THUNDERBOLT 1961….TO PRESENT DAY
On August the 19th 1961 the Bruce Campbell built Ray Hunt /Arthur Cole designed 25ft Christina “Thunderbolt” crossed the finishing line off Torquay to win the first Daily Express International Powerboat Race.This was to be the first of owner Tommy Sopwith’s 3 wins in this now longest running offshore powerboat race.
A year later carrying race no 5, she was entered again in the hands of Campbell’s wife Pamela with crew Lettice Curtis ( famous for her exploits in WW2, ferrying fighter aircraft for the RAF) and Hilary Laing. They failed to finish after suffering fuel starvation whilst lying in 5th place, 12 miles from the finish line.
The following year Hilary Laing entered the boat and finished in 12th place but Thunderbolt’s career was over…such were the changes that had taken place in those first 3 years.
She was then sold by Cambell’s Hamble yard after refurbishment for use as a family cruiser in the Mediterranean….after changing hands 4 times and finally being abandoned on the dockside she was discovered by none other than Don Shead. With outstanding dues paid she was shipped to Bordeaux for restoration and display which never happened and was again shipped by Don back to the UK and storage in his yard then in his garden at Stockbridge……I discovered her existence in early 2006 and by April that year, thanks to Don’s generosity in gifting her to me “as long as she was restored!” she arrived in Brockenhurst to begin her rebirth.
During that first year she was completely dismantled with all useable parts stored for refurbishment, the cabin and coamings in very poor condition saved for patterns and the hull ready to be shipped to the INTERNATIONAL BOATBUILDING COLLEGE at Oulton, Norfolk for major repairs to the stern and topside.
It was to be a four year struggle that swallowed my savings but with a £1000.00 donation to the project by Tommy himself, support from Robbins Timber with discounted materials and input from family and friend’s the point was reached where Thunderbolt gradually began to look like new again
then out of the blue a request was made for her to appear at the revived Earls Court Boat Show in 2007…and so it was that to all intents and purposes that the restored craft was unveiled by Tommy Sopwith and a host of Offshore veterans…truth was she was a hastily put together shell..with a host of work still to be carried out!
2008 and 2009 saw her progress to a state of readiness but she had no engines yet…it was then the next bombshell came I had worked on finishing her for 2011 which in my mind was the 50th anniversary of the first race 1961, ie 2011 minus 1961 equals 50 wrong!… the actual date was August 2010, you don’t believe me? …count it on your fingers!!!
Where was I to obtain 2 engines (V8’s to ensure she was as near historically correct) prices we way beyond my budget even second hand…let alone sourcing 1 to 1 Borg Warner Gearboxes and a V drive!
A call from Ken Raybould who had been advising on her rebuild.(he worked on her in 1961) took me back to Don Shead’s where he produced from a back shelf in his garage a THERMOELECTRON V DRIVE!..that belongs to her said Don…2 gearbox’s and 2 engines to go!
It was pure chance that a converstion with Ian Saunders of PAPER TIGER fame led to the legendary Chris Lewis who had in his store 3 small block Chevy’s and 2 Direct drive gearboxes….. all I needed was a loan to have them rebuilt and installed! When you have a classic boat and a famous one at that…you put yourself deeper into debt what the heck!
As 2010 arrived THUNDERBOLT was moving towards final completion, seats and berths recovered new instruments fitted hatches hurriedly prepared shafts in engines nearly rebuilt and ready for installation but do you remember 2010 the weather was foul all year long.
As August approached she was still being re engineered and desperation was mounting. Then the next disaster struck props or lack of them to be truthful…I had the original props but they were handed and the engines were both left drive….fortunately Paul Fairall had a pair of props which might do the trick and so it was that we were now almost ready!
Torquay was hosting the 50th celebrations 30 boats were attending with Thunderbolt top of the list, she had had no sea trials and was unlikely to at this rate …1 week to go and it was decided to remove her rapidly from the engineers and take her to Hamble point to launch and trial on Southampton Water…all seemed ok .
We measured approx 24 knots on the engines which needed running in she was still untried and untested no way would we motor down to Torquay…then the wiring caught fire everything was doomed to fail!
Burning the midnight oil with Paul Hooper and Peter Farmery whose own boats were not ready, we salvaged the situation and took the decision to take her on a trailer to Torbay. So it was that 50 years after her victory she was again sitting in Torquay harbour and evoking many memories for all concerned. We arrived in Torquay in sunshine which was not to last long as one of the wettest Bank Holidays on record reduced the Rally attendance to 15 boats but that all was forgotten as we circuited the bay on 3 laps of honour……
.Then it was back on the trailer to go to Cowes for her rechristening in the RYS harbour with attendant celebrities.
Was it all worth it? Undoubtedly the answer is yes and if you get the chance to save a classic do it! there is no greater reward to see it all come to fruition. 3 classic rallies later Thunderbolt is still attracting disbelief that she is still with us and has I believe encouraged many others to “save a classic”
and the next few years will see some more famous names reappearing.
Mike 31/10/13 (more pictures and further details also under Restorations old)