World’s coolest boats: Virgin Atlantic Challenger 2 is as cool as the icebergs it dodged

Each month we pick out an iconic boat that can lay claim to the title of world’s coolest boat. This month, we take a closer look at Virgin Atlantic Challenger 2…

The Blue Riband of the Atlantic Trophy dates back to 1890. It’s an accolade given to the passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean in regular service with the record highest average speed. The Queen Mary held it for a while back in 1938 with an impressive average of 31.69 knots, beaten a few years later by United States at 35.59 knots.

Richard Branson thought it sounded a good wheeze and commissioned a fast boat to blast across and claim the title, himself on board as a paying passenger in a bid to qualify as a passenger-carrying ship.

In 1985 he set out from New York with an experienced crew in a custom-built 65ft powerboat called Virgin Atlantic Challenger and after three-and-a-half days was just 100 miles from the Bishop Rock finish line when it hit a submerged object and sank.

Ironically, the rescue helicopter passed the finish line with the crew within a record-breaking time, but it was generally felt that they really should have brought the boat with them!

Branson commissioned another boat, Virgin Atlantic Challenger 2. Slightly larger at 75ft and designed by Sonny Levi, it was powered by a pair of 2,000hp MTU engines, carried 12 tonnes of diesel, had a top speed of 50 knots and could cruise for 1,200 miles at 40 knots.

On board were yachtsman, Chay Blyth; powerboat racer, weatherman, navigator and MBY contributor Dag Pike; project CEO, Steve Ridgeway; engineer Eckhard Mostig, BBC reporter Peter McCann and, of course, Richard Branson.

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On 26 June 1986 the throttles were buried as the Ambrose Light Tower was passed and the challenge was on once more. The first refuelling stop, 800 miles in, was 20 miles off Halifax, Nova Scotia. Setting off again, the challenges included icebergs and fog.

The second refuelling ship met them at Grand Banks, after that it was out into the Atlantic proper. It became apparent (via stopped engines!) that the fuel was contaminated by water. With a Force 10 approaching from behind, they pressed on, changing filters every 30 minutes (the RAF dropping a canister of fresh filters!).

The Irish Navy refuelled them mid-Atlantic at midnight (including a large pot of Irish stew for the crew) but they were 10 hours down at this point with weather building to a force six.

A tough night followed, none more so than for the two engineers in the engine room still swapping filters. The Bishop Rock finish line was passed the following day at 50 knots, the record broken by two hours with an average speed of almost 36 knots.

The Blue Riband record has since been broken by Tom Gentry’s Gentry Eagle (47.4 knots in 1989) and the Aga Khan’s Destriero (53 knots in 1991) but for our money, Virgin Atlantic Challenger 2 is still the coolest ocean crossing speed machine.

Virgin Atlantic Challenger 2 specifications

Year: 1986
LOA: 75ft
Beam: 7ft 10in
Engines: 2 x 2,000hp MTU diesel
Top speed: 50 knots