An indescribable funk of premium 93 octane fuel fused with expensive men’s aftershave gloriously filtered down the River Medina whilst helicopters buzzed above and the Royal Yacht Squadron hummed to a different beat as the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes teams thundered into our sleepy town. The aged red trousers and cravats were out-muscled by the heavily-logo’d Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani clad brigade of the Offshore Powerboat circuit that are more Formula 1 than classic day yacht and are such a welcome sight on the Cowes landscape.
Cowes buzzes when the power fraternity arrives with the racing steeped in tradition and definitely not for the feint hearted. All credit to the Squadron for parking its de facto modus operandi for a weekend, throwing open its doors and summoning in something oh so very different. It’s a hugely welcome sight.
I’ll come onto the racing in a moment but something really caught my eye and piqued an interest whilst doing some random research out of pure curiosity about the powerboats – namely the tale of John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan.
In Britain it’s a fairly shameful story of an aristocratic loser that was hell-bent on gambling away his family fortune with what was known as the ‘Clermont set’ (named after a Mayfair gambling joint) before mistakenly killing his children’s nanny in November 1974 when the intended victim was his wife.
The murder in Belgravia was an open and shut case but Bingham disappeared, never to be seen of again. Machiavellian rumours have swirled for decades of powerful aristo-associates spiriting him away to live in Africa or South America with sightings reported on every continent, but the truth is probably that he died in the English Channel pretty soon after the murder by either fair means or foul. The case has never been solved and no body ever recovered. It’s ancient history now. Everyone relevant has long since shuffled off their mortal coils.
But before Bingham’s life went south, and flush with inheritance in the early 1960’s, he was an avid powerboat enthusiast owning a string of vessels that were deemed racy for the day. Having taken up the sport after seeing his brother-in-law, Bill Shand-Kydd racing a Bertram-Griffiths design, Blue Moppie, in 1962, Lucan bought a 25ft Bruce Campbell ‘Christina’ design that featured twin Ford Dearborne Interceptor engines. At 800hp, this was a big deal in 1963 and that year’s Cowes – Torquay was hotly contested with the likes of Tom Sopwith in Thunderstreak, Keith Schellenberg in Blue Moppie, Sonny Levi in A’Spereanziella and Dennis Miller in Damian 3 all averaging over 40 knots from the Yacht Squadron start and out through the Solent.
Bingham was a dashing and decent co-pilot described as being ‘gung-ho’ whilst Bruce Campbell, the pilot, was considered one of the best. Quite what happened at the Needles whilst leading the race is anyone’s guess, these were days before camera-copters, but ‘White Migrant’ (some called it Wight Migrant – I can’t be sure) ended up pointing skywards on its way down to Davy’s Locker after pushing it too close to the edge in a seaway. Bingham and Campbell were rescued unharmed and ‘Lucky Lucan’ (as he was known) slapped down the cash to go again in 1964.
‘Migrant’ was the next vessel, a Formula 233 from the design-board of Wynn Walters but had significant adaptions with a heightened roof in order to meet class regulations. It was a single-prop 390hp Daytona and powered Lucan and his co-pilot, the racing driver George Abercassis to 6th in the Cowes-Torquay. Whether Lucan was a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron is not something of public record – perhaps he’s still hiding in the wine cellar – but he certainly added an interesting footnote to the history of the Cowes-Torquay race that we know today.
This year, the event was 60 years young and befitting the milestone, it was a home-grown team from Devon that provided all the headlines as they secured a new race record by the slimmest of margins. Drew Langdon and Miles Jennings found almost pitch-perfect conditions as they guided their P1 master-blaster ‘Silverline’ to the record at an average speed of 94.7 miles per hour. Just think about that? The time to beat now for Cowes – Torquay – Cowes is just two hours and 25 minutes. Incredible performance and what’s even more incredible is that the average speed required to beat the record was just 0.15mph faster than the previous holder. Fine margins indeed.
And equally impressive was the tale of the tape in the smaller classes who race from Cowes to Poole and back again on a 93.7 mile course. Here you find tricked-up RIBs and exquisite cigar boats with cool advertising logos and it was a RIB that won with Adam Younger and Amy Rickards averaging an incredible 72.39mph to take the title. Average! Wow.
The powerboat scene is cool. It always was. It attracts all sorts from the landed gentry to the petrol-head enthusiasts and they’re a welcoming bunch. Stories are everywhere from the heart-break of a competitor’s mother passing away on the eve of the race to the demographics – the oldest competitor was 79, the youngest just 23. It’s all going on with the powerboats. Sidle up and start talking to any of the pilots or support teams and they willingly give you chapter and verse with enthusiasm…before long you’re knee-deep in carburettors and engine pitch angles before a cold beer from a cool-box finds its way to your hand and you’re walking away with a team-hat. I love it.
There’s a frisson of excitement around the yards in Cowes and the on-the-water cacophony is a sound that you just want to bottle. Terrifying at times, extreme un-Godly noises emanate, they aggravate the senses and challenge your bounds of acceptability but my goodness they are awesome to behold. And the carnival around the circus is fun, the girls are glamorous, the guys are cool, the petrol-heads all do fast cars, choppers and fast boats – live fast and tomorrow can wait.
What a scene to be a part of. Wonderful.