My 20-year-old world record that still stands today

Twenty years on... Clive Tully kayak paddling on the Norfolk Broads

Twenty years on... Clive Tully kayak paddling on the Norfolk Broads - Credit: Clive Tully

Norwich journalist and Spirit of Cardiff crew member Clive Tully looks back to May 2001 when the boat set a world record for crossing the Atlantic

In an age when records come and go almost at the blink of an eye, it might come as a surprise to know that the official world record for a powerboat transatlantic crossing has stood unchallenged for 20 years. 

After all, isn’t this the same record that was set by Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Challenger II in 1986, or the Aga Khan’s gas turbine-powered Destriero in 1992?

Well, not quite. Both boats produced impressive times, but neither operated under the rules of the international governing body of powerboating – the UIM (Union Internationale Motonautique). Spirit of Cardiff’s May 2001 UIM powerboat transatlantic New York to Lizard Point still stands as the official world record. 

The end of May and beginning of June is always regarded as the “silly season” in St John’s, they’d told us. People come from all over the world to cross the Atlantic in a variety of ways, and most such expeditions fail, many of them resulting in expensive rescues. What was so different about us?

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Crossing the Grand Banks, just a few hours out of our two and a half hour refuelling stop in Newfoundland, the media in St John’s were concerned that four Englishmen should be heading out into the North Atlantic in such a tiny boat in this kind of weather.

We explained that although just 10 metres long, Spirit of Cardiff was a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) built to take heavy seas in its stride – indeed, we’d already tested the boat in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.

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We were confident we could take whatever Mother Nature threw at us – although we weren’t too keen on it slowing us down. We were out to break records, after all.

There are just four of us in a cabin the size of a small camper van – skipper Alan Priddy, second-in-command (and slightly loopy psychiatrist) Jan Falkowski, Steve Lloyd, and me.

The Spirit of Cardiff

The Spirit of Cardiff - Credit: Clive Tully

Spirit of Cardiff was built with one goal in mind, to circumnavigate the world in 2002, the intention being to cut at least three weeks off Cable and Wireless Adventurer’s 74 days 20 hours 58 minutes record set in July 1998. Since rolling out of Alan Priddy’s industrial unit in Portsmouth in 1999, Spirit has been accumulating records in earnest.

Our tally from 2000 includes the first ever powerboat circumnavigation of the British Isles, and the fastest of Adventurer’s round the world legs, from Gibraltar to Monaco.

Now we’re after the last two, from New York to Horta in the Azores, and from Horta to Gibraltar. Once those are out of the way, provided we stop off at Lizard Point before heading back to Cardiff, we will also pick up the icing on the cake – a new transatlantic world record. 

The UIM (Union Internationale Motonautique) had only very recently changed the finishing post for powerboat transatlantic records from Bishop’s Rock in the Isles of Scilly to Lizard Point at the tip of Cornwall. So the slate was wiped clean, and the fast times set by Richard Branson and the Aga Khan were gone, although as far as the UIM was concerned, they never existed since neither operated under UIM rules.

We realised it would be a little tongue-in-cheek to take a record even with a route via Gibraltar, but there was no doubting it would be a world record none the less.

We don't have Adventurer’s range to get from New York to Horta in one hop, so we’re going via St John’s in Newfoundland. It adds 170 nautical miles to the total journey, but it does at least split it into bite-sized chunks of around 1,100 and 1,200 nautical miles. It just so happens the first bite has head seas which put us more than 24 hours behind schedule.

As we headed further south-east, the weather started to change. The sea flattens down, and the wind moves round. Even at this point, we feel we’re still in with a chance to get to Horta within Adventurer’s 130 hours 45 minutes, but it’s going to be tight.

By the time it’s come round in front of us, we’ve had confused seas, where the swell is going in one direction and the waves the other. Now it’s blowing a gale straight at us.

In the normal run of things, the cabin provides welcome shelter from the elements (or at least most of them). It’s only when you venture outside for a quiet moment with the toilet bucket that you get the real measure for what’s going on.

With the engine just ticking over, there’s an unholy howling noise. The metal grab rails around the boat are screaming, which indicates that the wind is fierce. Spirit’s grab rails only ever scream when the wind is over 30 knots.

Clive Tully waiting for the weather to calm down back in 2001

Clive Tully waiting for the weather to calm down back in 2001 - Credit: Clive Tully

The bad news is that we have our own little “Perfect Storm” on our hands – we’re heading straight for the point where two depressions are converging. We accept that the New York to Horta record is beyond us, and the priority now is simply to guarantee our arrival.

Fuel consumption has been critical all the way along, and the simple fact is that if it goes above two litres of diesel per nautical mile, we’ll run out before we reach port. So we slow right down, and for a while we even switch off and drift. Five hundred miles from Horta is, in theory, about 24 hours away. In these conditions, it looks as though we could be out here for days.

We pull in to Horta disappointed, but thankful to get ashore for a proper rest and the chance to dry our kit. We hoped that we could still tackle the Horta to Gibraltar record.

The Spirit of Cardiff in South Street Seaport Museum, New York in 2001

The Spirit of Cardiff in South Street Seaport Museum, New York in 2001 - Credit: Clive Tully

The conditions are good, but the strong northerlies forecast for about three days hence would possibly impede our return to Cardiff, and come what may, we have to keep our date with the Barrage, and the VIP welcoming committee. And so after overnighting in port, we set a course from Horta direct for Lizard Point. It turns out to be 1,239 miles of calm sea and sunshine. What a contrast!

We arrive off Lizard Point in the early hours of May 30, 2001, with the boat almost running on fumes. We’ve completed our transatlantic in 248 hours 47 minutes – nowhere near as fast as previous Atlantic crossings finishing at Bishop’s Rock, but we have a record nonetheless. THE record, in fact! And indeed, we discover subsequently that we’ve even set a record from New York to Horta – for boats of under 50 feet, making Spirit of Cardiff the fastest small boat ever to cross the Atlantic.

Twenty years on, and despite the “dog leg” route which could be straightened out by a boat with a longer fuel range, Spirit of Cardiff’s transatlantic record still stands. Alan Priddy, currently battling Covid restrictions to bring his Team Britannia round the world powerboat project to fruition, is characteristically forthright about the reason why our 2001 record still stands.

Confronting Poseidon, Clive Tully’s gripping book about the entire Spirit of Cardiff project, including the May 2001 transatlantic and subsequent epic circumnavigation attempt in 2002, is available as a Kindle download.

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