Trinidad & Tobago’s Great Race at 25

Trinidad and Tobago's Great Race

Photograph by Michael HaddenPhotograph by Michael Hadden

The Great Race can lay claim to being the longest-running offshore powerboat event in the world, having not missed a beat since it blasted off in 1969. On Saturday July 31, 1993 it celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The annual 86-mile contest, considered to be one of the toughest offshore races in the calendar, is run between the two most southerly islands of the Caribbean, from Trinidad to Tobago. Over the years it has acquired an aura all its own, spiced with legendary tales about many who have taken part in this gruelling endurance test.

Along with local daredevils, competitors have come from neighbouring Venezuela, from St Vincent, and from the United States, which provided the only foreign team ever to win — the Herrick brothers, Jack and Scott, and Phil Lipschutz took the prize in 1989, when swells were over ten feet off Trinidad’s north coast and the seasoned Americans described it as the roughest water they had ever raced in.

The daunting conditions have not stopped middle-aged men, young women (Carol See Tai was victorious with her brother Larry in 1983) and teenaged boys from attempting the crossing. All sorts of craft have taken part, from Donald Hadden’s 18-foot Hustler Seeing Red, the smallest boat ever to do the trick, to the 41-foot Apache crewed by Lipschutz and the Herricks; from Lennox Tang Yuk’s wooden-hulled Camena, winner of the maiden trip, to the sleek catamaran Checkmate Too, back-to-back scorer in 1987 and 1988, with Carlos Sabga and Derek Crooks at the controls

The Great Race was the brainchild of media magnate Ken Gordon and businessman Ralph Gibson, who got the idea during a yacht race from Trinidad to Grenada in 1968. There were those who scoffed, but Gordon and Gibson secured the necessary sponsorship through the McEneamey-Alston group and the Trinidad Express newspaper, and with the encouragement of people like the late Brian Bowen, the master designer and boat-builder; Ken Charles, “Mr Solo”, who leads the field in Great Race victories; Francis Sa Comes, known as the “Marathon Man”; and oil tycoon Bob Skinner, whose sons were among the first to make the run in Glastron boats manufactured by the family’s company.

There were 62 boats in the first Great Race. Although the field has dwindled as the cost of boats and equipment has risen, the gung-ho excitement surrounding the race has not diminished. This is a national event and a permanent fixture on the sporting calendar.

Spectators can catch a glimpse of the action as the race follows the Trinidad coastline, and thousands flock to the finish line at Store Bay in Tobago.

The only year the Great Race missed its announced date was 1990, when an attempted coup the day before the scheduled start forced a month’s postponement. In compensation, a then new record of one hour and 12 minutes was set by Mark de Gannes, Stephen Perreira and Malcolm Brown in a reconditioned 20-year-old boat called Superstat.

For the 25th anniversary, the July 31 race was accompanied by a programme of anniversary activities, including a black-tie affair honouring all the winners as well as competitors, sponsors and officials. There was also a boat show and photo exhibition, and a celebratory magazine.

But the main event will always be the race itself, one of the great challenges in the wide world of sport.