Thunderbolt: star of the show

Wed 23 August 2017

On Friday 18th August, the team at Whittle Marine re-launched the fully restored, classic racing powerboat, Thunderbolt, in Yarmouth Harbour following a two-month refit at the company’s boatyard in Thorley. Within 24 hours, Thunderbolt was the star of an advertisement video shoot in the Solent for a high-end, soon-to-be-launched, British made, luxury product.

Whittle Marine’s increasing involvement with the Fairey Owners Club (FOC) and the Classic Offshore Powerboat Club (COPC) has triggered restoration work on a number of classic powerboats dating back to the 1960s: boats that exert an unusually intense passion on their owners.

Based outside Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, the Whittle Marine team has already completed restoration work on the Fairey Spearfish 30 Merlin and the rebuilding of a Fairey Swordsman 33 Interlude continues. Last year, the company undertook  work on the fully restored, 25ft, Ray Hunt-designed Christina called Thunderbolt owned by Mike James, Vice Chairman of the Classic Offshore Powerboat Club. Thunderbolt was back at Whittle Marine for pre-season topside respraying with some work to her hull fittings and all members of the Whittle team were aware that Thunderbolt is no ordinary classic boat.

Many classic boats – and vintage cars and aircraft – have fascinating back stories that often include narrowly escaping extinction in a barn, garage, boatyard or a lonely end in the sticky mud of a forgotten creek. Thunderbolt’s story is one of near-disaster and rebirth.

During the 1961 August Bank Holiday, the attention of the UK’s boating community was firmly focussed on the Isle of Wight and the inaugural Cowes – Torquay Powerboat Race. A total of 27 boats of British, American and Italian design were at the start and after a 159-mile race that saw serious attrition among competitors, Thunderbolt crossed the finish line first, driven by her owner, the racing car driver Tommy Sopwith (son of aviation pioneer and serial America’s Cup Challenger, Sir Thomas Sopwith) taking just under seven-and-a-half hours to complete the course and averaging 25mph.

A few years after her blaze of glory in powerboat racing, Thunderbolt was sold and taken to the Mediterranean where the boat changed hands frequently and was eventually abandoned in a boatyard – a victim of unpaid yard dues. Fortunately, Thunderbolt was rescued by powerboat racer and designer Don Shead who paid-off the boat’s yard debts and shipped her to a powerboat museum in Bordeaux…which ran into financial problems and was closed and abandoned.

In 2006, Mike James tracked the boat down to Don Shead’s Hampshire garden and – with the promise of fully restoring Thunderbolt – the boat changed hands again. Early the following year, the boat was transferred to the International Boatbuilding College at Oulton where much of the structural woodwork replacement was undertaken and with an incredible attention to detail that is a trademark of Classic boat restorations, original instruments were repaired and new grab rails cast to the boat’s original design specification by Mike James and his team and Thunderbolt was relaunched in 2010.

Alongside Thunderbolt in the Whittle Marine yard, work was undertaken on the Huntsman 28 Star Hunter. With the success of Fairey Marine’s 23ft Huntress design, a larger version for the international market was introduced and in 1960 the first production Huntsman 27 was sold to the holiday camp pioneer, Billy Butlin. The Hunstman racing pedigree is prodigious with 14 of the boats taking part in the Cowes – Torquay Powerboat Race and four Huntsmans competing in the epic, 1969 Daily Telegraph/B.P. Round Britain Powerboat Race. Star Hunter was at Whittle Marine for general maintenance and antifouling before returning to her berth on Yarmouth’s Western Yar River.

Thunderbolt off Yarmouth during an advertisement photoshoot

Nick Whittle at the wheel of Fairey Hunstman Star Hunter during the photoshoot

Star Hunter operating as a filming platform for the photoshoot

Star Hunter wide open off Yarmouth

Thunderbolt is joined by another Christina off Yarmouth during the photoshoot

The Whittle Marine team preparing to launch Thunderbolt in Yarmouth Harbour

Launching Thunderbolt in Yarmouth Harbour

Thunderbolt and Star Hunter arrive at Whittle Marine for restoration work

Thunderbolt and Star Hunter at Whittle Marine

Preparation work begins on Star Hunter

Thunderbolt

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