STORY Corporate

3 days, 8 hours, 27 minutes

Posted on October 30, 2013 by Dag Pike, Images by Dag Pike, Owen Billcliffe, mtu Corporate Archive

In 1986, the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II crossed the Atlantic in the record time of 3 days, 8 hours and 27 minutes. The crew now met up again.
Plymouth, United Kingdom

It was the record of a lifetime. In 1986, the  Virgin Atlantic Challenger II  crossed the Atlantic in three days, eight hours and 27 minutes. But instead of being showcased, the famous racing boat ended up in a shipyard on the Balearic Island of Majorca where it was found by British boating enthusiast Dan Stevens and restored to former glory. Together with the record breaking crew, he presented the boat to the public during the summer. One of the crew members was Dag Pike. He was the navigator on the memorable journey across the Atlantic. For the mtu Report, he recalls this comeback and the record breaking crossing.

I don't think I’ll ever forget those feelings I had. In public we were all gung-ho and ready for a fantastic adventure. We were six young men wanting to break the stranglehold of the liners on the Atlantic record. There was still some unfinished business: A year ago we had already made an attempt at breaking the record. But then, 130 miles from the finish line in England, the  Virgin Atlantic Challenger  sank. What a disgrace! So in summer 1986 we were ready to try again - with the  Virgin Atlantic Challenger II. And now I might as well admit: In private I was scared stiff. The Atlantic does not give up its records easily and here we were trying to cross 3,000 miles of some of the stormiest seas in the World in a time faster than had ever been done before in a 72 foot boat that looked so vulnerable in the dawn light of New York harbor.

Adventurers meet again
Now  that same crew boarded the boat in Plymouth for a trip down memory lane. In 1986, we were a six man crew on  Virgin Atlantic Challenger II  with Richard Branson heading up the team. Alongside were Steve Ridgway who is now the MD of the airline and yachtsman Chay Blyth. Ecki Rastig was the engineer, there to nurse the pair of 2,000 hp mtu 396 diesels that would power us across the ocean and Peter McCann of the BBC was there to record the event for posterity on his TV camera. My job was to act as navigator and weatherman. 27 years later, six rather grey-haired and wrinkled old men climbed on board to make a short 20 mile voyage down the coast to Fowey from the base in Plymouth. It was a trip down memory lane for all of us. Richard Branson, now Sir Richard Branson, could not keep the grin off his face with excitement and our emotions were running high as those same 396 mtu’s were fired up and the memories came flooding back.

Happy as rarely before
But what I remember most clearly is that moment where we realized that we had made it. The moment we saw the lighthouse of Bishop Rock and knew “We’ve made it!” Everything became a blur. I was physically and mentally exhausted and could hardly stand. I was so tired I could not sleep. It took a week for our bruised and battered bodies to recover and much longer to recover from the constant publicity and the demands of the press that followed from this epic voyage. Even now I can still feel the pain.

From one owner to the next
Stepping on board again, the pain was of course forgotten. We were so full of happiness. I never knew a boat and its engines could take so much punishment and still keep going. In the years since we made that record voyage,  Virgin Atlantic Challenger II  has had several owners and attempts at refits. After the record attempt she was taken to the Mediterranean where she was sold to Prince Rashid of Saudi Arabia. He based the boat in the South of France and used the boat just a few times every year to go to Majorca or along the coast. It remained almost in its original condition and at that time the engines had around 700 hours of running.

I never knew a boat and its engines could take so much punishment and still keep going.

Dag Pike - navigator of Virgin Atlantic Challenger II

When he tired of the boat it was laid up in Beaulieu-sur-Mer where it sat out of the water for 10 years. The storage bills stopped being paid so the yard put the boat up for auction and it was bought by Marshall Rice from the UK. Marshall’slan was to restore the boat and bring it back to the UK and I was asked to bring in my experience to help. Ecki Rastig was brought in to check over the engines and declared them fit and ready even though they had not run for 10 years. When new batteries were installed, the engines fired up on the second crank of the engine. Not bad after 10 years of not running. We put the boat in the water and it ran like clockwork until the fuel stopped coming through from the tanks. The original fuel tanks were constructed with a rubber bladder filled with foam which was supported in a wooden box. This was a light weight solution but unfortunately the foam had deteriorated with age and the powdered foam was blocking the fuel lines. The filters would cope until they became blocked and the engines would stop. We ran the boat as far as Palma where we intended to carry out a full refit but unfortunately Marshall Rice died of cancer and the project came to a halt.

“Part of Britain’s maritime heritage”
So once again the boat sat in a boatyard uncared for and it was put up for sale. For years there were no buyers and then Dan Stevens, the owner of a boatyard in Plymouth, England, heard about it and negotiated its purchase. “This boat is part of Britain’s maritime heritage,” commented Stevens. “I couldn’t let it go to scrap so I purchased it and took a team out to Palma where we stripped the fuel tanks, shoveled out the foam granules and lined the tank shells with composite to create new rigid tanks. With some more work we had the boat up and running and as before it took just a couple of cranks of the engines before they fired up.” The boat ran like clockwork on the 2,000 mile voyage back to the UK and this is where we arranged the reunion for the original crew. As we stepped on board the memories came flooding back. “Memories of trying to get suitable weather predictions for our Atlantic record attempt. Memories of the severe fatigue and pain of that epic crossing when we barely slept for three days as the boat bucked and tossed in the Atlantic waves. Best of all were memories of our arrival in the Isles of Scilly with the record in our pockets.”

Reminiscing about an eventful journey
After negotiating thick fog and the icebergs off the Newfoundland coast we made our second refueling stop on the Grand Banks. After little more than an hour transferring fuel we fired up the engines and were ready to head east, on schedule for home and glory.

She still looks and sounds the same. It’s wonderful to be back.

Richard Branson - former owner of Virgin Atlantic Challenger II

Then the engines faltered and stopped. They were started again and then stopped once more. Up to that moment the engines had run without missing a beat. What was wrong? Rastig leapedinto the engine room and came up with filters full of water instead of fuel. Further investigation showed that we had taken 4 tons of fuel on board and 8 tons of water during our refueling and it was the water that was getting to the engines. Even mtu diesels will not run on water so we had to drain the fuel tanks twice and refill them before we got mainly clean fuel coming through. The water came from a mix up on board the refueling ship. Suddenly our hopes of glory turned to gloom. It looked like our race was run and the best option would be to hobble back to Newfoundland and maybe try again later in the year.

Thanks to the weather
However, the weather had other plans. Coming up behind us was a huge storm that we would have to face if we headed back. The only option was to keep going – but with a 10 hour delay the chances of the record were minimal. The mtu’s would run intermittently, stopping perhaps every half hour as more water still came through the system but worse still, we were running out of fuel filters. Then the Royal Air Force came to the rescue and dropped a canister of new filters by parachute. Armed with new filters we kept heading east as fast as possible to run away from the storm. We could already feel its effects on the increasing height of the waves but we had the speed to outrun the storm. As the seas built up it was becoming a rough ride. Tired beyond belief after 48 hours without sleep, battered by the constant movement of the boat and worried sick about the weather we all had to call on reserves we did not know existed.

The longest night out at sea
After another refueling stop in the mid-Atlantic we continued to power east. “I will remember that last night for a long, long time. Picture a 72 foot boat powering along in the pitch blacknight and every now and then flying completely out of the water as a bigger wave than average came along. Suddenly it would go quiet as the engines automatically cut out and you knew that there was going to be the most almighty crash when the boat re-entered the water. Despite our wellcushioned seats the pain started at the bottom of your spine and travelled all the way up to your head. That was the longest night I have ever spent at sea and all you could do was live for the next wave and not think any further ahead.”

Two hours inside the record
We didn’t know it but the outside world was holding its breath as well. In our tiny world we were completely isolated from the outside and just focusing on getting the job done. But the world was sitting on the edge of its seat willing us on. Daylight brought some relief and just 20 miles out from the Bishop Rock and things were looking great. We would be two hours inside the record if we kept going and it all looked downhill from here with just half an hour to go. Any moment now the lighthouse would show up and we could power over the finish line. Then we were overtaken by this thunderstorm and the sky turned black. The intense rain of the storm was blanking out the radar and visibility through the windows was down to a mile or so. Here we were after 3,000 miles of punishing ocean, racing towards the rocks of the Isles of Scilly at 50 knots and we were virtually blind. I could have wept. Then just a couple of miles away right on track the lighthouse was visible. What a relief!!

Everything unchanged
Stepping on board after  so many  years, the feeling of relief came flooding back. All of us could hardly believe our luck. “She still looks and sounds the same. It’s wonderful to be back,” Branson commented. Nearly everything on board looked just the same. The navigation electronics had been renewed and there was new safety gear and a fireproof lining in the engine compartment but we settled into the same old seats that had cushioned the rough ride. The sounds were the same with the reassuring rumble of the twin 2000 hp MTUs although the speed is a bit lower now as befits an old lady. Ecki Rastig remembered that the mtu’s were running at 20% overload for the record run. “Now they are back to normal tune so the top speed has dropped to 45 knots.” As for me, I could not believe how small the boat looked. “Did we really cross the Atlantic in that?”

The content of the stories reflects the status as of the respective date of publication. They are not updated. Further developments are therefore not taken into account.

Point of contact

Darren Barnett
+44 1342 335 450
+44(1342)335 450
+44 13 4233 5450

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