Crossing the Atlantic in a fast yacht: the record-breaking vessels of the 1980s


After the last record crossing of the United States ocean liner came the era of the speedboats chasing the Blue Riband.

SS United States entered service in 1952 and on its maiden voyage broke all the records for speed. She managed to cross the Atlantic in three days, 12 hours and 12 minutes. The 2,900 nautical miles trip was made with an average speed of 34.5 knots. That's fast, even by today's standards.

The ship still holds the record and the Blue Riband - Hales Trophy, an accolade that was awarded to passengers ships that crossed the Atlantic in regular service with the record highest speed.

SS United States holds also the record for the fastest eastbound crossing: three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes.

Even if the ocean liners were still in use for some years, the planes became a more fast way to cross the Atlantic and the era of the passenger ships ended. Today's cruise ships are not centered on speed, as they are built as floating cities, not in a hurry to get to the destination.

But the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing still boasts a never-ending fascination among adventurers. And in the '80s the dream was once again up for grabs.

Virgin Atlantic Challenger

Enter the famous British businessman Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group. In 1985 he built the Virgin Atlantic Challenger, a very fast boat in which he attempted to break the record established by SS United States.

The first Virgin Atlantic Challenger was 65ft (20m) twin-hull vessel, but it didn't make it to the finish line. After leaving New York in June 1985 and surviving rough seas and the threat of icebergs, Challenger was damaged 100 miles from Bishop Rock and sank in heavy seas. The crew was saved and returned next year for a second attempt.

This time, a new craft was used, a 72ft (22m) monohull named Virgin Atlantic Challenger II. Branson completed the crossing in three days, eight hours and 31 minutes, averaging 36 knots. He shattered the previous record by two hours and nine minutes.

Although Branson wanted the Blue Riband trophy, he was denied because his vessel was not a passenger ship. Branson responded by commissioning a new trophy, open to all challengers. So the Virgin Atlantic Challenge Trophy was born.

Gentry Eagle

In 1988, American Tom Gentry entered the race with 110ft (33.5m) vessel Gentry Eagle. The yacht was damaged by heavy seas off Newfoundland and forced to turn back. He came back next year. In July 1989 Gentry Eagle crossed the line after 62 hours and 7 minutes at an average speed of 47.4 knots. Branson himself met Gentry at the finish line.


In 1991, three challengers were announced but in the end only the Italian vessel Destriero entered the competition. Destriero was an impressive power vessel built by Fincantieri yard. The 67m (220ft) vessel was fitted with three GE Aviation LM1600 gas turbines for a total of 60,000 hp for a top speed of 59 knots (110 km/h, 68 mph).

Destriero started the record crossing in 1992. She crossed the Atlantic without refueling in both directions. The vessel averaged 53 knots (98.32 km/h). Despite the record time, Destriero was denied the Halles Trophy for being a private yacht and not a commercial passenger vessel. She won and she's the current holder of the Virgin Atlantic Challenge Trophy and the Columbus Atlantic Trophy.

Video below, in Italian:

Photos by Virgin, Fincantieri, Yacht Club Costa Smeralda

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