Once again the Solent reverberated to the sound of high powered, high octane powerboats when the Cowes Classic Powerboat Race roared into town. The Cowes Classic 2014 Offshore Powerboat Race took place on Sunday, 31st August. Just as the last Cowes Week sailors departed the shores of the Isle of Wight, and life seemed set to resume to its usual pace on the slide into autumn, the power boaters arrived to stir up the pace of life once again.
The contest has long been recognised as one of powerboating’s toughest challenges, and comparisons have been made with motorsport events such as Le Mans and the Indy 500. Around 20 boats were expected to be in the 2014 line-up, and if the conditions were calm like the previous year, the winner could complete the course in under three hours. The Cowes – Torquay – Cowes course covers a distance of 182 nautical miles. The record of two hours, eighteen minutes, and five seconds was set in 2008 by Fabio Buzzi, Simon Powell, and Rafael Del Pino from Italy in the boat ‘Red FPT’ at an average speed of 91.1 mph.
Cowes is the birthplace of international powerboat racing. It's therefore fitting that every year some of the biggest, brightest, loudest, and most powerful boats in the world assemble to re-enact the famous race from Cowes to Torquay then turn around and race back from Torquay to Cowes where the first race was hosted in 1961.
After the overwhelming success of a new race format in 2013, which saw the fleet stopping in Torquay, the organisers agreed to run the race in two parts once again. They were inspired by the enthusiastic response of the race fans at the Torquay stopover the previous year and decided to stay with this successful format.
An exciting change was planned for the start at Cowes 2014, with the race returning to its roots. In close consultation with the safety officials at the RYA, the race organizers had worked hard to ensure the fans saw an organised start closer to the shore. In recent years, the race start had not been accessible to the general public and was held past Hurst Castle where only the most hardy boaties or passengers on the start boat could actually watch the action. Thankfully that year, the race start returned to its birthplace in the Solent off the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes.
How the Race came to be
It had all been rather different when the race was first run 54 years ago. The contest had been the brainchild of the newspaper tycoon and Second World War fighter pilot Sir Max Aitken, who had seen the Miami-Nassau Powerboat Race that began in 1956.
At the time, powerboat racing was a perfect fit with America’s affluent profile. It had been spectacular and offered upwardly mobile enthusiasts an opportunity to compete on level terms with their old-money counterparts. At the London Boat Show in January 1961, Sir Max proposed that a similar race should be staged in England between Cowes and Torbay.
The concept gripped the public’s imagination, and there was huge interest and television coverage when the contestants set off from the Royal Yacht Squadron at 10 am on 27th August 1961. Among the 27 boats roaring up the Solent had been Huntsman No. 8, owned by the holiday-camp entrepreneur Billy Butlin and skippered by the former test pilot Peter Twiss.
Seven hours and 17 minutes later, Thunderbolt, a Christina-hull craft driven by the former saloon-car racer Tommy Sopwith, crossed the line in first place, having travelled at an average of 25mph throughout.
They had been a racy crowd, the 1960s powerboating set. In 1962, Sir Max Aitken had competed personally, and the following year the amateur steeplechase jockey Bill Shand-Kydd had finished second. But the most intriguing of those early contestants had been Shand-Kydd’s brother-in-law, Lord Lucan, who had attempted to win the race three times.
The seventh Earl, who notoriously vanished in 1974 after apparently killing his children’s nanny, had made his debut in 1963 at the helm of a 25-footer called White Migrant. Lucan had been in the lead and still going well when White Migrant had stopped suddenly and sank beneath him just south of the Needles. Lucan and his co-driver Bruce Campbell had both been rescued unharmed. His Lordship had tried again but equally unsuccessfully in 1964 and 1965.
“The race became the leading race in Europe, if not the world, and internationals say you haven’t really achieved anything unless you’ve competed and finished the Cowes-Torquay,” - powerboat racing expert Ray Bulman
On the day of the 2014 race, dawn in Cowes broke to the sound of roaring engines, and activity on the water was evident from approximately 08:45 when the racing fleet mustered to the east of the Cowes Harbour entrance. Race boats passed at speed in a convoy between Snowden and Trinity House buoys before starting the actual race immediately to the north of Gurnard Cardinal Buoy at 09:00. The fastest race boats approached Berry Head by 10 am and continued on northward to a mark at the Ore Stone before turning and heading into the finish off Haldon Pier at Torquay.
At Torquay, the boats formed up and paraded past Haldon Pier at 13:00 before lining up for the race start back to Cowes at 13:30. Depending on the conditions, the fastest boats appeared back in the Solent at approximately two-thirty for a finish off the Gurnard Cardinal Mark at Egypt Point.
For all those who had found hurtling at up to 90mph across the sea a frightening feat, YB Tracking had provided a solution! Each powerboat had a tracker securely attached during the race. It transmitted data every two minutes and almost instantaneously updated the race viewer, which meant family, friends, and international powerboat enthusiasts could follow every twist and turn that the competition had offered.
For more information, please visit the Cowes Classic website.