Self-Portrait with a Speedboat

Hugo Williams

You wouldn’t think it to look at me,
but I was a hot property once upon a time
to my sponsors, Johnson and Johnson Baby Oil.

I reached the final of the 1980
World Powerboat Championship – myself,
Lucy Manners, Werner Panic and the rest.

I was going for the record
of no hours, no minutes, no seconds
and I reckoned I was in with a chance.

I was dancing the Self-Portrait along
inside the yellow buoys, nice dry water ahead,
when I started picking up some nonsense

from my old rival Renato Salvadori,
the knitwear salesman from Lake Como,
appearing for Martini.

Renato was chopping up the water with a series
of kick turns and yells and throwing it
it my face like a gauntlet, flack

from his tailplane running off my goggles.
I was pushing the Self-Portrait
into a sizeable swell, but I figured the aerofoil

would keep her nose down in an emergency,
the head-rest would account for any recoil
occasioned by overdrive – 4G,

that’s about four times your body weight
screwing your neck around on corners
and pinning a smile on your face.

I looked over my shoulder and saw Werner Panic
hovering and bouncing about.
The three of us hit the Guinness hairpin

at about ninety, sashaying our arses
round the corner post and spraying the customers
with soda water, which they didn’t seem to mind.

You can either go into these things tight
and come out wide, or you can go in wide
and come out tight, depending on your mood.

But whereas Werner and myself went into it
tight and came out of it laughing,
Renato lost his bottle completely

and wound up pointing backwards in a pool
of engine oil, miming outrage
and holding out his hands to the judges.

His departure for Lake Como in the relief launch,
clutching his crash helmet
and lucky sombrero mascot,

left me aqua-planing the wash
from Werner’s dogleg, covert blue and gold
tobacco logo making me see red.

I’m very fond of Werner, but I’m not about to
hand him the trophy on a platter
just because he smokes Rothmans.

I sat on his coat-tails for a lap or two,
revs going from 7½ to ten thou,
big V8 engine powering along at about a hundred.

I’ll never forget his face
as the Self-Portrait took off on his starboard wake
and entered the unofficial record books

for ski-jumping – 19 feet of aluminium
chucked in a great curve between heaven and earth –
a trajectory to nowhere as it turned out,

but I didn’t know that then. As I looked down
on the scene spread out beneath me,
I remember thinking what a fabulous

powerboat atmosphere there was
on the Royal Docks that afternoon –
champagne and cigars, jellied eels, a Big Top

with four shows a day, dolphins, a gorilla,
girls in pink leotards, all the fun of the fair.
As I touched down near the pits

my arm came up to say ‘thank-you’ to my mechanics
for making it all possible.
You can see one of them – Pasquale that is –

returning the compliment at the exact moment
the Self-Portrait hits the pier
of the escape basin and vanishes under a layer

of polystyrene blocks, old aerosol cans
and water-logged flyers for the 1980
World Powerboat Championship. That’s me

standing up to my neck in dirty water,
holding up a shattered steering-wheel
to cheers from the salvage barge.