For offshore powerboat racing, the British Powerboat Racing Club’s Cowes Torquay Race maintains its legacy as the longest running offshore powerboat race in the world. In 1961, Sir Maxwell Aitken, following suit from the American’s Miami Nassau offshore race, staged Europe’s first offshore race as the Cowes-Torquay Race, from Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, to Torquay in Devon, simply because he owned a house at both locations. The Daily Express Newspaper provided the sponsorship funding to propel the race and some of the industry’s most famous boaters and builders have raced and won there, including the likes of auto racer turned boat racer, Tommy Sopwith, Dick Bertram, Sonny Levi, Jim Wynne, Fabio Buzzi, Don Aronow and the first American woman to ever take the international title, Betty Cook.
Above: A powerboat boat on the docks at the Cowes Torquay Race. Photo by Marilyn DeMartini for YachtWorld.
While the race may boast keen competition, it is in many ways a “gentleman’s race,” as many of the competing boats are legends in themselves and some of the racers deserve senior citizen respect. Speed hasn’t always been the determining factor, due to extreme weather conditions and navigational challenges like fog, wind and high seas, churning across the course, but running 190 nautical miles is true offshore racing!
Unique And Notable High Performance Powerboats
At this year’s 2022 race, we witnessed the rebirth of a 1963 Bertram 31, originally owned by Tommy Sopwith, (whose father was a yachter and the WWI flying ace whose company created the renown Sopwith Camel single engine fighter), Carlo Bonomi’s 1973 Cigarette 35 Dry Martini and a recreation of Betty Cook’s 1978 Cowes winning 36’ Cigarette, KAAMA—both legendary Cigarette Racing Team hulls.
Above: A plaque on a powerboat commemorating Betty Cook’s win a the 1978 Cowes Torquay race. Photo by Marilyn DeMartini for YachtWorld.
KAAMA – Betty Cook’s Legendary Winning Race boat
In this year’s race, a 1978 wide body 36’ Cigarette that raced under Team Kudu (Betty Cook’s husband’s race boat, named for a breed of African antelope, just like her boat, KAAMA), was lovingly restored and renovated by Ian and Christian Toll, with Christian driving for the race. 1978 was ironically the year that Betty Cook won the Cowes-Torquay Race in her 1973 Cigarette, so Toll and his father, Ian, a former racer, thought it was the ideal vessel to commemorate her historic win. They took a boat that was in poor condition and recreated it with 540ci Chevy injection engines, new bulkhead, windshield and created new engine hatches and air scoops to replicate what her throttleman, John Connor, had built for the boat. Connor was there to share in the camaraderie as the boat shown in the sun, bringing back memories and commemorating not just Cook’s Cowes-Torquay victory, but the accomplishment of the renovation of the “new” KAAMA.
Above: Trophy awards at the Cowes Torquay 2022 Race. Photo by Marilyn DeMartini for YachtWorld.
The winner, for the fourth year in a row (the race was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic), was a later model 2008 U.S.-built Outerlimits, which first competed in Europe and in Cowes with the company’s owner, Mike Fiore alternating with Joe Sgro as driver and English/American racer Nigel Hook at throttles. The boat was since purchased by an Italian competitor and then by British racer Drew Langdon, who with Miles Jennings, runs it under the name of Silverline. Another American-built hull a 2002, 39’ Dragon, created by Craig Barrie (formerly of Cigarette, Donzi, Statement and now again with Donzi), also raced, and is owned by an Englishman Rob Lockyer, who also has a home in South Florida. Barrie relayed that the boat originally raced in Powerboat P1 under the name ARPRO by Mike Shelton and Jackie Hunt and won so many races that it was deemed illegal as it was so fast and so light. The boat proved its historic performance as its sleek hull flew across the water, coming in second in Class 1.
1978 Formula Fastech
In the safety crew fleet we spied a Miami-built vintage Pantera and had the pleasure of sharing the race experience on another safety boat with Ian Stone, his wife Jacqui and their son, Anthony in the family’s 1978 Formula Fastech. Stone’s job was to shoo the sailboats off the racecourse. We were delighted to assist in the effort as in American fashion, we were wont to yell over the engine noise to the sail boaters to get them off the course, while Ian, as a proper English gentleman, politely asked them to please move! It was also delightful to see a family totally enjoying their boat as they stayed onboard while on holiday before the race, cruising through the English summer.
The boat had been rescued from a barn, as have many classic boats, and the Stone family invested in a large number of improvements including a great deal of elbow grease on the buff and wax of the gelcoat and cleverly wrapping metal parts. The Miami Vice look of pink, white and turquoise worked on this boat—especially because it was in such perfect condition and ran so well. I was overjoyed to get a chance to run it and hear and feel the power of the three 275 HP diesel inboard engines easily handling the chop.
What locals call “The Solent,” the strait between the Isle of Wight and the mainland of Great Britain, is the straightaway of the beginning of the race and where we met a strong chop and increasing wind throughout the afternoon. We had an excellent viewing position and got to see each boat blow by us, while they headed on to the turn around the Isle of Wight.
Damaged Boat Partially Sinks
An unfortunate part of our role as a safety boat had us pull alongside a distressed classic wooden Cougar catamaran whose owner, Robin Ward had put great effort into restoration of a damaged and museum-housed hull, to get it into the race. An American, Jeff Hall, had come to throttle, accompanied by a savvy English woman racer and navigator, Rose Lores, and we came up to the crew as they were scrambling for the highest part of the rapidly sinking boat. The transom had apparently broken off for some unknown reason and the boat was descending in short order. Another safety boat got the team onboard as others kept lines tied to the hull to keep it from completely sinking, but watching the boat slowly creep lower and lower into the choppy sea was heart-breaking. The team and the boat were eventually rescued, and while the crew members were all fine, the boat will have a long and expensive recovery.
As we sat out on the water waiting for the boats to return to the start/finish line, we savored the breeze, warm sun and the ironic view of all the sailboats calmly surrounding the hot course. The Silverline Outerlimits blew by, noting the first finish of the Class 1 boats and we learned that at least two of the boats were retiring from the course. Then we heard a blast of a boat flying by us and realized it was the H-400 (Historic class) 31 Bertram, Thunderstreak. The speed and sound were so impressive and we cheered for the team, disappointed that we didn’t have time to get a video of the boat in flight.
Additional good news/bad news came from Team Kudu as we were anxiously awaiting news about the KAAMA replica Cigarette. The boat finally finished the race but had to stop for fuel in Torquay as water in the gas ruined all hopes of a record-setting run. Finishing was the ultimate goal and all were happy to toast the completion of the run, as racing is seldom without memory-making incidents and stories. The crew of owner/renovator, Christian Toll, throttleman James Shepherd (who years ago was a Fountain Powerboat team member and staunch opponent of the American Outerlimits team), navigator James McCrae, Christian’s cousin, significant helper to the restoration and Betty Cook’s nephew, American Shawn Christensen, were happy to reach the dock after their eventful run and were met with bottles of champagne by Christian’s father, Ian Toll and a host of fans.
Betty Cook’s Navigator
Also at the dock was Betty Cook’s navigator from her Cowes-Torquay win in ‘78, Mike Mantle. This charming English racer who in his 80’s is still spry and filled with great stories, lives on the Isle of Wight, and had the good fortune to meet Betty when she came to England. His local knowledge of the waters helped the team get around the fog-locked racecourse and Mantle enjoyed the reunion with John Connor as the duo recalled many memories of that fateful race and the historic win. The celebration at the dock outweighed the fuel problem and while the investment in the legacy of Betty Cook was immense, the culmination of her 1978 win at the 2022 Cowes race was gratifying to all involved.
Back at the first awards ceremony where the racers were honored on the podium, we were pleased to cheer for the winning Cowes-Torquay-Cowes American boats and their English owners, including in Class 1, Outerlimits Silverline in first, Team 25 Dragon in second and Cigarette Dry Martini in third. The Silverline, generally a 120-mph boat ran only 67 mph average during the race, due to water conditions, but they finished in 3 hours, 7 minutes—a long day racing by any measure. In the Class 3 group that ran a shorter course of 65.42 nautical miles from Cowes-Poole-Cowes, we were pleased to see the first placed Phantom, Top Banana, reminiscent of American Charlie McCarthy’s Banana Boat racing days, followed by Renegade 2, a Cougar V-bottom and proudly in third, the 1963 Bertram 31, H400.
Bertram owner/driver Hugo Peel was all smiles after the race, relishing that after years of complete renovation of his historic boat, it was again able to compete and make the podium, following his class wins in the last two years. He credited his crew who helped make it happen—a gripping story of fortitude and dedication to a boat that in his teen-age years catapulted him into what he calls, “Love at first sound.” When as a young teen, on his father’s boat, he heard the roar of Tommy Sopwith’s boat engine tear through the race, he never dreamed the boat would someday be his. In 2022, at a ripe age where wisdom and maturity gladly gave way to passion and speed, Peel was back on the podium, grinning ear-to-ear, spraying his teammates and crowd with champagne.
The Brits do “Pomp & Circumstance” to the max—and in Cowes, that is Sir Max Aitken. The family still resides there and his daughter, Laura Aitken, who had raced boats with her recently deceased mother, Lady Violet, now welcomes racers and guests to their home for race parties and events. There are many trophies awarded and the big awards party later in the evening was led by a marching band—not a high school band, but a full regalia professional marching band that set the stage for the formal awards.
While the winners were again recognized, other awards were presented including the Sonny Levi Trophy, named for the renowned race boat designer, which was given to Frances Whitley. The 80-year-old racer has finished every Cowes-Torquay race since 2008, including 2022 in his Shakespeare boat, Fugitive, awarded the First Diesel-powered Boat to Finish. Whitley was one-upped by Alan Goodwin (85), who won the Oldest Competitor to Finish, in a vintage Velocity Boat, Mr. Noisy. Hugo Peel won the First Historic Boat to Finish in the Cowes-Poole-Cowes race while Dry Martini claimed that award for the Cowes-Torquay-Race. The Miles Jennings Trophy for Outstanding Performance went to the Dragon Team 25 of Rob Lockyer and Scott Younger.
Of special note was the Ladies Trophy for the First Lady Competitor to finish, going to Jennifer Marsh in the 1974 Don Shead designed 40‘ Planatec Boat, Uno Embassy; she also won the Youngest Competitor to finish.
Above: Marilyn DeMartini sitting on a powerboat at the 2022 Cowes Torquay Race. Photo via Marilyn DeMartini for YachtWorld.
I was especially pleased to see colleagues and women racers, Sarah Donohue and Shelley Jory-Leigh. Donohue is now a media specialist, Sky Sports commentator, fitness expert and ocean conservationist and she hustled around the race site, ensuring all racers and media were in their proper places at the right times. She also provided many of the race action shots included here, thanks to the British Powerboat Racing Club’s photography team. Jory-Leigh is a powerboat racing champion, having also taken second in the 2016 Cowes-Torquay Race, making her the highest-ranking British woman finisher, with only Betty Cook besting her record. As the MC for the awards ceremony, she did a fabulous job, and graciously presented me with a beautiful commemorative Cowes Torquay Powerboat Festival 2022 coin. We hope to see her this fall as she plans to attend the U.S. World Championship Race World Offshore event in Key West.
Gin seems to be even more popular among the boat racing crowd than English ales and Mermaid Gin, a brand made in Cowes was heavily promoted—and served—during the race festivities. It seemed a “proper” toast to end the event and we all left the ceremony filled with joy and admiration for the passion of all the racers and the support staff. It was indeed history added to the legacy of all who came before us. Visit Cowes Torquay Race for more.
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