Powerboat racing returns to south coast as speedsters compete for famous Beaverbrook trophy

 Powerboat racing returns to south coast as speedsters compete for famous Beaverbrook trophy

Sunday is probably not a good day for anyone holidaying on the 120 mile stretch of south coast between the Isle of Wight and the English Riviera to drift off-shore on a blow-up unicorn.

Otherwise you could find yourself, unwittingly, taking part in the 60th running of the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes powerboat race for the Beaverbrook trophy – best case scenario as a mascot pinned to the bow. The on-land equivalent would be picnicking under Becher’s Brook on Grand National day.

Some 40 boats will line up opposite the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes for a 10am start and the lead boats, which will be pushing 100 mph on a flat sea, should back in time for a pre-lunch pink gin at 12.30.

The ante-post favourite for powerboat racing’s equivalent of the Aintree spectacular is the hat trick-seeking Drew Langdon, who won the race in 2018 and again in 2019 when his boat ‘Silverline’ averaged 92 mph.

That is in stark contrast to the 24 mph average speed of the first winner, Tommy Sopwith, back in 1961 when the race was run only one way because it took so long.

Comparisons with horse racing are not unrealistic apart from the fact that, in power boat racing, the owners tend to ride their own horses. You can be competitive with a second-hand boat costing £70,000 – the price of a semi well-bred yearling thoroughbred with no guarantee it can gallop.

But to give Drew Langdon a run for his money you might have to splash out $750,000 on a customised Outer Limits SV43 from America – like horses you can spend what you like on them.

Earlier this week, I turned up at a Southampton boat yard to go for an excursion and get a feel for the race knowing that it would be more a place for the wind in my hair than for a Breton fisherman’s cap. Indeed, at one stage, I thought my glasses would blow off.  

Andy Wilby, the Asia Powerboat champion, once a Sunseeker ‘works’ driver in the Powerboat P1 World Championships and holder of the round-the-island (Wight) record holder – down to, he insisted, the most reliable rather than fastest boat – was at the helm.

Cowes-Torquay race secretary and former powerboat driver Sarah Donohue was assisting. Well, talking mainly.

Wilby’s vessel is his former racing rib Cardinal Sin, so called because when his father and Andy bought her, they told his mother they were looking after it for someone else. “Why,” she reasoned having recognised the white lie after a number of lonely weekends, “do you spend every Saturday and Sunday working on it if it’s not yours?”

She has an Ocke Mannerfeld hull – a revolutionary design in the 1990s – but is now refitted as a leisure vessel, albeit one which could get to Jersey in two hours and to France in an hour. She purrs along very nicely at 45 mph which seems twice as fast as a car clocking a similar speed.

“Powerboat racing is like driving a Ferrari over a ploughed field” says Wilby, although, on Thursday, it was so calm it was like riding in one on a newly tarmacked road.

I do, however, have a newfound respect for powerboat drivers. When Max Verstappen crashed into a tyre wall on lap one at Silverstone this summer, he did so at 51 G-forces. When a powerboat slaps the water every three or four waves the vertical impact is estimated at 20 G-forces. Do that for two and a half hours and it takes a huge physical toll on the body.

Most regular drivers who push it have also had major prangs at some time. Wilby sunk a sun-seeker off Marseille, tried clinging on to the steering wheel and had his suit ripped off, but suffered only bruising. The boat was recovered two days later and was racing again four weeks later.

Donohue did a more comprehensive job. She barrel-rolled a powerboat for an Italian team off Venice. She stopped breathing for four minutes, was resuscitated twice, on the deck of her boat and in an air ambulance, spent a week in a coma with numerous fractures and now has titanium plates in her jaw. And there was me thinking jockeys were mad. 

The story of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, ‘the fastest woman on water’

The doyenne of power boating in the Twenties and Thirties was Betty “Joe” Carstairs, known as “the fastest woman on water”. Born in Mayfair, London, in 1900, to an American heiress who was an alcoholic and drug addict, one of her stepfathers – a Russian surgeon – famously injected monkey testicle tissue into male humans for the purpose of rejuvenation. 

Carstairs despised the name Betty – a nickname from the press, her real name was Marion – and she preferred to be known as Joe. In 1918 she married Count Jacques de Pret with the sole aim of accessing her trust fund. 

The marriage was never consummated, and was annulled when her mother died. After serving in France during the First World War with the American Red Cross, driving ambulances, Carstairs helped to rebury the war dead and also worked in Dublin with the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section (WLMTS). 

In 1920, with three former colleagues, she started a female-only garage and chauffeuring service called X-Garage using only women drivers to take guests from the Savoy Hotel and other illustrious settings to the theatre or dinner. When the business closed, she had her first powerboat built after inheriting a fortune from her mother’s side from Standard Oil (now Esso). 

The boat was named Gwen, after one of her lovers. Over the next five years Carstairs won several illustrious competitions including the Duke of York’s Trophy in 1926, the Royal Motor Yacht Club International Race, the Daily Telegraph Cup, the Bestise Cup and the Lucina Cup, but the one she really wanted – the Harmsworth Trophy that Levitt had famously claimed – remained out of reach. 

Despite her passion for boating, Carstairs did not spend all her money on herself. She funded Malcolm Campbell’s successful attempt at the land speed record in Bluebird in 1931 to the tune of £10,000. 

In 1934, complaining of high taxes in Britain, she bought Whale Cay, a 711 acre island in the Bahamas, built a house and ran it as her own fiefdom where, if anything, her eccentricities were accentuated rather than softened. 

Uninvited guests would be met on the beach by her carrying a gun or a cutlass, while some unsuspecting American tourists who rowed ashore one day were taken prisoner and locked up in the lighthouse for the night. “I don’t give a damn about the law,” she is reputed to have said. 

There was a constant parade of famous visitors to the island, including the Duke of Windsor, who visited several times with his wife Wallis Simpson. During the Second World War, Carstairs had a deep harbour built on the island for the US Navy and when a ship was torpedoed nearby she led a night-time rescue of 46 US sailors. 

Assuming it was a man who had been their saviour, it was only when they arrived in Nassau in daylight that they realised she was actually a woman. Openly lesbian, and often dressing in men’s clothes, with tattoos on her arms and a love of cigars, Carstairs had affairs with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including actresses Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

She also had a relationship with Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly, a fellow ambulance driver in the First World War. The main man in Carstairs’ life was a doll named Lord Tod Wadley; a gift from one of her lovers, she bought clothes for him from Savile Row. When she died, aged 93, in Florida, the doll was cremated along with her.

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