/**span.highlight**/Athletes succeeding on a shoestring/*/*

For seven-time world champion Peter Caughey, buying and maintaining the jet boats he races was cripplingly expensive. So he became a world-leading manufacturer of champion jetsprinting boats.

Peter Caughey holds seven world titles and nine New Zealand titles.

Peter Caughey holds seven world titles and nine New Zealand titles.

Trustworthy, accurate and reliable news stories are more important now than ever. Support our newsrooms by making a contribution.

Contribute Noworange-arrow

After 30 years racing jet boats at up to 140kmh, Peter Caughey was typically comfortable gripping a steering wheel

As the sprint boat bombed down a shallow channel, nudging 100kmh, he had the wheel in his hands. But it was no longer attached to the steering column. 

With no brakes - jet sprinters don’t use them - the boat pitched into an island, mercifully landing right-side up. 

Caughey and navigator Shama Putaranui at Meremere in December 2015. (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Caughey and navigator Shama Putaranui at Meremere in December 2015. (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Caughey, and navigator Shama Putaranui, were unharmed.  But the crash, in the last race of his career, robbed him of his eighth World Championship.

He retired in November 2018, finishing the Championship second overall.

“In the first half of my racing career, I think the trophies, the winning, and the chequered flag run, probably counted for more than it did in the last 10 or 15 years.

“I got to a point where I knew I was predominantly racing for the love of it, the passion and enjoyment, not to prove myself to anyone else, not to accumulate more trophies or the glory or external recognition.

And I would say that's probably when I became the hardest to beat, when I was in that happy place.

Peter Caughey

“I was only there because I really wanted to be there. The thing that really drove me to carry on racing for so long was the enjoyment. It made it all harder to retire of course.”

The shelves of Caughey’s trophy cabinet are laden. As New Zealand's only professional jetsprint racer, he won seven world and 12 national titles, racing in four countries. 

Southland-born Caughey, 57, also builds the crafts, building up his Sprintec business in between racing and training. He built his first sprint boat in a friend’s garage.

Motor sports are a tough game. Because you're not only needing to perform at a top level to get the results. You also need to find a lot of money to do that, to justify it or fund it.

Peter Caughey

There are three classes in jet sprints. The Group A class are limited to petrol engines which produce up to 650 horsepower, costing somewhere between $150,000-200,000 per craft. 

In Group B, the lower horsepower category the boats cost around $25,000-30,000.

Caughey raced in the Superboat class, with no maximum size engine. “Because we were based in North Canterbury, but predominantly racing in the North Island, and Australia and America, we had huge travel costs. 

“Rebuilding the motor every year, maintaining the motor and then upgrading that, was a big cost. 

He also builds Sprintec jet boats sending them to clients around New Zealand and overseas. (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

He also builds Sprintec jet boats sending them to clients around New Zealand and overseas. (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

“So when you worked it all out, and divided total annual costs, It was close to $2000 a minute that you're actually racing on the boat. The annual racing budget was anywhere from $50,000-100,000 plus a year. 

“If you haven't got a budget, you've got this horrible frustration of having to sit out a season or sit out some events. We've been there, done that, and certainly didn't come from a wealthy family.”

Caughey spent much of his career fundraising. “Raising sponsorship, dealing and living with being dependent on sponsorship to compete is the next closest thing to prostitution, in some regards. That’s said tongue in cheek and lightheartedly, but it is easy to sell your soul to get to what you want to do as a competitor. 

Caughey and navigator Karen Marshall testing a boat on the Waimakariri River. (PHOTO: IAN THORNTON)

Caughey and navigator Karen Marshall testing a boat on the Waimakariri River. (PHOTO: IAN THORNTON)

“When you're determined and you think you've got everything lined up, but you haven't got the money, sometimes it puts people into a situation where they're tempted to do things they wouldn't otherwise.

I don't think we ever crossed the line, but boy, I did a lot of hard work trying to raise sponsorship… when my arch rivals were knocking off and finishing their day's work at 8pm… it was not uncommon for me to be working till midnight, 1am.

Peter Caughey

Jetsprinting originated in New Zealand’s braided rivers in the early 1980s, before graduating to artificial courses.

It’s extreme, and adrenaline fuelled, with competitors accelerating from zero to 120kmh in two seconds. The 500kg crafts carve through knee-deep waters, curving into 180-degree bends or hitting 6G forces. 

(PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

(PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

“It's somewhere between an addiction and a drug,” father-of-three Caughey says. “Jokingly, a number of blokes over the years have said it's better than sex. I wouldn't confer with that but it's very good.

“You've got a high-powered V8 motor sitting 200 millimetres behind you. When you're on these boats, you're sitting low, they pull four to eight G's of cornering force from a standing start. They are one of the fastest accelerating vehicles on the planet.”

Super boats corner at speed, while remaining stable, and the steering is done by redirecting the jet stream. (PHOTO: IAN THORNTON)

Super boats corner at speed, while remaining stable, and the steering is done by redirecting the jet stream. (PHOTO: IAN THORNTON)

But the support subsists on commercial sponsorship, and community grants. 

“Look at yachting, sailing and rugby and see how much money is invested there. 

“I understand those are prominent sports, and they generate a lot of television reach. But so do we - 240 million households around the world see the sport through the World Championship. And Kiwis have won probably 90 per cent of the world titles over the last 30 years.

Peter Caughey and navigator Louise Blythe compete at Whanganui in 2017. (PHOTO: POSITIVE IMAGES)

Peter Caughey and navigator Louise Blythe compete at Whanganui in 2017. (PHOTO: POSITIVE IMAGES)

“I guess maybe we haven't done a good enough job putting a case to the powers that be, the government. But it is a bit lopsided, I'd have to say.”

Become a Stuff supporter today for as little as $1 to help our local news teams bring you reliable, independent news you can trust.

Contribute Noworange-arrow

Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: Ed Scragg