Back to the future for Richard Branson’s retro 80s speedboat

Editor’s Note: MainSail is CNN’s monthly sailing show, exploring the sport of sailing, luxury travel and the latest in design and technology.

Story highlights

Richard Branson's record-breaking speedboat discovered in Spanish boatyard

British boat builder plans to restore Virgin Atlantic Challenger II

Virgin Media mogul backs ambitious plan to return boat to Britain

Sleek speedboat epitomized 1980s technological spirit

CNN  — 

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Admittedly, it helps if the trash comes from one of the most famous billionaire businessmen on the planet.

When Richard Branson zipped across the Atlantic in the record-breaking time of three days, eight hours and 31 minutes, in 1986, his magnificent powerboat was held up as the cutting edge of design.

But almost 30 years later, the $2.3 million Atlantic Virgin Challenger II which captured our imaginations, had been left to rot in a remote Spanish boatyard.

Until now.

A British boat builder – who as a teenager watched Branson thump across the waves in style – has rescued the iconic powerboat from the scrapyard in an ambitious plan to restore her to former glory.

“She looked so sorry for herself, tucked away in this boatyard, surrounded by numerous other boats rotting away in a type of nautical graveyard,” said boat builder and new owner, Dan Stevens.

“It was such an amazing boat and an amazing achievement – a piece of maritime history. We want to restore her and bring her back to the UK where she belongs.”

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Branson himself has backed the ambitious project, tweeting: “So many memories on Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, would be great to see it back on the ocean.”

Indeed, footage of a young Branson speeding from New York to Britain’s Isle of Scilly in a sleek 22-meter powerboat, epitomized the technological spirit of the era.

After all, this was 1986: IBM had just unveiled its first laptop, the Soviet Union was launching the Mir Space Station and Tom Cruise kept daring us to fly ever higher in the hit film “Top Gun”.

Yet peer inside Challenger II today, and you’ll find a sagging, faded 1980s time warp.

“It’s like stepping back in time,” Stevens said of the boat which had notched up just 800 hours on the clock. “It still has all the Virgin livery, original charts, electronics and seats.”

“It’s amazing just looking out the window – a bit like sitting in the front seat in Knight Rider,” he added, referring to the 1982 TV series starring David Hasselhoff and a sci-fi car.

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After smashing the record books, Virgin Atlantic Challenger II is believed to have been sold to a Saudi Arabian sultan, whose faded coat of arms still adorns the boat.

In 2005 it was sold again to a secret owner who “kept it in the Mediterranean but rarely used it,” said Stevens. “The boat was towed into Palma where she started to degrade quite quickly.”

Work is now underway repairing the vessel which had been left languishing in a boatyard for the last eight years, with plans to test her on the open seas next month.

Challenger II will have a new engine, fuel tank, electronic equipment and interior – all in keeping with the original style.

Once complete, the legendary vessel will travel 2,400 kilometers to Stevens’ boat building business, Seahawks Workboats in south west England, with plans to tour her across the country.

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Former naval officer Stevens came across Challenger II after being contacted by the sellers, who had heard he was a “boating fanatic.”

The vessel had been advertised for $380,000, though Stevens declined to say how much he paid for it.

“She could have very easily been set for the scrapyard,” he said. “Many people had seen her, but I think a lot had been scared off by the amount of work needed.”

Challenger II may have cemented her place in maritime history, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the record-breaking Atlantic crossing.

Branson’s first attempt at the Blue Riband Transatlantic Challenge – the award for the fastest crossing of the ocean – ended in disaster in 1985 when Virgin Atlantic Challenger I sunk off the south west coast of England.

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The following year, the business magnate finally completed the voyage more than two hours faster than the previous record holder, the SS United States, which held the title since 1952.

Unfortunately for Branson, he was denied the Blue Riband after breaking two rules of the competition - stopping to refuel and using a vessel which did not have a commercial maritime purpose.

Regardless, he was showered in champagne greeted by cheering crowds upon arrival in Britain – despite the pouring rain.

Today, Challenger II may be a little worse for wear. But much like that other 1980s icon, film Back to the Future, Stevens may soon turn back the clock on the legendary power boat.