The thrills and spills of north Norfolk's powerboat racing

Alan Sabberton with a working model of his trimaran presently under construction in Wroxham.

Alan Sabberton with a working model of his trimaran presently under construction in Wroxham. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

Daredevil powerboat racing isn't an activity most people associated with north Norfolk's sleepy waterways, but the sport has a strong tradition here. Robert Paul, Museum of the Broads director and president and past chairman and vice president of the Broads Society tells more. 

There are heroes and villains of the powerboat racing world that put Norfolk on the map with their innovative design, skilled boatbuilding techniques and daredevil driving.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the  Broads Society.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the Broads Society. - Credit: Supplied by Robert Paul

Powerboat racing may seem incongruous with the peaceful, natural world of the Broads and North Norfolk, and many may share the view that it’s not appropriate for an area with such a special ambience.

However, others may consider that it is a legitimate activity for those who love water sports.

Powerboat racers, from left, Percival, Spalding and Clabburn.

Powerboat racers, from left, Percival, Spalding and Clabburn. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

Whatever your view, powerboat racing is part of the history of Norfolk, and for sure a fascinating and illustrious one.

It will surprise many that the earliest record of motorboat racing was in 1903 when the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club was persuaded to organise the first ‘motor launch handicap race’ on Oulton Broad, the winner being the steam launch ‘Alda’ owned by a Mr. J. Bullen-Youngs.

Robert Paul clambering out of a powerboat after it capsized at a buoy on Oulton Broad.

Robert Paul clambering out of a powerboat after it capsized at a buoy on Oulton Broad. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

The sight and experience of steamboat racing must have been quite something.

Most Read

A few decades later, a dentist named Charlie Nicholls, with others founded the Lowestoft and Oulton Broad Motor Boat Club in the late 1920s.

His first taste of speed on water was in Australia where he became a racing fanatic. Soon after founding the club following his return to the UK, he won the Norfolk Motorboat Trophy on Barton Broad in 1935.

The 'Whisso Bang' driven by local boatbuilder Toby Sutton, powered by a 4 litre American 'Lycoming' engine in 1946.

The 'Whisso Bang' driven by local boatbuilder Toby Sutton, powered by a 4 litre American 'Lycoming' engine in 1946. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

The motorboat racing was at the end of the sailing regatta which took place during the last weekend of August. It is inconceivable to imagine speedboat racing on Barton today. 

I can remember watching the last race on the broad in 1969. Soon after, speed limits were brought in to cover most of the Broads.

Racing boats launching at the ramp at East Quay, Wells.

Racing boats launching at the ramp at East Quay, Wells. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

The powerboat Brooke 1, pictured in 1905.

The powerboat Brooke 1, pictured in 1905. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

During those early days of motorboat racing and development, some weird and wonderful boats were experimented with; the Brooke Marine Company had their factory in Lake Lothing adjacent to Oulton Broad and were constantly trialling new designs. One of their racers, ‘Brooke 1’ was described as ‘an infernal monster with angel wings’. 

It had a massive six cylinder, 400 hp motor which when started up, it was said, could be heard ten miles away in Great Yarmouth. 

It came to a sticky end, however.

The club went from strength to strength in the 1930s – the big news was that a new race was to be initiated and sponsored by the Daily Mirror – the winner to receive £100, a large sum in those days as well as receiving the Daily Mirror Trophy – it was a prestigious event and really put the club on the national motorboat racing map.

Modern day racing boats now have driver pods for safety and protection, just like in Formula One.

Modern day racing boats now have driver pods for safety and protection, just like in Formula One. - Credit: Lowestoft and Oulton Broad Motor Boat Club

Modern day racing boats now have driver pods for safety and protection, just like in Formula One.

Modern day racing boats now have driver pods for safety and protection, just like in Formula One. - Credit: Lowestoft and Oulton Broad Motor Boat Club

Modern day racing boats now have driver pods for safety and protection, just like in Formula One.

Modern day racing boats now have driver pods for safety and protection, just like in Formula One. - Credit: Lowestoft and Oulton Broad Motor Boat Club

Racing for the Daily Mirror trophy still takes place today. Also in development during these years was hydroplane racing, rapidly gaining in popularity with Oulton Broad becoming the favoured venue for the class.

The 60s and 70s saw racing entering a new era with high powered catamarans and highly tuned engines.

It was this era that saw Horning legend Tom Percival and his teammate Bob Spalding achieving speeds in excess of 100 mph which on the relatively confined circuit of Oulton Broad made for an exciting spectacle.

These two drivers, along with another legendary driver, Doug Willey in his hydroplane ‘Miss Chief’ became both European and World champions in their class, Bob Spalding achieving a world speed record in 1980 and 1982 with speeds of just under 140 mph. 

We have a display covering Tom Percival’s achievements at the Museum of the Broads at Stalham.

Doug Willey was the winner of no less than 23 British championships and was awarded the British Speed Record and Drivers Championships nine times. Truly an Oulton Broad great.

So the club has produced a considerable number of World, European and British champions in various classes over the years with Norfolk boatbuilding and engineering pioneers responsible for truly innovative and ground breaking design.

A little closer to home, for a somewhat shorter period, Wells-next-the Sea had its own powerboat racing club organising racing in the outer harbour.

I raced here (and won occasionally) for several years and remember it as a very friendly, welcoming, and well organised club with some exciting events.

Boats used a large slipway at the East Quay to launch, with the ‘after- race’ get together in a nearby pub always very welcome (the name of the pub escapes me).

Sadly, the facilities were not as extensive as other clubs, racing of course was subject to tidal conditions and debris in the channel often caused incidents, so its days were numbered.

Nevertheless, it did attract some famous and accomplished drivers both in sports boats and hydroplanes which provided some great entertainment for spectators on the quay.

I have very little other information about the history of the club, and I can only find a few of my own photographs. If anyone has any material relating to the club, I would love to hear from them.

Of course, powerboat racing does not come without risk, and there have been many spills, fires and sinkings throughout the years but usually without serious results.

I raced at Oulton Broad also and had occasional mishaps including capsizing the boat at a turning buoy – luckily, I escaped relatively unharmed.

The last race of an evening programme was called the ‘scramble’ – it was open to all classes on a shortened course and with handicapping in place resulted in very tight finishes.

It made for some very hairy racing! It was in this race I had my mishap. The ‘Scramble’ was subsequently abandoned as being too dangerous.

My father raced at Oulton Broad in the 1940s – his choice were hydroplanes, his favourite boat named ‘Quicksilver’. He apparently was racing when my mother was giving birth to me in 1949 – it was announced over the tannoy during a race! This was before the days when fathers attended births!

I can’t finish without mentioning another true pioneer – Alan Sabberton, who at his family- run boatyard in Wroxham, is building an iconic trimaran of his own design that he intends to challenge the current world water speed record of 317 mph currently held by Australian, Ken Warby.

The 35ft boat is being built in aluminium, plywood, and carbon fibre. It will be powered by two Rolls Royce ‘Viper’ jet engines (as fitted to the Red Arrows display team aeroplanes) producing a total HP of 16,000. 

We follow his progress at the museum with interest and wish him every success in his endeavours.