Top 10 powerboat racing icons that helped make boating what it is today

Hugo Peel explores the top ten power-boating events, people and inventions that have influenced today’s sportsboats...

Powerboat racing may seem a world away from the type of cruising most of us do but the sportsboats we enjoy today wouldn’t be half as good as they are without the racers, designers and builders whose heroic efforts helped shape them.

Auto-boat racing, as it was originally known, traces its history back to the late 19th century and for a brief period was even an Olympic sport, with races staged off the Isle of Wight in 1908. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the sport exploded in popularity as developments in engineering, materials, speed, safety and propulsion really took off.

Racing was the anvil on which these promising technologies were forged. So what are the ten most significant events, inventions and people that have contributed to today’s impressive levels of performance, safety and utility?

While many of these names and events may be unfamiliar now, they are the stuff of legend to all who recall the glory days of British powerboat racing.

1. The Cowes-Torquay-Cowes offshore powerboat race

Many people regard offshore powerboat racing as the ultimate challenge for craft and crew. Arguably the most challenging race of all and certainly one of the oldest is the legendary Cowes-Torquay competition.

Initiated in 1961 by Daily Express newspaper magnate and keen yachtsman, Sir Max Aitken, who foresaw it would help grow the UK marine industry, it bred a string of British and international heroes and brands. This 200-mile race, now known as the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes, and its coveted Harmsworth Trophy, intermittently awarded since 1903, is still the one all top powerboat racers yearn to win.

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The marathon Round Britain Powerboat Race started and finished off Portsmouth

2. The marathon Round Britain Powerboat Race

If a 200-mile race sounds challenging, the 1,500-mile endurance marathon that is the Round Britain Race is on an altogether different scale, yet it proved so appealing that it has been run three times over four decades.

The first BP-sponsored race in 1969 comprised ten stages over 1,459 miles and was won by Timo Mäkinen, a champion Finnish rally-driver in Avenger Too propelled by triple Mercury outboards – he averaged 37mph.

The 1984 race was sponsored by Everest double glazing and attracted famous names, including Italian racer/designer Fabio Buzzi driving White Iveco, a single-step GRP monohull with four 600bhp Iveco diesels. Against him was fellow Italian Renato della Valle in Ego Lamborghini, an aluminium-hull craft powered by two ear-splitting 800hp, race-tuned V12 Lamborghinis.

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Victory went to Buzzi who, after the 157-mile Dundee-Whitby leg, during which White Iveco averaged a staggering 69 knots, dismissed it with shrug saying: ‘In Italy, this is just a cruising boat.’

The race was revived in 2008 attracting a field of 47 raceboats old and new, including a number of production RIBs and sportsboats from companies like Scorpion, Goldfish and Scanner. The favourites included Fabio Buzzi again in his classic four-engined Red FPT, and Austrian casino millionaire Hannes Bohinc in another Buzzi-designed monohull Wettpunkt.

This time the overall winner was a Greek entry Blue FPT navigated by Britain’s Dag Pike, who at 75 years old, was the event’s oldest competitor. Many of the production boats also did remarkably well, showing just how far they have come in recent years.

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Steve Curtis MBE is powerboat racing royalty

3. Powerboat racer Steve Curtis

If the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes is the benchmark, surely the top driver must be found among its winners? Home-grown contenders must include Tommy Sopwith, a winner in 1961, 1968 and 1970 and the Gardner brothers, Charles and Jimmy, who clocked up victories in 1964 with their Bertram 31 Surfrider, and again in 1967 in the iconic Sonny Levi-designed Surfury.

On the worldwide stage, Italy’s Renato Della Valle won four Cowes Torquay Cowes races in a row from 1982 to 1985. Hannes Bohinc collected the trophies in 1995 and 2003 and another German, Markus Hendricks, whose boat sank on the 2008 Round Britain, took a re-engined 34-year-old monohull, Cinzano, to victory in 2009 and 2011.

They are all brilliant in their way but how could this category ignore the UK’s Steve Curtis MBE, owner of Cougar Marine, with no fewer than eight Class One powerboat racing world championships in fearsome 175mph catamarans? Curtis’s 2016 victory in the roughest ever Cowes Torquay Cowes race, in a 30-year-old aluminium boat sealed his place in the history books.

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4. Lady Violet Aitken – the first lady of fast

The field of legendary female powerboat racers may be smaller but is no less worthy for it with three principal candidates – two titled British ladies and an American grandmother.

From the USA, Betty Cook – focussed, smart, and tough – arrived with her 36ft Cigarette Kaama and blew away the opposition in the 1978 Cowes Torquay Cowes race. She went on to secure two world championships.

The British aristocracy provides the eccentric and brave Countess of Arran, who fielded fast if unconventional designs of three-pointers like Highland Fling among others. She was described by The Guardian in her obituary as ‘beautiful, vivacious, funny, fun and entrancing’.

But our top female driver is Lady Violet Aitken, wife of Cowes-Torquay founder Sir Max Aitken and Ladies’ Trophy winner on several occasions. Racing is still in the blood as her daughter Laura and granddaughter Lucci are both keen powerboat racers.

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Buzzi’s legendary status stems from 40 years of work in the marine industry

5. Powerboat designer Fabio Buzzi

The late Fabio Buzzi is a legend, both behind the helm and at the drawing board. In more than 40 years of activity, his company FB Design has won a staggering 52 world championships; seven Harmsworth Trophies; two Round Britains; and set no less than 56 world speed records in both European and American classes.

Buzzi designed the boat that has won more races than any other powerboat in history, the quadruple-engined, be-winged 44ft Cesa/Gancia dei Gancia. Today, the descendants of these monohull designs are found in service with government and military agencies all around the world, as well as leisure craft like the Sunseeker XS2000 and Hawk 38.

But the competition is hard-fought. Sonny Levi’s delta-shaped race-boats A’Speranziella, Merry-go-Round, Alto Volante, and Surfury leave lasting memories by their sheer performance and poise. And their legacy, the Levi Corsair, is still made today.

The UK’s Don Shead also runs Buzzi close having designed ten Cowes-Torquay winners and the 1984 Round Britain race winner. The early Sunseeker ranges also came from his drawing board.

Peter Thornycroft and Alan Burnard merit attention as designers of the iconic Nelson and Fairey hulls respectively, many of which are still in service today. But the sheer scale of Fabio’s achievements trumps them all.

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The Mercury V8 took powerboating to another level

6. The Mercury V8 engine

Early racers only had American petrol V8s for choice, mainly Ford Dearborn Interceptors, tweaked to deliver big torque and 300-400bhp. There were also a few marinised Jaguar straight-six engines, which consumed oil at a terrifying rate and were fragile. Then Carl Kiekhaefer, head of US outboard giant Mercury, refined numerous Mercury Racing V8s and Lamborghini V12s providing up to 850bhp and things took off. Literally.

To this market came car racing engineers Ilmor in the 1990s with a tuned Dodge Viper V10 engine, pushing out a reliable 700-800bhp. The Italians, at the behest of Fabio Buzzi, developed the 16-litre 1,000hp Seatek diesel for ultra-marathon events, providing unparalleled torque with (relatively) light weight and reliability.

A special mention for the maddest motors must go to Tommy Sopwith, who put a pair of helicopter turbines into a 44ft Don Shead hull delivering over 1500bhp and Domenico Achilli, who ‘glued’ two Subaru flat-four rally car engines together, and split our eardrums while winning the 1990 Cowes Torquay Cowes race.

But for sheer consistency and the countless number of ever-faster, smoother, more reliable production engines its powerboat racing successes have spawned, Mercury and its big displacement V8s have to take the crown.

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Offering horizontal thrust and reduced drag, the sterndrive greatly increased the speed and efficiency of both race and pleasure craft

7. The sterndrive unit

Early shaft-driven race-boats normally placed engines amidships with straight shafts to the propellers. Then the vee-drive option enabled engines to be moved astern for better weight distribution but, in both cases, the angle of thrust was still pushing the hull ‘uphill’.

With the arrival of the sterndrive came horizontal thrust to harness the growing power of engines, and hugely reduced hydrodynamic drag by doing away with separate rudders, shafts and P-brackets. This greatly increased both speed and efficiency while the ability to trim the angle of thrust also enabled drivers to adjust the boat’s trim to suit differing sea conditions.

Surface-drives from Arneson and Trimax reduced drag even further but at the cost of low speed manoeuvrability and we mustn’t overlook the impact of the outboard engine on both race and leisure sportsboats.

However, for sheer versatility, the impact it has had on both powerboat racing and leisure craft, and its ability to work equally well with both petrol and diesel engines, the sterndrive has to take it.

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Hunt’s deep-vee design proved a powerboat game-changer

8. Racing hull designer Ray Hunt

The most successful hull builders embraced the fast-developing world of engineering and materials as well as developments in design. Cold-molded mahogany plywood gave way to GRP, which in turn surrendered to carbon-fibre reinforced by Kevlar.

However, it’s hard to think of a bigger leap in hull design than Ray Hunt’s deep-vee concept, demonstrating an immediate and staggering superiority over previous hard and rounded chines. Nothing underpins this assertion better than Dick Bertram’s 1961 Miami-Nassau victory in his prototype Moppie – finishing a whole day ahead of the third-placed boat.

The likes of Levi, Shead and Bertram all helped refine the concept but the winner has to be Ray Hunt who, along with Dick Bertram’s investment and encouragement, became the grandfather of today’s sportsboats.

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Peter Dredge skims Vector Martini to an average speed of 94.5mph during the 2015 Cowes Torquay Cowes race. Photo: Alamy

9. Speed record breaker Peter Dredge

World Water Speed records set by the likes of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird and Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Challenger II are momentous achievements in their fields but their designs have bred few, if any, current sportsboats. Offshore powerboat racing records may not be as well publicised but are arguably far more relevant.

The average speed records of historic races like the Cowes Torquay Cowes race are a perfect demonstration of the improvements made in powertrains, hull design and strength. The first race in 1961 was won by a 24ft wooden Christina averaging 24.5mph. It took another two years to break 40mph, and a further four to exceed 50mph. In 1969 the record tumbled again with an average speed of over 60mph.

A gap of six years then ensued before the record climbed over 70mph and a further 13 years for technology to reach an average exceeding 80mph. A very calm race in 1990 saw the Italians hit over 90mph average – and then we waited 25 years before that speed was finally exceeded in 2015.

So until that record is beaten, preferably with a speed of more than 100mph, our winner is the current record holder Peter Dredge who propelled the awesome 1,500bhp, 44ft Vector Martini to victory at a remarkable average speed of 94.5mph.

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Dag Pike, the brains behind so many great powerboat victories

10. National treasure Dag Pike

No top ten list could be complete without mention of those quiet but significant contributors to the sport of offshore powerboat racing. Among those names must be Class-3 racer, commentator, sport historian and MBY’s longest-serving contributor Ray Bulman, who passed away last year.

The racer, organiser, enthusiast and flamboyant, chain-smoking Tim Powell also has to be in the running. Other characters like Commander Petroni of Italy’s Tornado Racing Team and Tommy Sopwith’s regular crew Charles de Selincourt, who guided him to victory in several Cowes Torquay Cowes races also deserve mentions.

But my National Treasure award goes to Dag Pike; writer, raconteur and navigator extraordinaire who has been the brains behind countless race wins for dozens of different drivers. Having been shipwrecked eight times himself but also having rescued more than eight people in his long career offshore, he has in his own words ‘balanced the books’.

The last word

As with any top ten list it can never be comprehensive and will always be open to differences of opinion but that’s not the point of this article. We simply invite you to ponder that, whatever boat you drive and whatever propels it, its performance and seaworthiness possesses at least some of the DNA of the many great raceboats, designers, engineers and technologies, forged in the heat of offshore battle.

First published in the June 2019 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.

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