• The boat was in good order, so nothing major needed doing.
  • The electrics were a point of focus, with all the switching and instruments replaced.

Greg Copp recounts the tale of how a successful refit increased the firepower of a Dragon …

The Idea

James Shepherd has had a long-standing powerboat racing passion that goes back to 2001. By 2007 he had graduated to P1 racing, winning the Evolution class in a Fountain. Ten years later, still with that racing itch to scratch, James had Cowes–Torquay–Cowes in his sights.

Any good throttleman needs a good driver, and in this department it was long-standing friend and business partner Miles Dobson who would be at the wheel. Visiting the 2017 London Boat Show, the plan took shape when James viewed the Spectre 32 – Tom Montgomery-Swan’s ‘off the shelf’ record-setting race boat. Ironically this boat, powered by twin 400hp Mercury Verado outboards, would take Tom to a Class C win in the Cowes–Torquay–Cowes event this year.

However, while in the West Country trialling Tom’s boat, a twist of fate led Miles to discover that Chris Dodge was selling Smokin’ Aces, a Dragon 39 with five Cowes–Torquay–Cowes Class B wins. The bigger Class A boats were not considered a financially realistic starting point as far as James and Miles were concerned. Class C, in the form of the Spectre 32, was on the cards, but Class B looked a better midway point, so James and Miles plumped for the Dragon.

The Boat

The Dragon 39 was designed by Craig Barry and built by Dragon Powerboats in the US. It is constructed with a deep-vee twin-step epoxy carbon-fibre composite hull. Smokin’ Aces, as she was originally named, was commissioned in 2005 for Mike and Jackie Hunt to compete in P1 SuperSport. She was originally powered by twin 525hp Mercury Racing petrol engines with No. 6 drives. However, by the time Chris Dodge bought her she had lost these motors, as he bought her as a bare hull. He then installed a pair of 625hp petrol V10 8.2-litre Ilmors, and some ex-military No. 6 drives. Apparently, these engines in their previous boat had already been halfway round Britain in the 2008 Round Britain event, so were pretty much run in when Chris got them.

Chris then employed Nick Barsch, an experienced and well-known race engineer, to fit and rig these engines and drives while the boat lived in his garage at home. James already knew the history of Smokin’ Aces as she had been a winner when he first competed in P1 and he had had his eye on her then, so buying her was an easy decision. When James and Miles bought the boat, the engines had done five Cowes–Torquay–Cowes events and four other races they know of, and attempted Round Britain, all without an engine rebuild.

Smokin’ Aces fitted their needs well. James prefers a closed-canopy boat, while Miles prefers an open boat, so the Dragon was a perfect compromise. A point that James made is that ‘Cowes–Torquay is not about the latest and quickest boat out of the States, but about boats with a bit of pedigree and history that have earned the right to be in the event’. The boat was in good order, so nothing major needed doing. The credit for her set-up and rigging James attributes to Chris and Nick, but like all boats, scrutiny, servicing and maintenance were needed before she hit the water again.

With the boat renamed Halcyon Connect, James needed a base. He looked at the Solent, as do most boaters in the South East, but realised that he could not really find anywhere with quick access to open water that suited. He was also not keen on speed-testing a 96mph boat in the congested Solent waters. Looking at a map, Littlehampton seemed an obvious choice – it was easy to get to and had quick access to near-deserted open water. It seemed at first that Littlehampton marina would not be able to help as James needed more than a park and launch facility. Luckily, they had a small commercial yard available into which he could fit the boat, support RIBs and all his gear, and the marina can easily launch a boat like a Dragon 39.

They started in April this year, systematically going through the entire boat. The electrics were a point of focus, with all the switching and instruments replaced. The instruments were also repositioned to suit their needs in relation to the throttleman’s view of them. James employed electronics engineer Charlie Hawks to replace the older-generation Garmin electronics with a range of Simrad kit, notably two of their latest Evo3 9″ chartplotter/multifunction displays. The Evo range, like quite a few modern plotters, has an external control panel option, enabling you to place control of the display where you want it. As James put it, you can’t reach forward to touch the chartplotter when you are strapped in a racing harness, doing 90mph. The external control panel also enables you to easily zoom in to identify navigational marks – an asset when negotiating a race circuit at speed. The seats had to be replaced with new Cobra racing seats, as the originals were built ‘for thinner-framed guys’, as James put it. Finally, the engines were thoroughly serviced. Though they were still on their original internal components with a decade of racing behind them, James left them untouched inside. Cowes–Torquay–Cowes was to be the boat’s test run – mechanically and otherwise.

The Race

James and Miles took the boat from Littlehampton to Cowes on its own keel the day before. The only last-minute dramas were a solenoid that needed replacing and a prop change, the latter showing the advantage of bringing her by sea. James wanted a good start but he knew it was not that important, as the bigger Class A boats had the benefit of twin turbocharged 1350hp Mercury Racing petrol engines, which would immediately punch them into the lead.

They ran Halcyon Connect flat out at 6000rpm from the start, and by the time they had left the Needles they were in fourth place, with Drew Langdon in the 43ft Outerlimits Class A boat in front of them. Drew had problems before reaching Portland Bill, so James overtook him, and by the time he reached Portland he had overtaken Markus Hendricks in Hendricks 55, another Class A boat. This put Halcyon Connect in second place behind Steve Curtis in the Class A Cougar. Portland Bill was uncharacteristically flat, as was the whole race. Indeed James said: ‘I did not see a wave all day.’

After running flat out at around 90mph for just over 75 minutes, they were approaching the two cardinal points at Torquay marking the finishing point for the outward leg, before the mandatory midway stop. Given their approach speed, it was not easy to identify north and south cardinals simultaneously. Zooming in courtesy of the external control panel on the Simrad display, James realised that they were on the wrong side of the southern cardinal, and with Markus Hendricks on their tail, for safety reasons they could not make a last-second turn. Consequently they turned to port, backed off and then crossed the Torquay finish line correctly, but now back in third place, 16 seconds behind Hendricks 55.

The turnaround at Torquay consisted of podium awards for the Cowes–Torquay leg, a sandwich and then fluid/system checks before the return leg was started. Halcyon Connect had a very good start in second place behind Drew Langdon, ‘who was going like the clappers in his Class A boat across Lyme Bay’. Behind was Steve Curtis, followed by the rest of the race, so James knew he just had to hold this position to win. Drew had arrived an hour late on the outward leg, so coming in second behind him with a fast third-place time going out meant a win for Halcyon Connect. However, Steve’s big Cougar is a faster boat, and halfway over Lyme Bay he overtook James and Miles to take second place in Class A. For Steve, having taken first place going out and second coming back, this meant overall victory in the class. Knowing he did not have the power to overtake the 2700hp Cougar, James backed the engine speed off by 400rpm, to give himself a margin that might be needed later.

Having burnt a good chunk of the original 1200 litres that it started with, Halcyon Connect was still able to manage 90mph. Shortly after the Cougar had taken the lead, James saw his rooster tail stop, and 30 seconds later they slowed to pass Steve Curtis. The crew were on deck dealing with a mechanical issue and they needed no help, so James throttled up to maximum RPM at 95mph, and they set off in pursuit of Drew Langdon. Just past Portland, for some unknown reason, their GPS system went on the blink, and they had to find the next mark, known as ‘Ariel Mesh’, with a mobile phone app. ‘Yellow Brick’ is an app that enables spectators to track the event, but James used it to navigate, with phone in one hand and throttles in the other. However, it worked, and after finding Ariel Mesh, their Simrad system, with a reboot, decided to play again. Then they were off on the last stretch, with Sunus Ocean Racing, driven by Tom Montgomery-Swan and Michal Galczewiski, not far behind them. Halcyon Connect finished second on the return leg, giving her first place in the class overall, with Sunus Ocean Racing coming second. James and Miles had an overall time of 2:38:58 and an average speed of 84.03mph.

Looking Forward

Two days after the race, Halcyon Connect was shipped out to Ilmor in the States for the engines to be rebuilt. They reported that three of the four exhaust headers were cracked and leaking seawater into the cylinder bores, and had done so for some time, certainly throughout the race. Not surprisingly, the cylinder liners and exhaust valves were corroded. It is testament to the durability of the Ilmor V10 that Halcyon Connect could achieve first place in what is the toughest powerboat race in the world with two 10-year-old engines suffering from saltwater ingress. James has said that as soon as the engines are finished, he and Miles will be competing in the world championships at Quay West in Florida.

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