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A rescuer tries to reach the trapped racers after their powerboat Victory 1 crashed in front of the Jumeirah Beach Residence complex during yesterday's race.
A rescuer tries to reach the trapped racers after their powerboat Victory 1 crashed in front of the Jumeirah Beach Residence complex during yesterday's race.

Beach crowds witness horror

Crew of Victory 1 were trapped under water for several minutes after their vessel crashed during the World Powerboat Championship.

DUBAI // For the fans gathered along the water's edge of Dubai Marina, it was the day the home crews of Victory 1 and Fazza 3 were to duel for the title in the World Powerboat Championships. Instead, the crowds watched in horror as the powerful twin-engine craft flipped before crashing violently on its back.

Despite the efforts of the search and rescue teams, it was clear that there was little hope for the two-man crew, Mohammed al Mehairi and Jean-Marc Sanchez. Hours after the race, the organisers confirmed that the two men were dead. Witnesses said the crash happened shortly after the race began, in front of the Jumeirah Beach Residence complex. The distinctive blue vessel, which can reach a speed of more than 250kph, appeared to go out of control on the sixth lap at around 3.44pm. It flew into the air and turned upside down, before landing in the sea.

As the race continued, it took rescuers, including scuba divers and helicopters, several minutes to reach the crash site and attempt to resuscitate the two men. "They hit the wave, and the front of the boat went front-up into the air," said Torgeir Jakobsen, from Norway, a mechanic for the Maritimo team. "They went up and up, and then flipped backwards." "The weather conditions," he added, "weren't great - wind, big swells. But this is normal in offshore racing. I think they just had really bad luck."

Al Mehairi, 34, an Emirati, and Sanchez, 48, a Frenchman, were flown to hospital but pronounced dead, the event's host, Dubai International Marine Club, said last night in a statement. "Safety personnel attended both pilots at the scene," the statement said. "They were subsequently airlifted to a local hospital, where all efforts to resuscitate them were in vain." The statement added that as "a mark of respect", event organisers had cancelled all remaining activities for today.

Yesterday's race was meant to decide this year's Class 1 World Powerboat Championship, with Victory 1 trailing the leaders, Fazza 3, by just eight points. The two pilots of Victory 1 went into yesterday's Dubai round as reigning European champions. After the crash, some spectators and participants said the race should have been halted as soon as the accident happened. "They didn't stop the race immediately - for two laps after the accident," said Giovanni Carpitella, a member of Sea Dubai, another Dubai racing team.

"Maybe they didn't understand how serious the problem was. When you see a driver come out, then you don't stop the race. But if it's 20 seconds, and nothing happens, you stop it. "These guys were stuck inside the boat, water was spilling in, and they had to wait nine minutes." At the time of the crash, the beach in front of the Jumeirah Beach Residence was crowded with hundreds of spectators. A half-dozen police and other rescue vessels were observed swarming over the wreckage.

One spectator said one man was pulled from under the boat at about 4pm and taken to the marine club docks for resuscitation. The other was retrieved about 10 minutes later, from the boat's cockpit, and also taken to the docks, where scores of police, paramedics and emergency personnel tended to the victims. Ceciler Knight, 43, from France, was watching the race with her husband, John, 47, and their three children. "It was the most spectacular crash," she said. "The boat was flying upwards, and then it seemed to turn on its back."

It almost seemed suspended in air, she said. "It was up there for a while," she said. "I was stunned and it took me a while to tell my husband," who was sitting next to her but not watching. "I said, 'Look, look', and it was still up in the air." Both she and her husband said it took rescuers some time to arrive at the scene. "It was quite surprising, actually, how long it took the rescue boats to get to them," Mr Knight said. "Maybe they were trying to be careful."

The chairman of the Victory team is Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, according to the team's website. The team is based in a state-of-the-art headquarters in Dubai Marina, which was opened in 2002. The 12.67-metre boats each weigh 4,800 kg and use a catamaran design. Yesterday's accident was the third tragedy to hit the Victory team. In 1995, Hamed Buhaleeba, regarded as one the UAE's most successful sportsmen, died in a race off southern England when his boat, also called Victory, hit a freak wave and overturned.

Buhaleeba's brother, Rashid, was also in the boat, but was unhurt. At the time of the crash, off the Isle of Wight, Buhaleeba, who was born in Dubai, had won more than 25 titles in five years, including five grand prix races. Two years earlier, another Victory crew lost control while attempting to overtake teammates in a Class 1 race in Italy and hit a spectators' boat, killing the owner and an 18-year-old man. Four people were injured.

Offshore powerboat racing, which comes in several classes, is an amateur sport regulated by the Dubai-based World Professional Powerboating Association. hnaylor@thenational.ae

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