Being a boater, you may have heard the term “Blue Riband” as the award presented for the fastest surface crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. You would be partially correct.
Derived from the Cordon Bleu (blue cord or ribbon) worn for centuries by distinguished French nobility, it became Blue Riband to the British, and then simply Blue Ribbon in the United States. Technically it is not awarded (and nor does a physical award exist) for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic but to the fastest average speed attained for the crossing by a passenger-carrying vessel.
Starting in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s as steam replaced sail power and propellers -- first one, then two, and then several propellers -- replaced stern and side-wheelers. As diesel gradually replaced steam, several countries vied for the coveted award. As passenger liners grew in size, popularity, and prestige, the holder of the Blue Riband became a valuable advertising and promotional asset.
Excluding for a five-year period in the middle of the century, the Blue Riband was held by the British from the award’s first presentation in the early 1830s right through to almost the turn of the century when Germany held the award for five years. The British, and more specifically, Cunard Lines, held the most awards with ships like the Lusitania and Mauretania through to the late 1920s with a few years of interruption by Italy, France, and Germany. Cunard Line’s Queen Mary captured the award in the late 1930s and held it right through to 1952 when the prestigious liner SS United States captured it with an average speed of 41 mph.
Since the Blue Riband was more a symbol of greatness than a physical award, in 1935 the Hales Trophy was created and awarded to the holder of the Blue Riband. Even though the ship was retired in 1969, the SS United States held the record and the Hales Trophy until 1986. It was then that British multi-millionaire entrepreneur adventurer Richard Branson claimed the Blue Riband in his Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, a 72-foot V-hull powered by a pair of MTU diesels of 2000 hp each with propeller shafts.
Branson’s Challenger I, a 65-foot catamaran skippered by offshore racing and Formula One great Ted Toleman, hit a submerged object and the boat sank just short of completing the crossing in 1985. All crew members were rescued. Both vessels were specially designed and built for the purpose but required several refueling stops along the route.
Branson’s new record was an average speed of almost 42 mph. He was not awarded the Hales Trophy, though, since his winning vessel was not a commercial passenger carrier. So, Branson created the Virgin Atlantic Challenge Trophy for simply the fastest surface crossing of the Atlantic
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Tom Gentry was an engineer and land developer in Hawaii and in California. But above all else, he was a patriotic American and an idea man, a tinkerer, and a doer who spearheaded his ideas into reality. Gentry became known on the world offshore racing circuit in the mid-1970s -- winning his first World Offshore Championship title in 1976. By 1990, he had won five world titles and four US National Championships in different classes.
Tom Gentry was the first to hold three offshore ocean speed records concurrently, thus earning him the title of Fastest Man in Offshore. In 1987, he set a world offshore class speed record of 148 mph in his 48-foot Cougar cat customized by his own company, American Eagle Marine, and powered by four of his own 1400 hp turbocharged Eagle engines coupled with two Gentry-designed surface drives. This was all advanced technology for 1987. In 1994, he set a new Class 1 world offshore course speed record at over 157 mph.
Obviously seeing it as a challenge, and perhaps as the result of Branson’s 1986 claiming of the Blue Riband back to England, Gentry started tackling the trans-Atlantic speed record. As an American, he wanted the Blue Riband returned to America. He assembled a team led by his own Gentry Racing Team Manager and multi-time world offshore racing champion throttleman John Connor. Connor had previously managed Betty Cook’s offshore racing team while throttling for her as she raced to multiple world offshore racing titles.
Alongside naval architect/designer Peter Birkett, who had worked on the design of Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, Team Gentry produced plans for a 112-foot deep-V planing hull design with a sharp entry on a relatively narrow 24-foot beam. It was to be built of aluminum in order to minimize weight and was basically all fuel tankage forward and all engine aft. There were seven plush Recaro helm chairs with armrests and suspensions along with the latest in long range navigation electronics in the wheelhouse. The Garmin GPS was the size of a small suitcase.
Powering the Gentry Eagle were a pair of MTU sequentially turbocharged diesels of 3,480 horsepower each with each delivering power through a giant Swedish-built Kamewa jet drive. Centered between the diesels was a Textron Lycoming gas turbine of 4,500 horsepower operating through an Arneson surface drive with a surface-piercing propeller. This power arrangement is the embodiment of the ingenuity and engineering foresight of Tom Gentry.
The boat was taken up onto plane using the diesels with the jet drives. The turbine would be free-wheeling at that point. Then the Arneson drive would be carefully lowered into the after-wake and would accelerate up to hull speed. The turbine speed would be adjusted so the output speed matched the Arneson speed, and the clutch between the two would then be engaged. With all three power sources contributing, the Gentry Eagle could then be taken to its top speed of just under 80 miles per hour. Fuel capacity was in the vicinity of 10,000 US gallons. Total horsepower – 11,500.
Vosper Thornycroft of Southampton, England, with decades of boatbuilding experience and years of experience in large custom yachts in aluminum, was commissioned to build the Gentry Eagle. Once completed and sea trialed at a cost of over seven million dollars, it was shipped to the United States. July 1988 saw the Gentry Eagle outbound passing Ambrose Lighthouse at the entry to New York City harbour to attempt to break the trans-Atlantic speed record.
What had been anticipated to be a quick storm turned out to be a monster, and before the boat even reached the refueling ship at the half way point, serious structural damage was being done by the pounding twenty-foot seas. With no electronics working, and in the dead of night, the Gentry Eagle turned around and headed for St. John’s, Newfoundland. It didn’t quite make it.
A few miles off the Newfoundland coast, the boat, reportedly running at over 40-mph, ran aground on a small island in such a way that the bow section landed in a cleft between two rock walls. Only the bottom sustained major damage, but a little to the left or right would have resulted in a potential catastrophe for the crew.
The Gentry Eagle was lifted off the rocky beach by crane and barged to Nova Scotia where it spent the best part of a year being repaired under the watchful eyes of Project Manager John Connor. With a new and strengthened bottom on the boat, exactly one year after the first attempt, the Gentry Eagle once again passed New York’s Ambrose Lighthouse and refueled in a record time of 45 minutes in the mid-Atlantic.
Then, sixty-two hours and seven minutes after they started, they passed Bishop Rock on England’s Isle of Scilly. It bested Branson’s record by over eighteen hours. The Gentry Eagle had averaged over 55 miles per hour for the 3,436-mile distance. Richard Branson met the Gentry crew as they docked on the Isle and presented Tom Gentry with the Virgin Atlantic Challenge Trophy.
Later, the Gentry Eagle set some other speed records including winning the renowned Chapman Trophy for the fastest time from Miami to New York City. They set the mark at a record nineteen hours and seventeen minutes. The Gentry Eagle also set a record time of five hours and twenty minutes for the round trip from Miami to Nassau and back.
Having proven its point and having returned the Blue Riband to America, in 1992 Tom Gentry commissioned Naval Architect Grant Robinson and the Eagle’s original designer Peter Birkett, plus interior designer Robin Rose, to convert the Gentry Eagle to a pleasure superyacht. This required major restructuring, but when finished, the Gentry Eagle sported comfy cruising accommodations for six and crew quarters for four.
Tom Gentry and his family cruised coastal Europe and the Mediterranean as well as both coasts of North America in the refit Eagle. All the while, Gentry also continued his offshore racing exploits. In 1993, he was awarded the UIM Medal of Honor for his accomplishments and contributions to offshore racing. His contributions to marine engine performance and surface drive technology are legendary.
In October 1994, Gentry set another world offshore class speed record of 157-plus mph in San Diego Bay. Then, just one month later in November, 1994 it all ended. At the Key West World Offshore Racing Championships, with Gentry leading the Open Class in his 40-foot Skater catamaran with multi-time world champion throttleman Richie Powers on the controls, Gentry wanted to overtake the race leading superboat Recovery to take the overall win.
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I was watching the race from media section at the end of the second story Pier House Hotel patio deck overlooking Key West harbour. The race boats passed within a hundred feet of the viewing area as they slowed down to navigate the hairpin turn within the harbour. It was one of the trickiest parts of the course and the waters were always churning and boiling.
I saw Team Gentry enter the harbour from the left and, because my buddy Richie Powers was aboard and it was leading its class, the boat held my attention when it passed in front of me to negotiate the hairpin turn ahead. Then suddenly I saw its port sponson dig in and the boat hooked, flying ninety degrees to the right and off the race course while overturning in the air. It landed upside down a hundred or so yards from where I stood, mouth agape.
Then I started counting the seconds while waiting for Gentry and Powers to evacuate the boat. Being a fully canopied boat, it had oxygen masks available for each person aboard. Both Gentry and Powers had passed medicals and “dunk test” training, and both had been through incidents in the past. Powers managed to find his mask only seconds before he would have drowned.
At the next Miami Boat Show, Richie recalled to me with tears in his eyes the second-by-second experience of being inside that cockpit -- an upside-down, churning, object-filled mess -- impossible to see while trying to find the oxygen mask, unable to unbuckle his harness while being upside down, and trying to hold his breath the entire time. Tom Gentry was rescued unconscious and was stabilized at a local hospital. The next day he was flown to Miami. He never did find his oxygen mask. He was in a coma.
Gentry was later transferred to Honolulu where he remained in a coma until he passed away in his home in January 1998 at age 67 -- just over three years after the Key West incident. His family kept the Gentry Eagle for a while, but eventually put it up for sale. It got little action and since the early 2000s and was pretty much abandoned in its slip at Ventura Harbor Boatyard in California where it was left to the weather and the seagulls. In 2022, it was lifted out of the water, blocked and torn apart by backhoes, and sold for scrap.
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“You gotta write a book and if you won’t, someone sure should. There’s just too much nobody knows and so many details need to be told.”
The speaker was John Connor. I just happened to spot John at a waterside bar close to where I was staying during the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show one November sometime the late 1990s.
John and I had never spoken before but I recognized him, so I introduced myself and he was quite amenable to the company and my questions. After some easy chat about his throttling for some of the best in the world like Betty Cook, I started asking him about his time as Project Manager and chief helmsman for the Gentry Eagle.
He told me about the boat being built, about the damage from the ocean, and then from the grounding on the Newfoundland beach on the first record attempt. At this point, he looked off into the distance and said that they were all so lucky to be still around. They were lucky that they had turned around, lucky that the boat had grounded where they could see the damage to the hull, lucky that they could see what reinforcing would be needed to make her seaworthy again, and lucky that they had beached the boat between two rock walls.
Yes, John Connor and Team Gentry were lucky that time, but Tom Gentry, one of offshore racing’s greatest icons, wasn’t eventually so lucky. At the time of his accident, Tom and John were working on the creation of a 185-foot surface effect ocean catamaran to be powered by four 7,400 hp Allison M62 turbines -- a boat that would carry a top speed of 115-mph and sufficient range to not require refueling. They were planning to reclaim the Blue Riband for America.
And no, I won’t be writing the book any time soon.