The ThunderCat Event held at Bournemouth last weekend, was not only a success on the water, it served to remind me why I continue to follow the UK inflatable catamaran series with such passion. I had a beer and a chat with Stuart Croxford, a ThunderCat racer the night before the Event and he told me about his racing plans and other objectives for the 2016 season with Team Endeavour. Anything I could write in a note book or record on my phone that night couldn’t tell the story better than this article from blesma.org.
“The only real negative is getting in and out of the boat, which can be tricky with one leg,” says Stuart, who is adamant that this is the perfect pastime for amputees. “But once I’m in the boat, there’s absolutely no difference between me and any other competitor. It’s great, because it’s a physical sport that demands good fitness levels, but an amputee can compete with everyone else on a level playing field.”
Stuart, a Captain in the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, was discharged from the Army in December 2015. Having joined in 2007, he was injured in Afghanistan in 2012 when an IED blew up his Jackal armoured vehicle, shattering his heels. After months of reconstructive surgery he tried sailing “because it didn’t require me to be on my feet,” but a freak accident in which his right leg was snapped by a sheet line caused further complications. “I developed Compartment Syndrome,” he says. “After nine operations to try to save the leg, I had the choice of a club foot or amputation. I told them to take it off, and it was removed below the knee in October 2014.”
Within months Stuart was skiing, but his heart was set on the sea. “I’d seen a picture of ThunderCats in 2008 and had always wanted to get involved, but my military commitments kept me too busy,” he explains. “But in 2014, while I was still in a wheelchair, I went to watch a race and told the organisers I was going to compete the following season. They gave me a ‘What The Hell?’ kind of look!”
Stuart was undeterred. He completed the Powerboat Level 2 course, bought a second-hand catamaran for £5,000, and competed in his first race in 2014. “I flipped it twice, and the rest of the racers probably thought I wasn’t coming back,” he says. “I was all over the place – but I loved it! It was a shock to the system, but I’ve improved steadily. It’s helped me to get my motivation back, and running the team looks great on my CV.”
Thanks to a £10,000 grant from Blesma and donations from several other sponsors, Team Endeavour are now kitted out with two state-of-the-art boats and a Blesma-branded gazebo to prepare the machines under on the beach.
Mark Lloyd from Cardiff is living proof of how Stuart’s team, which also includes able-bodied civilian volunteers, is empowering people. A former Para who sustained a back injury under fire in Afghanistan in 2011, he spent last season piloting the team’s second boat.
“It’s great to be around blokes who have that military mentality,” he says. “But it’s also brilliant to compete against injury-free people. In other sports, you have to accept that you’re not going to be as competitive after an injury. But we’re ranked 12th in the UK, and we’re off to the World Championships soon. That’s not bad for a team that’s only been doing this a year.”
Sea-savvy, daring, and the ability to blast your way through a myriad of race variables are the key skills required to be competitive in ThunderCat racing, says Stuart. “You never know what the sea is going to be like, which makes it really interesting. It’s not a racing circuit where every corner’s the same – it’s very unpredictable. You’ve got big waves, wind, and the tide affecting things. The best racers understand this. We’re inexperienced, so that’s something we need to catch up on.”
The boats were initially developed for rescuing surfers. They weigh about 80kg and have engines capable of 50bhp, so are perfect for rescues in choppy seas. But it didn’t take long to figure out that with a higher power-to-weight ratio than F1 cars, it might be quite good fun to race them. Now the sport is just over two decades old, having originated in South Africa, and is one of the fastest-growing sports in the powerboating world.
Today, Team Endeavour race valiantly and impress the Newquay crowds despite the fact that it’s their first season. The experience of the top racers means that it’s a bit like go-karting against Lewis Hamilton. Both Endeavour entrants find themselves scrapping it out towards the rear of the pack, but they have undoubtedly made huge progress over the course of the season.
“We are feeling our way into it,” says Stuart. “At the start of last year we were getting lapped, but now that isn’t happening. We’re getting quicker. My first season has been crazy because, as the team manager, I’ve been getting started, learning the logistics, and also racing. This year, all the structure is now in place, and we’ll be able to concentrate on going faster.”
It’s certainly going to be a busy 2016 for Stuart. As well as trying to recruit more Blesma Members onto the team, he’s also preparing to assist powerboat racing legend Alan Priddy’s bid to complete the fastest ever circumnavigation of the globe in a powerboat. The bid will begin in November from Gibraltar, but before then wounded Service men and women will be put through a series of rigorous tests in a selection process developed by Team Endeavour. One thing’s for sure: Stuart is going to be spending a lot of time in 2016 hovering just above the water. People across the UK will be abandoning their sandcastles wherever he goes!