Life in the fast lane

Ian Toll driving the 1971 Magnum 27 Sport, Sidewinder, he restored between 2008 and 2012, with nephew James McCrae port side, off Cowes, 2016. CREDIT Paul Field

This is anything but messing about on the water; this is ‘the greatest adrenalin rush ever’ according to veteran offshore powerboat racer, owner and builder Ian Toll. The smile on his face tells its own story and, as the stories flow, so too does the twinkle in his eye.

Ian is one of the leading figures in the story of modern British powerboat racing with a hand in many of the most significant technical and engineering developments that saw it explode from a gentlemanly pursuit for the most moneyed of the leisure classes, to a fiercely competitive battleground that has powered progressive marine design and innovation for more than 50 years.

He arrived on the Dorset coast at just the right time.

‘We grew up coming to Poole every weekend so when my father Cecil moved the family engineering business out of London in 1959 it was obvious we would come here,’ he explains from the comfort of the boardroom of AeroThermal Group, the company he founded in 2006 that specialises in the design and manufacture of bespoke autoclaves for the aerospace, motor sport, military and electronics sectors.

That meant Ian was in the right place at the right time to see the first Cowes to Torquay race in 1961 organised by Sir Max Aitken and sponsored by his father the press baron Lord Beaverbrook.

Cowes, August 2017. Christian Toll driving the distinctive Cigarette 35 Dry Martini in the middle, boat owner Michael Peet on the starboard side and Jeff Hall throttling port side returning home after coming first in class and fourth overall. CREDIT James McCrae.

‘It was a jolly for his aristocratic pals really, but also a reminder that Poole has a long history of speedboats that goes back nearly a century – they used to have Harmsworth Cup races off Poole and there are photos of speedboats racing along the Quay in the 1930s,’ says Ian’s son Christian, AeroThermal’s CEO and a successful powerboat racer in his own right.

The winner of that first Cowes-Torquay completed the course at an average speed of under 25mph, but Ian was hooked. (Last year’s winner, Poole-based Richard Carr covered the course in 68 minutes, averaging more than 97mph.)

‘They were cabin cruisers really, although you could tune the engines and so on. It was all tied up with the Royal Motor Yacht Club at Sandbanks and the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes so there were a lot of rules – for instance, you had to have a cabin and you had to have a toilet and at one point you had to have cutlery on board. People used to buy doll’s house cutlery, all sorts of dodges.

‘There was definitely a sense of us lot being seen as renegades.’

And Poole race drivers, boat builders and designers were right in the thick of it. Ian’s younger brother Tony is a noted race driver who won the Needles Trophy, while local men Mike Mantle and Robin Culpan of Dorset Lake Shipyard were both on winning boats in the expanded Cowes-Torquay-Cowes race.

In 1966 Ian founded Tollcraft Marine to tune boats for the burgeoning UK racing scene.

‘We had some real characters in those days. One bloke, Dave Wagstaff – Waggy – came to me with this boat he’d designed to be powered by four E-Type Jaguar engines… and it worked. There was another guy I used to sell parts to, a thatcher, who scrimped and scraped to save the money to put together this boat and he ran it in the Cowes-Torquay. It was hand painted.’

Then in 1968 Ian acquired the salvage rights to the much-feted Magnum Tornado. The most technically advanced powerboat of its time, special engines were flown in for it just before the Cowes-Torquay and many expected champion driver Bob Pruett to romp home. Instead, halfway across Lyme Bayshe took on water and sank in 180 feet of water.

Ian bought the salvage rights from Pruett and as soon as the Royal Navy recovered her started work stripping the engine and placing the parts in oil. That was when he found out Magnum Tornado had not been Pruett’s to sell – it belonged to two-time offshore world champion Vincenzo Balestrieri.

‘We had some fun and games with that,’ he laughs. ‘That boat and its engines were absolutely cutting edge and we didn’t really know if we had the machinery, the money or the talent to get her going again, but we did it. The first time out I nearly took my head off when the harmonic stabliser exploded and flew out the engine just missing my ear. There was a lot of trial and error, but that boat was my entry to the next level.’

Cecil Toll (left) and Ian Toll with a mechanic rebuilding one of the special race engines recovered with Magnum Tornado in early 1969.

‘It was in the middle of all this that I was born,’ says Christian, who now drives the vintage Cigarette 35 class boat Dry Martini. ‘For a while in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s British powerboat racing was in really good shape. The British, European and American teams were competing fiercely on a world stage and locally there was plenty to see in Poole Bay, but it tailed off with more and more regulations brought in after a few high profile fatalities.’

Those included the Formula One driver Didier Pironi who was killed off the Needles in 1987 when his boat caught a rough wash and flipped over; and Stefano Casiraghi, the husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco, who died in a world championship race in 1990.

‘Of course it’s still dangerous, the newer superboat class have two power plants producing 1800 horsepower from each engine,’ adds Christian, prompting Ian to shake his head at the 244 mph record set by eight times British champion Steve Curtis in 2014.

‘You can’t take risk out of the sport,’ says Ian. ‘I used to shrug about it until Christian started doing it and now his son, my grandson, Rocco who’s nine, he’s shaping up to be the next generation. Mind you he doesn’t go anywhere on a boat without a crash helmet and his lifejacket.’

Christian smiles knowingly. For nearly 60 years since that first Cowes-Torquay race British powerboat racing has been driven by the passion, courage and bloody-minded refusal to compromise of people like his father and his uncle. At last year’s race he was able to reunite Dry Martini with the man who powered it to the 1974 championship, three-times winner Richie Powers.

Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes 2012. l-r: Tony Toll, Ian Toll, Rocco Toll, Christian Toll

‘That was amazing, really special; he was pointing out all the parts he’d made. Since the 50th anniversary race in 2010 there’s been a resurgence of interest and 2018 will see the return of offshore powerboat racing to Poole. This is our heritage now and a lot of that is down to people like Ian and Tony and the other pioneers.’

Both father and son dodge all questions about how many powerboats have been in the family, but they’re more forthcoming when articulating their infatuation with them.

‘It’s the greatest adrenalin rush ever,’ chimes Ian. ‘When you’re gyrating through the waves like a vibration, just touching the water, there’s no other feeling like it. It’s totalling thrilling.’

Christian explains: ‘I love racing cars but the road doesn’t move, it’s fixed. In a boat no two waves are the same so you can never relax, you’re working all the time. On top of that you have to navigate as well.’

Just before he goes back to his day job Ian’s eyes twinkle anew as he adds: ‘It’s an expensive sport and its critics have a lot to say about us burning fuel and wasting energy. That’s one way of looking at it, but you might also see us as some of the biggest, happiest taxpayers of the lot. It’s up to you.’

Lady Arran – speed queen

Ian also worked with Fiona Colquhoun, the daredevil Lady Arran who set a new Class I powerboat speed record on Lake Windermere in 1971.

‘It was a new hydroplane designed by Lorne Campbell and the only way we could get it started was to lie on the sponson, one of us each side, and spray this ether damp start on the primary diaphragm because it had a tiny hole in it. The trouble was it would only start in gear so we asked Lady Arran to take it easy, but she didn’t know any other speed than flat out and before we knew it we were hanging on for dear life at eighty miles per hour heading for the beach because we’d also sawn six inches off the rudder for extra speed and the wheel didn’t steer properly.’

It all ended well enough of course.

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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