyone thought I was dead. It really frightened me for a while and I thought I might never do this again. But eventually I started to get back into things and now I've started driving.
How do the guys react to your success? Lynsay: I don't think they like being beaten by girls. Nicola: They're frustrated that we're so lightweight. If we get everything else right, and we're lighter than them, then there's nothing much they can do about it. In the flat water I think they just kind of accept it now that we're going to faster than them because we do get everything right. When the conditions get choppier and there's more surf, it actually helps to be a heavier crew. So we're going to struggle, we're going to find things more difficult. They know they have the upper hand in certain conditions. But the guys are very supportive of us. They're there straight away to help us if we need help with anything.
What is the worst accident you’ve ever witnessed? Lynsay: We recently saw a propeller come across someones hand and take it clean off. Nicola: Unfortunately the guy was in the water and another boat came straight on top of him and he lost his hand. We wear all the right protection gear but even though the race is stopped the instant somebody's in the water, the boats are so close to each other that there's another boat on top of your head before you've had a chance to do anything.
How do you deal with the fear associated with such a dangerous sport? Lynsay: Every year someone has an accident. A woman died three years ago instantly. We were having a race in surf and a boat landed on top of hers and it broke her neck. That was pretty harsh. But it doesn't scare me. If you let things like that get to you, you're never going to do anything in life. When it's your time, it's your time. If you don't get straight back in the boat, you have weeks and weeks of getting scared and thinking, 'what if it happens to me?' So you just have to get back onto the water. Nicola: I don't feel fear that's the strange thing. For me, fear is my engine, fear is my fuel. For other people they seem to use fear as the brakes but for me it pushes me on.
How are you preparing for the National and European championships? Nicola: I spend every weekend out on the water really trying to get boat fit. My general fitness I keep up with mountain biking. Lynsay: I run and train in the gym. I eat lots of carbs before a race because it is such a physically demanding sport. I've been in tears after a race just out of sheer exhaustion and frustration.
Any other special projects at the moment? Nicola: I'm looking to do the Cowes Torquay power boat race. It's the biggest endurance race Britain's ever had. It hasn't been held for about 14 years. If the wind conditions suit we might be able to do it in 8 hours. Nowadays, in the Thundercats, we are normally only out in the water for 15 minute heats so I want to challenge myself with an 8-hour endurance race. It is really quite a big thing. We'll be practicing going round the Isle of Wight, doing as many circuits as we can manage.
Any advice for anyone who would like to get into Thundercat racing? Lynsay: Go and have a look at the website. It's one of the most exciting, adrenaline-filled sports I've ever been involved in. The great thing is you're on the water and everyone's your worst enemy, but when you get off the water it's a very friendly, family-oriented community. Nicola: Come along, watch an event and speak to the competitors. As long as you're physically strong and very determined, there's no reason you can't have a go at it. At the moment the Royal Yachting Association is issuing free licenses for people who want to get into Thundercat racing for the first time ever. So there's no reason for people not to come along and try to have a go.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? Lynsay: Trying to find some other kind of thrill! Nicola: I think I would still be rally co driving. I will go back to rally co driving at some point because it's a perfect sport for any age. The older you are in it the more experience you've got and the more useful you are. I just fancy something a bit more physical and high adrenaline for a while. So I'm gonna do the power boating for a few years and then perhaps go back to rally co driving.
What’s next on the agenda? Nicola: The UK championship. Hopefully we're going to win the championship. And we're doing the P1 Thundercat European Tour. Our next event is at the end of May in Marseilles. Watch this space...
Words: Tiffanie Wen