History - Fast On Water 2021

Go to content


Lining up for the start.
Poole Harbour 1931
Bluebird II
From an original painting by Arthur Benjamins

1937 Hotsy Totsy III
a displacement vee hull design

Kneeler hydroplane racing for the Daily Mirror Trophy at
Oulton Broad in the 1940s.
No crash helmet required back then.
Photo Daily Mirror

Two-up racing in the 1960s
Bill Brown in his Ron Wolbold built Venus fitted with a
1600cc Cosworth engine,
racing at Coombe Cellars, Devon in 1966

Racing catamaran - Rasini brothers winners of 1967 Paris 6 Hour
1969 Bob Spalding in his Schulze cat
photo Fotocall
1969 Paris six hour. Bill Shakespeare
in a boat of his own design. Photo, Photocall.
1970. Brian Kendall racing Charlie
Sheppard's pickle fork cat
1974. Jackie Wilson in his Cosworth
powered Hodges cat

Chris Kay in his 8ft Junior hull
running a 10hp Mercury outboard at
Holme Peirrepont, Nottingham in the 1970s
1984. Bill Seebold racing his 2 litre
Mercury powered Seebold hull at Bristol
photo Fotocall
Bill Seebold and the Mercury T4
Bristol 80
Photo Steve Powell All Sport
Rear view shot of Bob Spalding's Velden F1
showing just how big the OMC V8 was.
Photo Simon Scott
Renato Molinari with the mighty OMC

The Chris Hodge's designed safety cell
Bob Spalding in his 1986 F1 World Championship winning
Percival Hodges fitted with a safety cell
Steve Kerton with the first Burgess
with enclosed cockpit
Taking a tumble - pre safety cell days
So, where do we start? How far back do we go? From the minute that a motor was attached to a boat, people wanted to see how fast they could make that boat go, and competition naturally followed.  As early as 1902 the Marine Motoring Association was formed to control British motorboat racing but it wasn't until after the austerity of World War I started to dissipate that the sport began to take off. Many of the fastest race boats of the twenties and thirties were of a hydroplane configuration, including Sir Malcolm Campbells Bluebird II - a single step hydroplane. During the 1930s the stepped hull designs began to be superceeded by displacement hulls - so called because in order to float they had to displace water equal to their own weight. These hulls, instead of riding over the water as the  hydroplanes did, cut through the water. It was Samuel Edgar Saunders (he of Saunders-Roe flying boat fame) who redesigned the normal rounded boat shape into a pronounced vee-section sweeping up to a short stem. This design lifted the bow the moment the boat began to move forward, the lift increasing as the speed increased.

Circuit powerboat racing took off in a big way following World War Two, with clubs starting up in various parts of the country. In those years drivers raced outboard hydroplanes and 'two-up' sports boats in which the passenger acted as moveable ballast, similar to a racing side-car.

The 1960s saw the development of catamaran design with the Prout brothers, Roland and Francis, from Canvey Island, Essex, producing the first British designed catamaran. Initially built to be used for waterskiing; they soon realised that they had a craft that could win races. This is where the name Molinari appears in the story. An Angelo Molinari designed catamaran was entered in the 1964 Duchess of York race at Chasewater, driven by the brothers, Carlo and Enrico Rasini (the RYA putting it in a separate class of its own as it did not comply to the rules). A molinari cat powered by Mercury’s new 100hp engine, won the 1966 Paris 6 hours with Renato Molinari and Cesare Scotti at the wheel.

In that same year, Jackie Wilson successfully raced a small Torriggia designed cat at the London Motor Boat Racing Club’s circuit at Iver.

1967 saw the London Motor Boat racing Club introduce Junior racing. This was a low cost entry level, making it affordable for parents to let their kids have a go at powerboat racing. It was a great success and many Junior drivers went on to be British and International Champions.

Ron Wolbold was unmoved by the cat revolution and continued to build his very successful monohulls, including one for Bill Brown, one of the founders of Cosworth Engineering. Brown fitted it with a 1600cc twin cam engine from a Lotus Elan. It was in 1968 that Charlie Sheppard decided to try his hand at building a catamaran, the nickname of which became Soggy Moggy. Bill Shakespeare was also racing his own design Avon cat.

It was obvious that outboard speeds would continue to rise as the rivalry for domination between OMC and Mercury continued. In 1969, Bob Spalding had got his Schulze cat, Bobcat, up to 85mph on the Idroscalo Lake in Milan. It became clear that cat design would need to change to accommodate the ever-increasing speeds.

In 1970 Sheppard and Ron Jones, of Seattle, were the only two designers working on a picklefork design concept. The picklefork design allowed the leading edge of the tunnel to be further away from the surface of the water and the ‘lift’ to start further back. Sheppard and Jones realised that this radical design was needed to make the catamarans safer to drive. Around the same time James Beard, with the help of Chris Hodges, was developing an offshore cat with a picklefork configuration.  

The 1970 Paris six-hour race was won by a Molinari cat and Sheppard’s Soggy Moggy came fifth overall. In that same year, the dangers of racing outboard catamarans was again highlighted, when experienced boat builder and racer, Bill Shakespeare lost his life in pre-race practice for the Windermere Grand Prix. Soon after, Charlie Sheppard gave up building cats and turned his attention to his plans to organise a powerboat race in the confines of Bristol Docks.

As the 1970s continued, the race to make bigger and faster outboards moved swiftly. A pace, that finally the boat builders could not keep up with. The faster the engine, the more air was forced under the tunnel. And, as there was an optimum amount of air that any particular tunnel design could accept; once that point was passed, the craft became unstable. The ultimate challenge for boat builders and drivers came with the advent of OMC’s monster 3.3 litre 235hp V8 Evinrude and the 240hp Johnson, and Mercury’s 370hp T4. One of the showdowns between these monsters was at the 1979 Embassy Grand Prix. During the Friday afternoon qualifying, Earl Bentz, a young driver from Tennessee, who had never raced in Bristol before, went out and posted a time of  98.24 mph, breaking the lap record. He was using a Mercury T3 but the race was won by Billy Seebold in one of his own designed cats powered by a Mercury T4.

The big split between the two major engine manufacturers came in 1980. Charlie Sheppard, with the support of Wills Tobacco, decided that the Embassy Grand Prix, and the coveted Duke of York Trophy for that year would be contested by the 2 litre ON Class catamarans. This class was renamed Formula One. That same year Mercury Marine, under pressure from their parent company, decided to withdraw the T4 and to align themselves with a 2 litre limit. At the time it was suggested by those more cynical, that Mercury were happy to see engine size limited because their T4 wasn’t up to the job compared with OMC’s engine. It was assumed that OMC would follow suit but at a press conference following the last race of the Canon Trophy Series, they announced their intention of producing a more powerful OZ engine (a 3.5 litre 400hpV8) for the 1981 season.

These monster engines were given the thumbs up when BAT’s John Player Special brand, already sponsoring Lotus in Formula One car racing, signed a three-year contract to sponsor an OZ series that offered substantial prize money. Top drivers, including Renato Molinari, Cees van der Velden, Roger Jenkins, Tom Percival and Bob Spalding were originally keen on setting limits to engine size but finally went with the JPS series. For drivers like Roger Jenkins the opportunity to have the same power factory engine as everyone else was an opportunity no to be missed – an opportunity that led him to become 1982 World Champion.

In 1981, PR man extraordinaire, David Parkinson, along with Jackie Wilson, formed FONDA (Formula ON Drivers Association). It was Parkinson who, having both Mercury and Canon as clients, created the Canon Series. FONDA went on to form a series that took in Brussels, Bristol, Linz, Milan, Paris and St Louis. After a controversial meeting of the UIM, it was decided that the title of Formula One would be given to the OZ series and the ON series was given the token title of Formula Grand Prix.

The Formula One OZ series and the Formula Grand Prix ON series ran alongside each other during 1981, ’82 and ’83.

In 1982 there was only one venue in the calendar where the FONDA seven-race World Series and the John Player Formula One Series happened over the same weekend. That was Bristol. Billy Seebold had come to Bristol to prove a point. He arrived with two engines – a standard Mercury two-litre, for the FONDA races and another bored out to 2.4 litres, which allowed him to race with the ‘Big Boys’ in the 3.5 litre OMC powered boats.

That weekend of the 5th and 6th June 1982, proved to be one of the most memorable in the history of circuit powerboat racing and marked Billy Seebold as one of the all-time greats. With his mechanic, Leo Molindyke, Seebold managed to enter the heats for both series by swapping power heads in record times. That weekend Seebold raced an amazing 130 laps of Bristol within those imposing granite walls.

1983 dawned with 19 drivers competing for the 9 race Formula One Grands Prix and 26 drivers competing for the 7 race FONDA series. Renato Molinari proved his supremacy in Formula One, while German, Michael Werner took the FONDA trophy and Billy Seebold won his 5th Duke of York Trophy in Bristol. 1983 also saw an innovation in circuit catamaran design. The craft was built by Barracuda Boats and it used Kevlar, carbon fibre and fibreglass.

It was what happened during the 1984 Formula One season that changed the views of drivers, teams and sponsors.

1984, a year in which the Formula One circuit powerboat racing community lost four of its drivers – Luigi Valdano, Gerard Barthelemy, Saverio Roberto and Tom Percival. With three races of the ten-race season still to run, numbers were depleted. Carlsberg pulled their sponsorship and their driver Roger Jenkins announced his retirement on the Tuesday following Tom Percival’s death in the Belgium Grand Prix. Benson and Hedges, the sport’s largest sponsor, held a meeting on the Saturday morning prior to the London Grand Prix, just one week after the Belgium Grand Prix. What could be done to protect driver’s lives? The answer at the time was – nothing – if the drivers chose to race, that was their choice. Cees van der Velden, Benson and Hedges driver and team manager, had no alternative – he announced the withdrawal of his three-boat team from the remainder of the season. Consequently the race organisers, Sports Sponsorship International, were left with a very diminished field.

Blame was laid at many doors, including those drivers and sponsors who decided to call it a day (Molinari was one of those who didn't). But would it have increased the pace of change if the remaining top drivers had refused to race? The powers-that-be, the UIM, were blamed for not taking decisive action earlier (would they have done anything if Benson and Hedges had not withdrawn). OMC also had their share of criticism – they spent considerable sums of money inviting American drivers to compete in the season’s final races, and supporting other European drivers who were not sponsored, to ensure respectable numbers of entrants. Some of the drivers were less than experienced. Some asked, could OMC not have cancelled the remaining events and used the money supporting projects to improve safety?

If there was one positive thing to come out of the 1984 season, it was the development towards making the high-powered catamarans safer to race. Chris Hodges, Tom Percival’s partner and boat designer decided he couldn’t wait any longer. Although Bill Brown, president of the UIMs Technical Commission, had already started investigating the possibilities of incorporating a ‘safety cell’, little more was known by the end of that August. Taking ideas from Formula One motor racing, Hodges began working on a ‘safety cell’ cockpit. Four months later he had a completed cockpit ready for testing. Unhappy to expect anyone else to do the testing, Chris himself climbed into the cockpit.

His safety cell was produced from an immensely strong composite material. Instead of the cockpit being part of the main structure Hodges’ capsule was separate and was fitted to the sponsons and centre section. For the first time drivers were actually strapped into their seats. The idea was that if a craft was involved in an accident, the timber hulls could break up and absorb the impact while the driver remained well protected inside his cell.

Ironically, several pilots were opposed to this new device but after it successfully proved itself in several major crashes, the UIM called for it to be compulsory. Bob Spalding commented, ‘I must confess I had taken some convincing about being strapped in! Only by talking in great depth to Chris and seeing the results of the first drop did I come round to the idea. Even after the helicopter tests I was still very concerned about the drowning aspects. Finally Chris came down here and did the final tests. What I saw convinced me totally and made up my mind once and for all to go racing this year – with a cell.’ He went on to say, ‘the first time I sat in a cell was at the team press launch at Stewartby, just one week before Munich. It was very, very odd at first, being strapped in. But within a minute, I had actually forgotten about it. It was so comfortable. It didn’t affect my driving style at all. If anything, I think the cell helps because you are so well held that you have no problems in cornering. You don’t get thrown about as much.’

Boat builder Dave Burgess introduced canopies in the early 1990s that made cockpits fully enclosed. Although not built to withstand a major impact, the canopy did protect the driver from the full force of water if his craft nose-dived.

The canopy does serve its purpose but it has removed an important element for the spectator. No longer is it possible to see the driver steering and controlling the craft, to see his hands on the wheel, wrestling with it, making those second by second corrections to keep his boat perfectly balanced.

In the late 1990’s further developments saw the introduction of an airbag that would inflate in a crash to ensure the capsule wouldn’t sink before rescue crews could attend. Over the years, F1 boat construction has continued to develop and today few craft are built of timber. Instead modern composites are used. While Formula One Powerboat racing is still a dangerous sport by any standards, driver welfare has been improved to such a degree that while craft are still involved in spectacular and horrifying accidents, the unlucky victim is usually unscathed.


Much of the information above has been taken from two marvellous books by Kevin Desmond. Powerboat Speed, pub. 1988 by Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0 85177 427 x and A Century of Outboard Racing, pub. 2001 by MBI Publishing. ISBN 0-7603-1047-5. Powerboat Racing by Bill Shakespeare, pub. 1968 by Cassell. SBN 304 92235 8. Also Powerboat 85, pub. 1984 by Performance Publications. ISBN 0 9509598 1 2. Powerboat 86, pub. 1985 by Performance Publications. ISBN 0 9059598 2 0. And the F1 H2O website archive.

Fast On Water
Back to content