#venturecup – Having promised so much in the months leading up to June, the Venture Cup Prologue powerboat race had a lot to live up to. It was billed as not only the World's longest powerboat race, but also the toughest and most prestigious. After a difficult birth it was time to leave the talking and the hype at the dock and see how the raceteams could do battle with the seas, and one another.
The build-up began right in the heart of London's ultra-modern financial district, Canary Wharf. The sight of fiercesome ocean-class powerboats designed for the toughest of nature's elements, positioned among the ultra-cosseted power-towers marked the first of what was to become a week of contrasts. If there was any doubt concerning the level of power on display it was blown away in a cacophony of horse-power on the eve of the race when the boats finally all took to the water and engaged in a brief but exquisite maritime roar which was heard as far away as Oxford Street. Adrenaline now flowing, we were hours away from the early Saturday morning start. Just two matters to take care of first – the full race briefing and the presentation of the first ever Venture Cup award. This one was for the 'Zenith Watches Best Presented Boat' and it went to the dreamingly beautiful new American Chief 'Warpath' designed by offshore legend Bob Saccenti.
The early low-tide meant that getting out of the lock at Wood Wharf necessitated an 0600 start, which allowed the teams to enjoy some breakfast hospitality at the wonderfully quirky Greenwich Yacht Club, before making the long parade-run from Tower Bridge down to the rejuvenated setting of Southend-on-Sea for the full speed 'Hot Start'. Nine raceboats are in the starting line, after Team Microlink make a late withdrawal, and Team Boss just miss out on scrutineering despite a massive body of work to get their magnificent new boat completed. Safety officer, Richard Salaman, had been engaging with weather stations throughout the route all morning and things aren't looking good – difficult storm conditions for the first few hours were increasing to impossible conditions down in the Channel Islands, the fleets intended finish for Leg 1. Senior official, Rob Andrews (the Officer of the Day) communicates to the teams that the race would start as planned and a final decision would be made prior to the fleet reaching the key waypoint of the Needles on the south-western corner of the Isle of Wight.
The dance of race-muster begins. Yellow flag appears through the waves and spray from the start-boat. In formation the racefleet jump and smash as they get ready to unleash the horses. Green flag up. Race is away, and the noise is deafening.
Immediately the big guns of established racers on the proven 'Cinzano', and the bewildering mix of American and Norwegian rookies on the totally new 'Warpath' charge to the front. Behind them the two Scorpion Ribs, Grey Ghost and Hot Lemon, are battling hard with the fancied Fabio Buzzi 'Birretta Due' rib. Hot on the charge behind these are Francis Whitley with drafted-in navigator Eric Smilie on board 'Fugitive', John 'Cookee' Cooke and Tom Montgomery Swan on 'E-Lites BananaShark', the irrepressible Gordon Compton on 'My Pleasure II', and the amazing legend of 'HTS Perkins' – a boat that had won the ultimate London to Monte-Carlo race in 1972, won some world championships, was retired to a museum, and was then entirely re-built and made race-ready once more by Nick Wilkinson and his remarkable team.
By Ramsgate the entire fleet was getting truly hammered. Standing waves of over four metres stood between each boat and progress. Smashing through meant tons of water crashing across decks, into bilges and drysuits. Toughest powerboat race in the World? By the end of the day the telemetry on Cinzano would show over 1,000 impacts in excess of 10G. So much for rich boys paying with their toys. This was a battle, and the luxury of Canary Wharf was literally an ocean, and a weather-front, away. In such conditions it was only natural that there'd be casualties and the first was E-Lites BananaShark who took a triple-stuff off Ramsgate, flooding their engine bay and putting them out of the event. A cruel result for a hugely professional and well-prepared team. Next in nature's sights was Eric on 'Fugitive' who took a forehead-opening crack off the windscreen. We won't embarrass Fugitive's skipper Francis Whitley by giving his age, other than to say that if he was prepared to continue, there was no way Eric's bleeding head was going to slow them up. Francis has earned the respect of all powerboaters down through the years and this was yet another day for him to shine.
At the front Warpath were slowly getting to grips with the conditions. Having shadowed Cinzano for the early stages, possibly for navigational reasons, they now decided to open the taps and showed Cinzano a clean wake as they powered ahead – right into the Dover exclusion zone and an automatic disqualification from that leg. Their problems continued when they sought to refuel at Brighton without much success.
With Cinzano leading the fleet towards the Isle of Wight the news broke that conditions in Guernsey had worsened so the leg was curtailed by Bob Eddings at the Needles Fairway. Crossing the Channel would wait until day two. Tonight the fleet would recover in Poole.
Sunday morning saw improved conditions and the fleet revelled in the calmer seas as they pointed their bows towards the Channel Islands. The rivalry of Day 1 continued as Cinzano and Warpath ran side by side for the entire leg, with Warpath crossing the finish line only four seconds in the lead – an astonishing finish after so many open water miles. First into the welcoming shores of Guernsey today also meant capturing the prestigious Guernsey Gold Cup which was presented in style that evening, at a Vin D'Honneur hosted by the States of Guernsey at Castle Cornet, to Warpath. The evening concluded to the wonderful sounds of boats from the Guernsey Powerboat Association tearing up their local waters with championship racing in front of a large audience.
Day 3 and a race to Jersey beckoned. Along the way the fleet would have to face the fearsome Guillot Passage a number of times. This is a notorious channel running between Sark and a rocky outcrop. Less than one hundred feet wide, and bordered by sheer rock-face, this is the home of legends and well-placed fear for powerboat racers down through the ages.
Once the fleet had successfully held their nerve through the jaws of Guillot, they turned for Jersey in what was to prove the fastest day of racing. GPS tracks showed that the leaders pushed through 100mph – spectacular speeds for these monsters that are primarily designed to push through the harshest ocean conditions.
Into the circuit at Saint Helier in Jersey and the cat-and-mouse between Cinzano and Warpath continues. The addition of these large end-of-stage circuits brings an added element of spectacle since pretty soon the leaders are joined by the other boats, giving spectators a fantastic vista of the full Venture Cup fleet racing hard at the one time.
Coming down the final back straight the two leaders are side by side and inches apart at more than 90mph. Warpath edges in front at the final mark, but go just wide enough to allow Cinzano sneak in and take the flag. Just two seconds separate first and second. This is unheard of for this class of racing.
Grey Ghost take third, followed closely by Hot Lemon. Birretta Due experience mechanical problems but are still good for fifth. My Pleasure II follow in sixth, and HTS Perkins suffer a catastrophic fuel-line failure at the finish-line. Their day is over and they'll be returning to Guernsey that afternoon under tow. Fugitive sat out today's racing.
After a few short hours of banter, refreshment and interviews the wonderful hosts of Jersey say goodbye to the Venture Cup fleet as the noise levels are pushed up again for the race restart. Having just been pipped to the post in the morning, this time Warpath are taking no chances and charge to an early lead – one they'll hold right to the finish-line in Guernsey which they storm across at over 90mph.
Day four – the final leg. Tired, battered and bruised bodies assemble for the early-morning briefing in Guernsey. Despite poor weather a full course is being run. A cheer from race supporters, subdued moans from the crews. Online the fans that had tracked the race throughout the previous days settle down once more in the hope of another epic day of racing. The storms of day one smashing boats and bodies. The disappearance of Cinzano from the tracker system plunging the race into an international web-based guessing game. The high-speed thrills and close-quarter action from Day 3. Throughout it all we had the engrossing Cinzano/Warpath battles, the Grey Ghost/Hot Lemon battle of the Scorpions, the desire of Birretta Due to unlock the awesome power of their Buzzi rib. My Pleasure II and Fugitive pushing through everything in their path, and the romance of HTS Perkins capturing the hearts of everyone that hears her story.
All are on the start line today and nobody knows what the constantly changing conditions will bring. Everything, as it turns out. Flat water, foul water, rain, sunshine, high seas, high drama all come together for the closing, nail-biting finale.
Over the following hours, the drama continues to rise as technical gremlins start to creep into some of the boats. Cinzano suffers problems with their on-board navigation and are caught by Grey Ghost, Birretta Due's engine problems appear again and they're forced to slow, and HTS Perkins seem to be having continuing problems with their fuel-line. In the run to the finish-line Warpath have a clear lead, but word starts spreading that a key navigation mark may have been missed. It won't put them out of today's racing but it would mean a time-penalty if true. They take the chequered flag at Bournemouth Pier and are first to kiss the pontoon at Poole Quay. Cinzano get their systems back up and come home second, followed by Grey Ghost, Hot Lemon, Birretta Due, Fugitive, My Pleasure II and HTS Perkins.
Post-race investigations show that Warpath did indeed miss the mark but it hardly matters any more. Cinzano were always most likely to win after Warpath were disqualified from leg one. It's now time to peel off the race-suits for the last time and get ready to party.
The longest – yes. The toughest – without a doubt. The most prestigious – certainly. This was only intended to be a shakedown race, an opportunity to test systems in advance of the big Venture Cup race from London to Monte-Carlo in 2014. This year's race was only a quarter of the distance of next years. In the end it provided some of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding racing in memory. As the music played loud into the night of the final prize-giving party in Poole the celebrations among the raceteams were hard-earned and justified. Ahead of them lies months of more training, preparation, and sacrifice. Behind them lies the immediate memories of being part of a truly epic adventure.
2. Grey Ghost
3. Hot Lemon
4. Birretta Due
5. My Pleasure II
8. HTS Perkins
9. E-Lites BananaShark
2. Birretta Due
1. Grey Ghost
2. Hot Lemon V
1. My Pleasure II
2. Team E-Lites
CLASS G Motor Cruiser
1. HTS Perkins
Withdrawal – Team Microlink
Failed Scrutineering – Team Boss