This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the August 1988 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
The humid travail of the Marathon Derby and triathlons, the boisterous jousting of fitted dinghies, the frenzied partying of Cup Match and the roaring crescendo of powerboats.
From May through November, Ferry Reach near St. George’s comes alive every two weeks with an ear-splitting roar of Evinrudes, Johnsons and Mercury’s as drivers test nerves and machines to the limit either in water-skimming circuits down to Grotto Bay or joint-jarring offshore rides out through the Pylons.
The season reaches a peak with the Round the Island Race, one of the island’s classic sporting challenges. For 28 years now, the annual battle between man, boat and nature has thrilled drivers and fans alike.
On August 7 this year, fans will again line Ferry Reach, perch along rocky North Shore and high on the South Shore cliffs, their ears glued to the radio commentary as first the small classes come buzzing through the Pylons, followed by the deep throb of the big catamarans and deep vee hulls.
Although the present race has been held annually since 1960, its origins and those of the sport in general, go back to 1951 when Charlie Berry, Harry Cox, Eldon Trimingham and others formed the Outboard Ocean Racing Committee and staged the first Round the Island Race from Albouys Point. The race was limited to 40 h.p. engines and standard hulls and took drivers on a longer course that today’s route. Drivers rounded buoys in St. George’s Harbour, Ferry Reach and Harrington Sound, and also took a five-mile detour out round the mast of sunken freighter Wynchwood, off St. David’s Light.
Often they never got that far. Charlie Berry remembers: “The first time, I went round in a 10-foot homemade hydroplane which was fine until it went offshore. The first wave it hit, there was a big bang and the floorboards fell out!”
It wasn’t until 1960 that the sport became organized with the formation of the Bermuda Power Boat Association.
Remembers first commodore Dick Christenson, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale: “There just seemed to be a need for more racing and so we started up the BPBA and opened it up to anybody who was interested in racing.”
At the time, the Association was one of Bermuda’s first fully integrated sports organizations, attracting both working class and businessmen alike. But not everyone liked it. Christenson recalls: “Bermuda was sailing and they didn’t want noisy outboards running around. That wasn’t Bermuda at all. The boys at the Yacht Club didn’t like that!”
The first popular racing boats of the 1960s were the hydroplanes, wedge-shaped craft of 12 feet or more built from plywood kits with 20 or 30 h.p. engine. They were single-seaters and built for speed. “You just knelt in there, grabbed the throttle in one hand, the wheel in the other and went like hell,” remembers Christenson, whose first ‘hydro’ was The Wedge, a 13-footer that could clock 25mph. “years later my knees still hurt from racing in them! You were only 12 inches off the water so if you were doing 50mph it felt like 150 – things were flying past. It was a horrendous experience!”
There was none of the comforts of padded seats on the early boats, either. “We took some slams in those days,” says Christenson. “You used a jar of Vaseline on the inside of your legs and up your back. It wasn’t very comfortable – but a lot of fun.”
Some of Bermuda’s best drivers developed their skills from those humble beginnings. Carl Soares, who went on to win two Round the Island titles and numerous marathon races in the 1970s, remembers building his first hydro at 14 and setting a then national speed record for 6 h.p. engine of 21mph.
From there, like many others, he got into Madcaps, a flat-bottomed plywood kit boat that could reach 75mph with a 50 h.p. Mercury engine, and a co-piloted a 15-footer called Ring of Fire with another future Round the Island champion, Chuck Renaud.
“I remember us having a horrendous accident in that thing,” recalls Soares. “Where they plywood joined together, the seams just parted and opened up and the total bottom of the boat peeled off one time, like a door opening. We came to an abrupt stop! We had a few splinters and glass cuts, but apart from that, nothing serious.”
Neither did it blunt their enthusiasm, which had been fired as youngsters out in Spanish Point at Llewellyn Hollis’s machine shop. “It was next to my home and was one of the cliques of powerboating racing at that time,” says Soares. “They were constantly building boats and tuning engines, so it was pretty difficult not to get involved.” Renaud got so involved it became his business and he now runs Renaud’s Marines Services in Mills Creek, Pembroke.
Soares, whose reputation for careful and methodical pre-race preparation is now borne in this carpet cleaning company’s slogan “Those fussy byes from Town and Country” feels the discipline of good mechanics is something more of today’s wayward youngsters could use.
“For me, at least, powerboat racing was a positive influence,” he says. “I had no time for drugs. It was a total time commitment if you wanted to do well. There was no time to chase college girls during spring break. Losing is as important as winning as far as making a person humbler and learning to be a good sportsman.
“Ninety-nine per cent of winning was long before you entered the race track. You burned that midnight oil. Having to put that much effort into something for any young person should be a good thing for a community like Bermuda.”
The sport became more technical in the late 1960s when drivers like the late Ken Dear, Ed Hamilton and Larry Robinson began to bring in the first fiberglass V-bottom hulls from the US and Europe, such as the popular Bristols, that were faster and safer than the old wooden boats, especially in rough water, although people like William Moran, Renaud’s father-in-law, Ed Welch and others continued to successfully custom build their own boats from plywood and fiberglass.
“They lasted until they fell apart,” says Renaud, who has built several successful boats himself, such as 1979 Round the Island winner Shalonga and his current Renaud Marine Special modified II class. “They lasted a season or so and would be outdated. Someone else would come out with a factory boat and you’d have to come up with something different just to stay in the running.” After the Bristols, tunnel hulls or catamarans became popular and drivers began to bring in full-blown racing engines direct from factories.
The mid-1970s to early 80s were the heyday of powerboating in Bermuda. A generation had grown up with the sport, their knowledge and techniques im
proving with each new development in the sport. It became an enormously popular spectator sport – even the Governor was often on hand to start races – attracting huge crowds for the annual Round the Island Race and sizeable sponsorship, both for boats and events like the Lobster Pot Marathon, the J and B Rare Classic and the Marlboro400. Top drivers like Ken Dear could command up to $15,000-worth of sponsorship and professional drivers from the US and Europe like Buck Thornton or Roger Jenkins would fly in to partner him or Ed Hamilton and others in the big-money marathons, which boasted prize money of $3,000 or more.
Although the spectator interest remains, much of the ‘pizzazz’ has gone out of the sport. Big sponsorships, perhaps affected by the deaths of Dear in 1981 and novice Geoff Smith two years earlier, and the increasing cost of the sport, have fallen off so has the competition.
For today’s top drivers like the popular Derek Simons, who reportedly spent $100,000 on his exciting twin-engine black 24-foot Skater in 1986, there is simply no competition in his class. Sponsored by an American marine company, Simons now races on the U.S. professional circuit – the first Bermudian to do so on a regular basis – and scored three impressive top three places in his first races this year in the Stock A class (up to 200 h.p.)
It is not a sport for the faint of wallet. A fuel injected engine can cost around $14,000 today, a decent hull $20,000 and perhaps $100 of gas each race.
“Now it’s about who has the big bucks,” laments Dick Christenson. “In the States I see 35-foot hydroplanes pass through on trailers, sponsored by big corporations, and there’s a 40-foot trailer behind that with all the equipment. If we had two propellers in those days we thought we were lucky!”
In the past, say older drivers, there was a genuine camaraderie about the sport, something of a pioneering spirit. The sport was new and everyone was still learning about it together.
“As far as I’m concerned, that the way it should be,” says Renaud. “You should start in smaller classes and work your way up, not just jump into big classes like some people do now. Before, if you had a problem, people would help out and led you parts. They don’t do that today. It’s like a business now and everyone wants to win.”
Lawrence Trott, better known to racing fans as Tonky, remembers one night before a big race ringing up Ken dear about an engine problem. Dear told him to bring the engine over to his workshop where he and the professional mechanics he had brought in from overseas for the race spent half the night sorting out the problem. “He didn’t have to do that,” said Tonky. “He had enough problems of his own but that didn’t matter. He’d rather see you get out there and race. That wouldn’t happen today.”
Dear’s tragic death in 1981 was a body blow to the sport, which lost a popular and courageous driver.
Dear died on August 23, 1981 when his black catamaran, the Pepsi-Cola Special, flipped during a 100mph practice run on Ferry Reach. Dar was thrown clear of the boat but landed head first in the water, snapping his spinal cord. “Hitting the water at 100mph,” Dear had ironically once warned, “is like hitting concrete at the same speed.”
“Ken was well aware of what he was getting into,” says Carl Soares. “His ultimate in life was to get his machinery to go as fast as possible.”
Perhaps Dear had a premonition of his own tragic end. He told people powerboat racing was why he had never had children and once told Chuck Renaud: “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die in my own boat.”
Thankfully, there have been no further fatalities – although there have been many near misses in a sport where drivers continually tread a fine line between daring and disaster.
“The only time I got really scared was when I did a loop-the-loop,” says Chuck Renaud, who spent a month-and-a-half in hospital as a result, nursing a punctured lung, a ruptured spleen and few broken ribs.
“We were out testing a new boat on Ferry Reach in the early 1970s and it was pretty choppy. I just came up the back straight and lost it. The speedometer was stuck on 110mph and the tachometer on 10,000. I thought I was dead.”
But he still races. When you’re in the boat you don’t even think about it,” he says. “You known your limits and you set your limits. If someone beats you, then you have to decide what you’re going to do, whether you’re going to trim in your engines some more or not.”
However, he says he wont get in a catamaran again “unless it’s over 32-feet and it has a 8-900 h.p. like they have in Florida. It’s either in your blood or it’s not. You get to a certain speed in those things and if you’re not trimmed properly you’ll go over. Those guys have to know what they’re doing.”
Carl Soares remembers a frightening moment in a catamaran as he sped down Ferry Reach during a time trial at 105mph. “It was a half-mile circuit and I was travelling at 150 feet per second at 100mph. I was trying to judge how long I could leave my food down before the decelerating to make the turn. The power of the engine is what keeps the boat in the water and when you decelerate took quick, you become airborne and usually do a 360-degree revolution in the air. It’s a sensation you don’t forget – it gets very quiet as you lift out of the water and everything seems to slow motion.”
Soares miraculously emerged unscathed although the three-week old boat with which he had just won the Heineken Marathon was a total wreck.
Not all failures are as painful however, says Renaud: “In 1971, I had Kurt Todd with me in the Pepsi boat in a closed circuit race. We were three laps in front and three minutes ahead and then the motor blew. That kind of hurt a bit. We were turning in some good times – 125mph on the long straight down to Grotto Bay and back – but we ended up without enough power to cross the line! We’d spent three months beforehand working on the boat but that’s the name of the game.”
Tonky Trott won the Round the Island Race in 1972 but three times broke down in the lead at Castle Roads coming back down South Shore.
“That’s all in the game,” he shrugs.
But like all drivers, Trott remembers plenty of good times too, which is why he built his “boat room” next to his home in Loyal Hill, Devonshire after he retired from racing in 1982. Footballers may hang up their boots, but Trott literally hung up his boat – on the wall among fading photographs and dusty trophies.
The dark green-hulled single seater, which still bears his old race number
28, once belonged to the North Shore Donzi Club – three Donzi class wood and fiberglass boats built by Ed Welch and owned by Larry Robinson, Trott and Craig Armstrong which one year finished 1-2-3 in that order in the Round the Island Race, Robinson running a 150mph engine while Trott and Armstrong sported 80s.
“Offshore was always my favourite racing because he’s used to run so well in a chop,” says Trott of his old Donzi. “There ain’t no action when it’s calm! She used to get on top of the water, just lie there and just go. She could run down those big 200 h.p. in Round the Island and go straight as an arrow. You could let go of the wheel and she’d go straight where you put her.”
Trott has been around boats all his life, racing powerboats since 1963 but originally starting in sailboats with homemade four bag sails. “But I loved outboards,” he said. “I just used to love to race, race, race. Some people still ask me to go down there and bring things alive again. I might too, you know – she’s still a good boat.”
Carl Soards was one who did successfully come out of retirement. Back in 1975, after 10 years of trying to win the Round the Island Race, he became the first A class driver to win, chopping some 20 minutes off the previous race record in his Johnson Stinger 75-powered Cormorant, to clock an hour and 9-1/2 minutes on the old route that included going through Flatts. He had spent nine years out of the sport but when he returned in 1987 to partner brother-in-law Michael Easey to victory in B Class and proving that a small engine on a big boat- a 145 h.p. Evinrude on a 21-foot Ringcraft – could do the job. He set a class record of 55:50 in the process and comments now: “I expected it to be more competitive. It made me think I should stay in retirement.”
Last year’s race was the fastest ever as three boats beat Craig Selley’s 1982 course record 45:27 and four class records were set. The course record now stands at 37:43, set by Kevin Steven’s Class E boat, the big 300 h.p. twin-engine Skater 234, although with the staggered class start times, it was not enough to beat 1987 winner Lee White across the line.
And after 28 years, the lure of the race is as strong as ever. Explains Chuck Renaud, who has maybe missed four or five in that time, “It’s man against nature, I guess. Everyone wants to be first around the Island and wants to have the equipment to do it. It’s a challenge. It can be bumpy as hell out there and you’re sore for probably three or four days afterwards – sometimes you cant get out of bed the next day – but it’s worth it.
“With it being held later this year, it might be calmer which will be better for the catamarans. But I want to see it rough – with five foot waves!”