A Boat on the Side

How Fast Will It Go?


Speed – the perennial obsession of male humanoids since we failed to outrun sabre toothed tigers.

From chariot racing to Formula One, it’s the same story. We’re at it as kids when we push our bikes to the limit and as we grow up – well sort of – few will willingly admit to owning the slowest car, motorbike or boat on the block.

Lets face it, the adrenaline pumping thrill of raw speed is addictive – from a wild ride on a thoroughbred racehorse to an out of control spinnaker reach on a Sydney Harbour skiff – it’s the same old story – speed thrills, excessive speed thrills excessively.

Two of my sons recently had the opportunity to race around two of Europe’s classic racetracks – Spa Francorchamps in the Ardenne Mountains and the original, infamous Nurburgring in West Germany.

Did they enjoy it?

What do you think?

Suffice to say that I myself once drove around the Monaco street circuit in – wait for it – a modest rented Opel with performance guaranteed to bore even the most timid of drivers. But it was great!

Boats are no exception so here’s a few answers to the big male question: how fast?

The Vikings were at it over a thousand years ago – by the 9th Century Nordic ship builders had achieved technologically advanced yet achingly beautiful craft that re-wrote the rule books. These simple yet wonderfully effective boats would ride on a stream of bubbles generated by their oak strakes and, in the right conditions, lift up and surf. Unbelievable speeds have been recorded by replicas – well over 20 knots reliably reported in Classic Boat magazine.

In the late 17th Century respected English explorer, cartographer and pirate William Dampier was astonished at the speed of the proas he encountered in the waters around the Pacific island of Guam. Ever the empirical recorder, he streamed logs from the boats and estimated their top speed at a staggering 24 knots. The book, about Dampier’s extraordinary life, “Buccaneer with an Exquisite Mind” is an excellent read. The proas, long low canoes with an outrigger and lateen sail, don’t tack, they reverse. At that speed a young islander could stop for lunch before tacking and still make the girlfriend’s atoll by nightfall.

Moving on chronologically speaking, to the 19th Century and the pinnacle of trading under sail – the clippers. So named because they remorselessly clipped the passage times by hours, days, even weeks. Then as today, time is money and the fabled China Tea Clippers were the fastest – Cutty Sark among them. Thermopylae, Taiping, Flying Cloud – all very fast, very competitive ships. Such was the competition in the lucrative 19th Century tea trade that the clippers would race each other from China to London to get the best price for the new season’s crop. Halfway around the world, come hell or high water their skippers pushed them as hard as they would go, sometimes still within sight of each other after 12,000 miles. Top speed was often 18, 19, sometimes over 20 knots – now that would have been a sight to see! Even Australia’s own James Craig, a humbler sister, is reported to be capable of 14 knots but they’re probably not allowed . . . . . . The late 19th Century saw the end of these magnificent vessels, although some, sadly more “sensibly” rigged, lingered eking out a living until the 1950s. Interestingly, the Cutty Sark’s sister ship, City of Adelaide, has a slim chance of being restored to full sail . . . YESSS!!!

Steam, of course, was well established by the mid 1800s but before the end of the century an engineer called Charles Parsons developed the steam turbine and out-dragged everyone at a reputed 22 knots in the turbania. By the Second World War a British Tribal class destroyer could hit 37 knots, albeit briefly – not bad at all. I remember my father telling us wide-eyed boys about them hurtling past on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Destroyer crews were the nautical equivalent of Spitfire pilots.

Of course by the 1920s and 30s all sorts of wild motorboaters were breaking the water speed records with outrageous machines powered by Supermarine Spitfire engines in the UK and in America, supercharged multi-cylinder monsters. The records came tumbling down and by the 1920s the 100 mile an hour mark was knocked off.

The Blue Riband, for the fastest transatlantic crossing, was one competition especially for obsessive megalomaniac ship owners. And for good reason, prior to jet aircraft the only way from Europe to America was by sea and the fastest ships drew the most passengers and made the best profits.

By the early years of the 20th Century new turbine steamers were sliding down the European slipways by the dozen to cater for the unprecedented boom in travel to the New World. Among the earliest steamships Sirius made the crossing in 18 days at a speed of 7.31 knots. By 1910 the Mauretania had cracked 4 days and 26.06 knots. The great Cunarders, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth of the 1930s were fast enough to outrun most warships so they were pressed into service as troop carriers in World War II.

The last of the official Blue Riband liners was the SS United States which trumped everyone in 1952 with an average speed of 35.59 knots and a crossing of 3 days 10 hours. This short lived greyhound was reputed to hit 39 knots and this was nearly sixty years ago.

Finally, fatally, Donald Campbell broke the world water speed record on Lake Coniston in England with a speed of 320 miles per hour (278 knots.) Sadly he died in the attempt and the record remains unofficial – one way only. 

But back to straining canvas, and by the mid 20th Century sail, hull and rig design was advancing in leaps and bounds. Designers like Olin Stevenson of S and S followed in the footsteps of the master, Herreshoff, in drafting outrageously quick America’s Cup racers and ocean racers. With the evolution of super light catamarans and trimarans speed was taken further and further to the boundaries of physics. Today’s monohull ocean racers will routinely crack 25+ knots (finally beating the Vikings and Guam’s proas ) and  many will exceed 30. The big cats and tris will get up to 35+ but the game gets exponentially harder as you edge towards the fabled 50 knots.

The fastest of the most recent transatlantic passages are by French trimarans, the latest in 2009, by the good ship Banque Populaire with 3 days 15 hours 25 minutes at an average of 32.94 knots (wow!) The boat also holds the 24-hour record at an average of 37.84 knots and the world record for tearing up soggy banknotes (or should I say banque notes) at a rate in excess of 10,000 per hour. Finally the 50 knot barrier was cracked in 2009 by Alain Thebault at 50.17 knots.

There you have it.

Fancy your chances?

You’ll need the best technology, the best designers, the best weather conditions and the best part of 10 million bucks to mount a serious challenge.

How’s this for an example of synchronicity? On the day I wrote this post the Courier-Mail published this.

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