Back in the mid-1980s when Richard Branson was trying to make a name for his new airline venture in the important US market, he and some shipmates came up with a cunning plan to steal back the Blue Riband from the Americans.
The first attempt ended with Branson and his crew bobbing up and down in the water off Lands End after they struck a submerged obstacle. But the second, a few months later in June 1986 aboard “Virgin Atlantic Challenger II”, ended in success. The adventure also introduced Branson to his future Virgin Atlantic chief executive Steve Ridgway (pictured far right in both crew images).
Challenger II’s crew celebrate in 1986
Although the three day 8h 31min crossing set a new transatlantic record, Branson was denied the Blue Riband because he broke two conditions of the competition by stopping to refuel and not having a commercial maritime purpose.
But that didn’t stop the celebrations – which included a jaunt up the Thames to Tower Bridge with prime minister Margaret Thatcher at the helm. The £1.5 million powerboat then disappeared from the limelight – until a few months ago.
After being located in a Majorcan boat yard earlier this year, Challenger II has now been returned to the UK, restored to her former glory and reunited with her crew.
“I found the boat, bought her, refitted her, brought her back to Britain, and basically saved her,” says new owner Dan Stevens.
Friends reunited: the crew back on board Challenger II last week
The sleek machine, which is capable of cruising at 40kt, was reunited with her crew in the Cornwall harbour town of Fowey. Branson was reunited with Ridgway – who retired from Virgin in February – and his other shipmates Dag Pike, Eckie Rastig, Peter McCann and Chris Witty.
Ridgway told Airline Business about Virgin’s 1980s boating ploy last year when he appeared on our cover: “I put the transatlantic boat project together which became the launch mechanism for Virgin Atlantic in terms of publicity,” he said. At that time Ridgway worked for the company that created Branson’s purpose-built speedboat and was the team’s pilot.
Ridgway has never lost his love of the water, and since his retirement in February can usually be found “messing about with boats”.