by Peter du Cane

In 1961 the Daily Express organised, for the first time, a power boat race from Cowes to Torquay which became known as the Daily Express International Offshore Power Boat Race. The course was not straight down to Torquay, although that would have constituted an offshore race in itself, but took the racing boats well inshore for at least a part of the way so that spectators on shore would be able to see the competitors. The leading spirit behind all this was Sir Max Aitken, chairman of the Daily Express, a keen and expert yachtsman both in power and sail. The first race was in very heavy weather and won by Tommy Sopwith.

It was not until the following Boat Show at Earls Court, where we were exhibiting a rather attractive private venture craft about 45 foot long called Show Boat, that Dick Wilkins, a good friend from days of John Cobb at Loch Ness, came on board at about 4.30p.m. after what may or may not have been a very good luncheon, and said to me: “Can you design a build a boat for this year’s Offshore Power Boat Race to beat that chap Sopwith”. I was naturally intrigued by this idea and asked for a little time to think about it. I rang up the next day to make certain Dick was really serious; and finding he was, we got down to work as quickly as possible, as there was not much time to get a prototype racing boat ready for a longish series of trials.

The regulations at that time allowed the hull to be built of any shape, except for not having transverse steps, within a maximum w.l. length 40 feet. The engines, petrol or diesel, had to be available for sale to the public and advertised as such. With our really very extensive experience of the seagoing type MTB our first thoughts were to follow the general features of these craft, but scaled down to meet the 40 foot water line regulations. Considerable testing in the Saunders Roe tank (as it was then called) at Cowes enabled us to arrive at a good hull form from the point of view of resistance (speed) and sea keeping ability. One particular feature we found to be very beneficial was to eliminate all concavity from the transverse sections of the hull under the chine. In other words all frames would be quite straight below the chine throughout. It was found that this feature of straight frames did a great deal to eliminate the typical slamming in waves from ahead or on the bow.

The hull was based on our usual slightly warped form with a fairly sharply rising chine after about half of the length from the stern. We tested a fair number of forms with much the same characteristics and even went so far as to calculate, on paper, the very substantial advantages which could accrue from a twin hull form or catamaran. From these calculations, which were clearly set out in an article I wrote to “Engineering” called “A High Speed Craft Built to Win a Race” at that time, there could be no doubt of these advantages; but we did not feel we had sufficient time to enter into the design, construction and other problems relating to such an experimental possibility. Now, eight years later, I wish I had had the guts to make the necessary design, but apart from other matters the structure alone would have presented quite a severe problem at that time.

The first engines we chose were two Packard marine engines such as had been used during the war in MTBs and similar craft. However, the committee ruled these out as not qualifying, so we eventually purchased two CRM engines from Italy, which were really based on the well-known Isotta Fraschini marine engines of pre-war days, giving about 1,150 BHP each.

We managed to get her designed and completed ready for running by about the end of June, and this gave us plenty of time to get all the “bugs” out of the design and installation. We were even able to take her for a run down the Channel to St. Mawes, where the generous and enthusiastic owner was staying. Her name was Tramontana.

By the time the race was due to be run the boat and crew, under the command of Jeffrey Quill the famous test pilot, were absolutely on the top line and we had great hopes; though there was known to be some tough opposition from home and abroad. The Italian, Levi had designed Ultima Dea to be driven and owned by Gianni Agnelli, also much fancied was the American Sam Griffiths in the Ray Hunt designed Blue Moppie.

At the start Tramontana soon took the lead, but owing to some misbehaviour, possibly due to many causes which we sorted out afterwards, was seen to be lying third when the competitors came past the Royal Yacht Squadron Castle, from where Dick Wilkins and I were watching. We then drove over to Bembridge airfield as quickly as possible, where an aircraft was waiting for us, and on getting into the air we saw that just past St. Catherines Tramontana was holding a good lead with Blue Moppie running in her “slick”; but this lead the Tramontana never lost, and as might have been expected she really came into her own when faced with the open sea crossing in the pretty dirty weather of Lyme Bay – a tough passage of about 40 miles well away from land and shelter. When we arrived at Torquay, having landed at Plymouth airport, she was already in the winner’s berth, having arrived there some 20 minutes before anyone else.

Admittedly she was the most powerful boat in the race, but this alone does not, of necessity, make for a winner, because proportionately more fuel load has to be carried to feed the more powerful engines, and this has to be done in a hull limited in size and so carrying proportionately a great load, necessitating a structural scheme able to stand up to the rougher usage.

Opinions differ but most will say the race in 1962 was run in quieter weather than in 1961 when the first race was run. However, a close study of the meteorological reports and other weather data available does not altogether confirm this. It seems probable that at and just about an hour after the start the wind was stronger, but that by the time the real testing ground of Lyme Bay was reached the wind, though still strong, was a little bit more offshore than in the 1962 race. Anyway this did not in any way detract from the performance of the boat and those who manned her, who drove a magnificent race.

Peter Du Cane, An Engineer of Sorts (Nautical Publishing, Lymington, 1971)


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