Tamasha on the seas

Award-winning journalist and author Mihir Bose returns to the city of his birth, Mumbai, to discover the sport of Powerboat P1, and reflect on the many challenges of putting together an event from scratch in a unique marketplace.

Tamasha on the seas

Indians love tamasha, a rich word which means fun, frolic, excitement and surprise all rolled into one. The Indian Premier League, the world’s richest cricket league, is great tamasha, as are Bollywood movies. Between 3rd and 5th March the sea front in south Mumbai, which saw powerboat racing come to the country for the first time, provided the latest tamasha. The only problem for the organisers was that, unlike Bollywood movies where the surprise comes at the end, here the tamasha’s surprise came even before the event had begun and very nearly stopped this grandly titled Indian Grand Prix of the Seas being staged.

The first surprise was in February at the press conference being held along Mumbai’s historic sea front, where George V had landed back in 1911. James Durbin, the chief executive of Powerboat P1, was talking to a local television reporter when he saw something that was certainly not in the script: a bulldozer approaching the site. It had been sent by the city’s Municipal Corporation, which claimed that Procam, the local organiser, had not paid dues of UK£326,190 for organising the Mumbai Marathon the previous month. [Procam disputes this]. The bulldozer swiftly demolished the stage that had been built and the chief minister of the local state government of Maharashtra who was on his way to the event, deciding he did not want to be in the path of a JCB, ordered his car to be turned around.

Then, a week before the event, the local authorities refused Procam the right to construct jetties on the beach from where the boats would start and the organisers were rescued by the Indian Navy, which is headquartered in Mumbai, providing the facilities. The finale came 48 hours before the qualifying race was due to begin. Then, at the Bombay High Court, a two-man bench of Justices Vidyasagar Kanade and PR Bora had to decide whether the event should be held at all. To the great relief of Procam and P1 the two judges, declaiming with all the skill of Bollywood actors, dismissed the corporation’s arguments and even rapped the chief minister, saying, “Is the CM not aware of international powerboat event? This is very shocking. On one hand you talk of globalisation and on the other are concerned about petty things.”

However, the court did not revoke an earlier order which meant the marquees and stage Procam wanted along the sea front to showcase the event for the spectators could not be built. Procam was keen to have giant screens where, with the sport live on television for the first time, spectators could follow the event. P1’s great pride is that, unlike Formula One, spectators watch powerboat racing free. Procam had promised Durbin that along the promenade, known locally as the Queen’s Necklace, “there would be music concerts and street food stalls, a treat for all your senses. Tasting things, feeling things.” 

However, watching the racing begin on the afternoon of 3rd March I could not feel that the sea front was any different to the one I had known when I was growing up in Mumbai back in the 50s. The scattered spectators were like the curious who always gather in Mumbai when any outdoor event is held, with some holding up umbrellas to ward of the mid-afternoon sun. And while there were marquees, they were on the rooftops of buildings overlooking the promenade accessible to those with VIP invitations. But just as the country’s greatest flower, the Lotus, blooms amidst much muck, by the evening of 5th March the organisers could claim that despite all the hurdles the corporation had put in their path, India’s introduction to powerboat racing had been a success.

That Sunday afternoon some 40,000 spectators lined the sea front to watch the final race. And while this was way short of the 100,000 to 200,000 Procam had assured me would gather, this was not to be sniffed at. The temperature was 38 degrees and the rival attraction was watching India play Australia in an intensely exciting Test match.

True, none of the 40,000 could watch the closing ceremony as the corporation’s diktats meant the podium was not on the sea front but on the lawn next to the swimming pool of the five star hotel, one of the sponsors. Nevertheless, the ceremony made the Indians feel that while the sport may never match cricket, the country’s religion, it was one of their own who decided which team won the first ever Powerboat World Championship. This was a team prize and with two boats in each team, one boat by itself could not claim victory. So while the Welsh brother and sister pair of Sam and Daisy Coleman had been masterly, emerging from three days of racing undefeated, they also needed the boat piloted by their Indian colleague CS Santosh not to finish last. Santosh just managed it, finishing second from bottom, and the British-Indian team squeaked home by just two points. Had Santosh finished last all the brilliance of the Colemans would have gone to waste.

What made this all the sweeter for the Indians was that Santosh, whose sport is motor bikes, had only stepped into a boat for the first time last November and this was his first competitive race. Indians took pride in the fact that they could be quick learners and the British, always keen to bask in the glories of the Raj, could exult that two hundred years after teaching Indians cricket they had now tutored them in another, potentially, great sport.

So in that wonderful evening light that India specialises in, it was not a bulldozer that approached the podium but the tourism minister. Even the local Kohli fishermen, who a few days earlier had complained powerboat racing would harm their fishing, joined in the celebrations, presenting the minister with a special Kohli cap which he accepted with all the delight of a child opening Christmas presents.

There is no story behind you. There is nothing in front of you. There is not one global name you recognise. Powerboating was a leap into darkness. It was difficult to get sponsors.

Any sport going to a new country is worth celebrating but powerboat racing going to India shows how far the sport has come in the 15 years since Asif Rangoonwala, a middle-aged London businessman of Pakistani origin, decided to invest in it. “Before I took over in 2002 it wasn’t a sport, it was just a hobby pursued by some enthusiasts,” he says. “We have made it into a sport which had never existed before.” To do that Rangoonwala, whose wide-ranging business interests are centred round property, has invested more than US$50 million of his money in the sport. Taking powerboat to Mumbai was a touch emotional – he was born not far from where the race was held – but he is convinced P1 has created a formula that can take the sport to new frontiers.

The formula is based on a partnership between P1 and local sponsors. “The promoter,” says Rangoonwala, “does all the activity on land, they are also providing the money to do the event.” This P1 strategy has been driven by Durbin who Rangoonwala brought in to run P1 in 2010. The Australian, who harboured cricketing ambitions – as a schoolboy he played against Ricky Ponting – says, “Before 2010 we were trying to commercialise a sport which was a hobby and there wasn’t a commercial model. Now, whenever we race round the world, there are local sponsors and tourism bodies who will support us. When we come to a city there is a significant economic impact as a sport, as an event.”

And while the sport still needs Rangoonwala’s money, Durbin says, “Since 2015 we have done two years of breaking even operationally. This came when we established a global broadcast platform, starting with Fox Sports in the US and that opened up other broadcast markets round the world including Germany.” 

Durbin admits, “It’s not like Premier League money. It was very difficult to get our sport on television. Broadcasters said there is not a chance you will ever get this on television and if you do, you will be paying an awful lot of money. In sports broadcast there is a 99:1 rule. One per cent get 99 per cent of the rights fee. We are a little bit of the one per cent. We have 27 television deals around the world, we sell on a per-hour basis that ranges from US$750 an hour to US$2,000 per hour. We produce 41 hours of television coverage.” 

The Mumbai races saw live television for the first time and P1 found a local sponsor when Rangoonwala walked into the offices of his old friend Anil Singh, managing director of Procam, a sports and leisure management company.

Anil Singh could not be more different to Rangoonwala. Rangoonwala has an open, welcoming, face and engages in conversation, Anil Singh never takes his dark glasses off and likes to deliver monologues. His answer to my first question lasts 20 minutes, during which he presents himself not just as a promoter but as a man who has helped reshape powerboat racing. “I told Asif we need four to five critical changes,” he says. The most important was to make smaller-sized, affordable boats, not boats that “reach about a couple of kilometres to the sea and cost €800,000 to €1 million. I said to Asif, ‘You need a boat that costs between US$100,000 to US$150,000’. Asif created the P1 Panther, a fantastic machine.”

Asif Rangoonwala (left), Anil Singh (centre) and James Durbin, pictured at the Mumbai media launch.

Durbin agrees that the development of these boats have been crucial to P1. “Powerboat racing used to be just rich boys and their toys,” he adds. “It was all about how much technology you can afford to go faster. What we have done now is taken the technology away from the drivers. We are now responsible for the technology as we build the boats. The boats are identical, the engines are identical. It’s all down to the skill of the pilots, the question is not whether Mihir has more money than James, it’s whether Mihir is better than James.” 

For Mumbai, all the boats were shipped from England with the racers renting the boats for $3000 for a season. Racers can buy and two of the competitors in Mumbai were rich enough to own their boats.

But if in building Panther boats P1 moved away from F1, Singh’s next idea made the Mumbai races more like the motorsport series. “I told Asif we need to build a track on water,” he says. “Every sport in the world has its parameters. You play cricket on a cricket pitch. You play football on a football field. It creates perspective. It is easier for television to know the boundaries in which it is played.” Singh is very proud that this was the “first attempt in the world to have a course on water”. And he makes it clear this was a non-negotiable demand. He told Durbin, “No course on water no P1 for me.” But, he says, “James was superbly supportive.”

The track, made up of over 6,000 inflatable red and yellow buoys, is about 50 to 55 metres wide. With some of the buoys glowing at night time, it lives up to its promise of looking beautiful. But while Singh could persuade Rangoonwala and Durbin to innovate, it was not easy to get sponsors. Singh has built his reputation by bringing marathon running to India, he and his brother Vivek having been inspired by watching the London Marathon. His problem was, he says, “When we started marathons in India there were 70 marathons round the world. In Powerboat racing, what do you go by? There is no story behind you. There is nothing in front of you. There is not one global name you recognise. Powerboating was a leap into darkness. It was difficult to get sponsors.”

Singh decided the only option was for the teams to have corporate names, “to encourage corporations to invest”. Eventually he persuaded Nexa, the new showroom destination experience from leading car manufacturer Maruti Suzuki, to come in as the title sponsor. The selling point was that Maruti was a car conceived in India, and so it seemed natural for this “homegrown story to launch a global sport from India”.

“Nexa felt the world will stand up and take notice,” Singh says.

Having stroked the ego of Nexa, Singh then borrowed from Gandhi, who besides liberating India from British rule, endlessly lectured Indians on keeping the environment clean. In the days leading up to the race, Singh’s marketing machine paraded Mumbai college students talking of their campaigns to clean up the city’s filthy shoreline. To complete this high-moralising mission, Singh presented the Indian Grand Prix of the Seas as not just a sport but with the noble mission of helping reacquaint Indians with water. “We are on a journey and focus called ‘Experience the joy of water,’” he explains.

Welsh brother and sister pairing Sam and Daisy Coleman claim victory in Mumbai, assisted by India's CS Santosh.

However, aware his fellow Indians would love a show even more, on the night before the final race he got the crew of the boats to parade on a catwalk specially constructed in the bowels of the hotel they were all staying in. While not the Milan fashion show, Daisy Coleman caught the eye strutting in a knee-length dress, and later dressed in a sari, while another pilot wiggled his backside. A footballer doing that might have been booked; the powerboat crowd, never having seen anything like this before, cheered enthusiastically.

So where does P1 go from Mumbai? Rangoonwala confidently predicts, “Over the next two to three years powerboat racing will become a nationwide sport all over India, spreading to Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and up to Kashmir.” That depends on whether Singh can deliver but given the way he has made Indians take to the marathon, Singh’s forecasts should not be dismissed as marketing bombast. India is important for powerboat racing. John Wilson, who manages the Colemans, agrees that growth potential in the UK is limited, admitting, “In the UK I do not see powerboat racing matching sailing.”

And, unlike sailing, there is no money to be made from powerboats. “I earn nothing from the sport,” says Wilson. “We have a pizza home delivery company. Even to race you need a sponsor. Sam and Daisy have their own jobs. [Sam runs the family hotel and Daisy trains the military using simulators.] For them this is a hobby. At the moment there is not enough money in the sport for people to be able to earn a living from it. That may come if TV gets hold. That moment is not there.”

Durbin admits, “At the moment the pilots are not earning enough money from the sport, they have to have other income.” However, he predicts, “We are 18 months to two years from full professionalism.”

That will only happen if Durbin can persuade more television companies to follow the Mumbai example and show the sport live, and also pay much more than they are at the moment. For all the evangelical spirit P1 displayed in Mumbai that perhaps seems more than two years away, but with India now under its belt, who knows?

This feature originally appeared in Issue 93 of SportsPro magazine.