Thunderbolt 25′ Christina

Thunderbolt 25′ Christina

In 1961, the August Bank Holiday weekend in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, was typical, the weather was
overcast with a threatening dark sky, but history was about to be made as twenty seven boats were ready to
do battle in the first modern day powerboat race in Europe, The Cowes Torquay Offshore Powerboat Race!
In 1961, the August Bank Holiday weekend in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, was typical, the weather was overcast with a threatening dark sky, but history was about to be made as twenty seven boats were ready to do battle in the first modern day powerboat race in Europe, The Cowes Torquay Offshore Powerboat Race!

The fleet was a mixture of craft including a Shakespeare cabin cruiser with twin outboards and cupboards full of china, a beautiful Dorset Lake built cruiser, 40′ in length, driven by Steve Macey and called Gay Gazelle. A Prout catamaran (There is nothing new in this sport!) powered by twin Evinrude outboards, American Bertram’s driven by Dick Bertram and Jim Wynn. Several Fairey Huntsman 27 footers, one owned by Billy Butlin (of Butlin’s holiday camp fame) and five Bruce Campbell built Christina hulls, one of which was called Thunderbolt, driven by a sports car racer Tommy Sopwith, son of aviation pioneer Sir Thomas Sopwith.

At the drop of the flag, signalling the start to the very first Cowes Torquay race, the fleet shot of towards Southsea with Billy Butlin’s Huntsman in the lead hotly pursued by Dick Bertram in Glass Moppie with two Christina hulls in third and fourth place, Bruce Campbell’s own boat named appropriately enough – “Christina” with Tommy Sopwith just behind in Thunderbolt. The soon to famous Italian designer Sonny Levi was running in fifth position in A’Speranziella.

By the time the fleet had circumvented the Isle of Wight and headed past the Needles onto Bournemouth the weather had turned, with force five winds creating an extremely lumpy sea, speeds fell to ten knots, Sonny Levi swept into the lead as they rounded Poole bay, this was to be her undoing, behind her the stragglers fought their way into the winds and many fell by the wayside including the Shakespeare with cupboards full of now broken china and her domestic glass windows threatening to shatter with every wave they hit! The Prout cat beached at St Catherine’s, holed, and Billy Butlin threw a prop. 

7 hours and 25 minutes later Thunderbolt swept into Torquay to average 25mph for the 159 mile course followed by Yo Yo and Huntsman 27 to win what was to become the holy grail of powerboat racers world wide, the Beaverbrook Trophy and the Cowes-Torquay.

Cowes, Isle of Wight, August Bank Holiday Weekend 1961, Cowes Torquay Powerboat Race

Thunderbolt 1961 Tommy Sopwith on Thunderbolt
Thunderbolt 1961 Tommy Sopwith on Thunderbolt

Designed by Ray Hunt and built at Hamble by Bruce Campbell

25′ LOA

9′ 8″ BEAM

Hull by Walter Lawrence three layers of quarter inch ply cold moulded stiffened and strengthened with internal plates under both engines, externally, unlike most Christina’s she also has a final diagonal laminate keel to waterline plus another length of veneer from the bow to stern between the 2nd and 3rd spray rails.

Power 2x 325hp Cadillac Crusaders

Steering; mechanical on right angle gearing box’s and solid shafts with universal couplings to 2 spade rudders

Controls; Bloctube aircraft type using hollow bronze tube and ball joint couplers.

Fuel Tanks; 5 aluminium welded aircraft grade total capacity 175 gallons

Instrumentation; 2 oil pressure 2 oil temp 2 water temp 2 amp meters 5 fuel 2 electric repeater compasses and 2 rev counters.

Drive; 2 x1 and a quarter inch stainless steel shafts close coupled with 1 driven thro V drive.

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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

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