The Cowes-Torquay – 1971 to 1981

The Cowes-Torquay – Cigarettes, Tin Boats & Cats 1971 to 1981

The Cowes Torquay race since its inception in 1961 grew in stature and fame with each staging of the event, the previous decade saw entries from the USA , Italy, Scandinavia and as far as South Africa, usually it was 1 or 2 boats from each, with Britain providing the rest of the entries. From 1971 onwards the entry list, after the heady Sixties with its 60 plus fleets, stabilised to an average of 40 entrants till the mid decade when there was a dramatic plunge to an average 20/25 entries but they were all top notch craft! The reasons for this reversal were several. the first being the loss of the original sponsor who then returned in partnership with WD and HO Wills, the fuel crisis that dogged all motor sport, the influx of sponsored boats by major companies and the boats themselves, which were becoming the FI of the seas. Expensive to build, expensive to run and expensive to transport to World Championship venues which could be as far a field as South America!. The engines were now becoming highly tuned designs not for your every day cruiser, the hulls were either glass reinforced (with the new wonder fibre, Kevlar) or the new wonder material, Marine grade aluminium, light and strong producing some extremely fast craft, plus the transport rigs themselves costing upwards of £50,000. 1971 started the decade well, 2 American world championship contenders, Peter Hanks and Bill Wishnick, 1 boat from Italy 1 Danish and 1 from the Ivory Coast. New craft included Enfield Avenger for Tommy Sopwith and Edward Greenhall’s Gee both from the board of Don Shead, plus a sprinkling of ex American racers bought by English drivers, renamed and hoping to make their mark, also 4 catamarans appeared from the Cougar Yard. As if to reflect the 1961 race ten years earlier the ‘71 was weather wise horrendous, of the 41 starters only 10 boats finished. Enfield Avenger and Sopwith led the last 11 minutes of the race and what looked another victory in the bag was blown when a con rod let go. The victor was Ronnie Bonnelli in Lady Nara a 36ft Cigarette with none other than Attillo Petroni on board who raced with Sonny Levi in 61. They finished the race with Mr Bonnelli semi-comatose after being knocked out 40 miles from home in the rough conditions. The winners speed was 38mph way off previous years record speeds .The non finishers included top names Sopwith, Wishnick, Cassir in the ex Sopwith boat Miss Enfield 2 and even the veteran Spirit of Ecstacy. The new decade was shaping up like the first. so we thought.

1972 The “Embassy” years and the Italian onslaught began, 6 entries with their all conquering Don Aronow designed “Cigarettes” were headed by one Carlo Bonomi a Milan banker soon to become the most dominant racer of this and the next decade. Other entries included USA’s Bobby Rautbord with his Cigarette FINO plus entries again from Sweden and 1 from Argentina! Bonomi’s Cigarette Aeromarine1X sported the latest engines from who else but Aeromarine, making the world debut! rated at 1200hp the most powerful boat, the organisers called foul and deemed them illegal.
UNOWOT courtesy Graham Stevens.
UNOWOT courtesy Graham Stevens.
Bonomi protested, relented and detuned the engines! He was up against some stiff opposition Don Shead and Harry Hyams in UNOWOT, Tommy Sopwiths old Enfield Avenger, YELLOWDRAMA the ex Miss Enfield 2, Lady Nara was back for more punishment ,Balestrieri had Black Tornado 2 , one of Don Aronow’s ex The Cigarette boats of which there were 3) The weather was moderate to good, hence the winners speed 55mph and the winner was Bonomi even though he spent 20 minutes for repairs in Poole Bay, how? He did a Sopwith and took the inshore route beating Balestrieri by 5 minutes! Cigarette boats filled 6 of the top 7 places.

The Italians were back in 73, 4 of their top drivers including Bonomi again but no Americans! Was there a change in the air? Unowot appeared again with the same team but there were very few new British boats though many boats had changed hands and been renamed one of which was the veteran Miss Enfield 2 now driven by John Davy and called BLITZ. The most unusual entry was Tommy Sopwith in Miss Embassy a 40footer powered by Gnome Gas Turbine rated at 1000hp. The race was slightly longer but conditions allowed a cracking pace and a battle between the 2 countries best. 2 minutes split UNOWOT which won at 62mph from Georgio Mondadori’s Nicopao X. Third boat home 1hr and 35 minutes later! was HTS the Monte Carlo Marathon winner with half the leaders power, the other hot shots including Bonomi in his renamed Dry Martini failed, he stopped in sight of the finish with broken steering going round in circles against a 1 knot tide! And the fourth boat home was Telstar a real veteran but was disqualified for missing a mark. The winner of the Beaverbrook Trophy was Steve Macey in Spirit of Ecstacy after 12 years of persistence. In 1974 with the entry list at 31 craft and the split between the Open boats and the cruisers 50/50 and no Americans again! Britain looked to the Embassy team of Sopwith in Miss Embassy and Tim Powell/Ronnie Hoare in a new boat, a 40ft Planatec, UNO EMBASSY but the Martini boat of Bonomi was back for revenge!

Bobby Buchannan-Michaelson’s ABO a Shead Planatec 40 footer also looked promising but failed after 18 miles. UNO EMBASSY gave up the ghost at Anvil Point. Carlo Bonomi made no mistakes this year and romped home at 67mph, the only other Italian ERAF came to a halt of Hurst and was overtaken by the Cougar Cat of Keith Dallas finishing second with Sopwith and Miss Embassy coming good in third place.
UNO EMBASSY courtesy Graham Stevens.
UNO EMBASSY courtesy Graham Stevens.

1975 and Bonomi was back again as was Eraf and a new Levi boat ARCIDIAVLO 2 an unusual 3 pointer! Wally Franz from Brazil was hunting world championship points with PANGARE GRINGO and there were 3 Swedish entries also. The 31 (again) entries were still split 50/50 OP’s and Cruisers and the race length was reduced by 27 miles in view of the fuel situation. That did not stop the breakneck speeds put up by UNO EMBASSY (above) with the team using the old Ali boat as the new Planatec failed to reach expectations and PANGARE GRINGO. After leading for 70% of the distance Pangare suddenly stopped at Yarmouth with loss of power, Shead flew across the line to record a record 72.9 mph for the 199 mile course, Pangare got going and came in second at 72.8mph, work that one out…with Bonomi 3rd at 71.2mph. I Like it, the old HTS won C2. Of the new Levi design unfortunately she retired, a shame because someone was actually trying out a new idea but it seems Mono’s ruled the waves……..
In 1976 the entry list was still holding at 31 and the yanks were back, this time it was Tom Gentry in the spectacular AMERICAN EAGLE….3 Swedes, an Australian and ARCIDIAVOLO back for a second attempt after some design changes. British hopes rested on Uno Embassy (the Ali boat) again but were bolstered by new kid on the block Mike Doxford in a Cigarette, Limit Up and Ken Cassir in his Cigarette YELLOWDRAMA 2. The three main boats contesting for the lead were UNO, EAGLE and LIMIT with hot on their heels the ex Embassy Team boat the plastic UNO EMBASSY now renamed Thunderbird driven by Richard Benge who also ran Sopwiths old Telstar in previous years. Blitz the ex Sopwith, Cassir and Davy boat was now owned by Alf Bontoft but he lost control of her off Egypt point, bucking wildly, Blitz hit the beach and Mr Bontoft became the first fatality of the race in its 17 year history when he was ejected from the craft , striking his head on the hull in the process.

BLITZ courtesy Graham Stevens.
BLITZ courtesy Graham Stevens.
In the race Tom Gentry led UNO EMBASSY but the Shead boat blew a stern drive in Lyme Bay, Gentry eased back and in the poor visibility was passed by Charles Gill in I Like It Too and unknowingly won the race! Cassir in YELLOWDRAMA II was second, American Eagle finished third. Amazingly after being abandoned by the Embassy Team, the renamed Thunderbird, scooped 5th. Some 1977 even with a fine English summer the CTC was in freefall with a fleet of just 19 starters, The table toppers were the best from the USA, ITALY AND GB, the only other foreigner was Stephan Linde from Sweden. The talk of the day was the new boat from COUGAR …Ken Cassir’s James Beard designed YELLOWDRAMA III, painted in bright yellow and with 2 rebuilt 4 year old Aeromarine inboard outboards in each Sponson, the first English OP1 Catamaran!
YELLOWDRAMA III courtesy Graham Stevens.
YELLOWDRAMA III courtesy Graham Stevens.
ALITALIA DUE courtesy Graham Stevens.
Italy had the ALITALIA team of Guido Niccolai UNO and DUE the Shead designed Picchiotti built Aluminium Mono’s ,a development of the old Enfield designs. Mike Doxford had 2 Limit Up’s both Cigarettes one 36 one 40 and Joel Halpern brought BEEP BEEP from the States even though there were no world championship points. Don Shead was also back with the old faithful ,UNOWOT……The American made it to Yarmouth and retired. ALITALIA Uno spun backwards at 80mph off Brixham and retired , three hours later at speeds approaching 85 mph three boats thundered back up the Solent and leading the pack to the delight of the thousands of spectators was YELLOWDRAMA! She crossed the line at 3hrs.02mins 50secs, ALITALIA DUE swept in at 3hrs 3 minutes and the 36ft LIMIT UP at 3hrs 4 minutes. The records tumbled ,75mph the winners average, the first win by a Cat and the fastest race so far……History had been made and it was by a British built and designed boat , offshore racing had been shaken and stirred but was it a fluke?
BEEP BEEP courtesy Graham Stevens.
BEEP BEEP courtesy Graham Stevens.
Maybe the previous years win by a catamaran had stimulated it but in 1978 the Americans were back in force, 4 of their top drivers entered their state of the art Cigarette’s and Joel Halpern was back with his Cobra BEEP BEEP. Billy Martin brought BOUNTY HUNTER, Bill Elswick had THUNDER ( top hp too at 1300hp) and a certain Betty Cook had her Cigarette KAAMA, named after an African Gazelle. The ALITALIA team were back with different drivers and Guido Niccolai had DRY MARTINI 2 another Shead Picchiotti Ali boat. Ken Cassir was back with the Cat. The fleet was back up to 26 but the cruisers were down to 5 entries , they were not true cruisers but built to the rules!, OP1 and 2 dominated racing now. The course was back to 200 miles and one by one the big American names dropped out all due to the high speed and with mechanical problems save one, in her first attempt Betty Cook took on the CTC men and won.

Bingo the speed went higher still, 77.4 mph trailing behind her the ALITALIA team UNO was 2ND and DUE was 3rd Willi Meyers brought in Mike Doxford’s LIMIT UP in 4th.Yellowdrama engines failed at Portland along with BOUNTY HUNTER and LIMIT UP 2, THUNDER’S at Bournemouth, MARTINI’S at Yarmouth and BEEP BEEP reached Torquay before they also expired. Notable finishers included Apache ex HTS and British Buzzard the now veteran Miss Enfield 2 that was. So for the second year running the CTC made the news Worldwide but was it going to raise its profile again?.

Sadly though 1979 saw a dip back to 19 starters, 3 Italians ALITALIA Due the Cigarette boat, Dry Martini 2 the Picchiotti and a C&B boat called HAIKALA designed by one Fabio Buzzi. The only American to race was Michael Meynard who had Billy Martins BOUNTY HUNTER. The British fleet included Mike Doxford’s LIMIT UP team with Willi Meyers driving again, ROMANS SABRE the large diesel cat, UNO-MINT the ex Shead /Hyams /Hoare UNOWOT plus old timers APACHE and BRITISH BUZZARD and Ted Toleman in the dark horse Cougar TOLEMAN GROUP .The race distance was back down to 175 miles and the conditions light. In the race the first casualty was ALITALIA DUE which split a manifold as the gun fired BOUNTY HUNTER got as far as Yarmouth and Toleman was also out early.
ROMANS SABRE courtesy Graham Stevens.
ROMANS SABRE courtesy Graham Stevens.
Guido Niccolai in Dry Martini was having problems and succeeded in bouncing of a large yacht but carried on. Only 11 boats finished and it was Niccolai’s turn to break his duck, finishing first at a speed of 63mph pursued by Limit Up 2 Uno-Mint still in fine form and Doxford in the other Limit, Apache and Buzzard also made the grade again and the giant ROMANS took OP2 honours.
GOLDRUSH courtesy Graham Stevens.
GOLDRUSH courtesy Graham Stevens.
1980 and the end of the decade was a very lean year though there were some first class entries in the field of 18, Bill Elswick was back for America with Satisfaction, a Scarab with 1200 hp, Ted Toleman had new Bertram special, Guido Niccolai was back with Dry Martini and the Italian Alberto Smania with CIGA HOTELS. Mr Smania was to have a major impact in offshore, in the next ten years and break more than a few records on the way .This years new boy was Colin Gervaise-Brazier in GOLDRUSH, a cat built by Souters to a Don Shead design. The Limit team were back for more and that veteran of name changes Miss Enfield 2 was now known as SEA WOLF although now with 600 hp and not her original 1000 hp. Mr Elswick was out to make up for past years and Satisfaction took the race at 79.9mph. Ted Toleman finished 2nd and Mr Smania posted 3rd . The OP2 cat GOLDRUSH finished 5th despite shipping almost a ton of water through a leaking sponson. Only 8 craft finished. In view of the falling entries many viewed the CTC to be in its death throws but the organisers were far from finished.

Although fields were small in the next decade the speed and class entries more than compensated despite a few glitches. We shall see the revival of the diesel in the direct descendant of the CRM’S that powered TRAMONTANA in 1962 and the ear splitting roar of the mighty Lamborghini V12’s. Again it would be Italians to the fore but in Brit designed boats, Mr Shead still designing the best. The CAT would also make its mark again but there would also be more tragedy.

Recent Posts

Renato (Sonny) Levi.

Renato Levi, known to all as Sonny, was born in Karachi, India in 1926.
His father ran a shipyard in Bombay(now Mumbai), so Sonny naturally took an
early interest in boats & ships.

Sonny became an apprentice in his fathers shipyard in Bombay, but with the coming of World War 2, he joined the RAF, becoming a Pilot Officer. No doubt his interest not only in boats but also aircraft was heightened by this part of his life.

Sonny became primarily interested in marine design, especially in relation to smaller, fast craft, and the ability of such craft to withstand the varieties of sea conditions often encountered. He designed craft for his fathers yard during the 1950’s, but moved to Italy in 1960. In Italy, Sonny managed Cantiere Navaltecnica (Canav), in Anzio.

No one of a certain age can forget “A’Speranziella”, built by Canav to Sonny’s design for the 1961 Cowes-Torquay Race. She finished sixth, after experiencing mechanical problems, but had led the race for a considerable distance, dueling with the eventual winner “Thunderbolt”.

After partially re-building the boat in light of the experiences of 1961, success dawned with a win in the 1962 Viareggio-Bastia Race. Further developments resulted in great success with “A’Speranziella” winning the 1963 Cowes-Torquay Race.

Sonny became a world renowned designer of fast craft largely as a result of these successes, and the many fast craft he designed culminated in the 1965 launch of
“Surfury”, often thought of as one of Sonny’s most memorable designs. This boat
made a name for herself, winning Cowes-Torquay in 1967. “Surfury” was the first of Sonny’s much lauded Delta designs.

This success brought more commissions, and Levi designs were sought world wide,
where fast sea-going boats were needed.

In the 1980’s, Richard Branson commissioned Sonny to design “Virgin Atlantic
Challenger II”, which was successful in recording the then fastest trans-Atlantic crossing, despite contaminated fuel issues en route. This famous boat was certainly a fabulous marker in Sonny’s career. “VAC II” not only had its design by Sonny, but also the Levi Drive system too.

Developments in high speed propeller and drive systems have been part of Sonny’s
great contribution to fast boat development over the last forty or more years.

Martin Napier

  1. Sonny Levi Comments Off
  2. COWES – TORQUAY – COWES Comments Off
  3. MONACO FORTUNA Comments Off
  4. SURFURY Comments Off