There is little fuss when Sir Charles Dunstone walks into London’s Nottingdale restaurant where we’ve agreed to meet. This is despite the fact that we’re on the ground floor of the tower block that houses the TalkTalk Telecom Group, of which Dunstone is chairman. According to the mythology of Britain’s popular press, Dunstone is the man who founded the Carphone Warehouse with £6,000 of savings, and turned it into a billion pound fortune – but no one in Nottingdale looks fazed by his presence.
Relaxed and dressed in a grey suit and open-necked shirt, he doesn’t take long to get settled at a table, and his easy manner rustles up menus and a couple of fruit juices. The food is being cooked in an open kitchen behind the counter and looks fabulous. I decide on the porcini risotto and Dunstone goes for the leek and gruyere tart with a salad, although the latter remains largely untouched, as he seems more keen to talk. Whatever the truth of that press legend, Dunstone’s is quite a business empire – but I have simply come to talk to him about his other passion, sailing.
Dunstone has a deep affiliation with the sport; as a child he holidayed on the east coast of England, at a place called Burnham Overy Staithe. It’s a beautiful part of the county of Norfolk on England’s east coast, sheltered from the North Sea by tidal creeks, salt marshes and dunes. And as Dunstone points out with a smile, it’s where Horatio Nelson learned to row and sail before he joined the British Navy.
In fact, it’s the kind of place where everyone has some connection to the water. Or as Dunstone puts it, ‘When the tide was out you went to the beach, and when the tide was in you went sailing.’
He needed little more inspiration than that; his parents weren’t particularly into boats, but they owned a rowing dinghy when he was very young. He grew up messing around in boats on those Norfolk holidays, and by the time he was 10 Dunstone had his own Optimist.
He graduated to an Enterprise – a wooden, Bermudan-rigged dinghy for two people, designed in 1956. Dunstone’s was an early version and rather ancient by the time he got it. He rattles off the sail number – 3241 – without missing a beat.
Dunstone did all his early sailing at Overy Staithe and at school, on an inland reservoir called Rutland Water. His parents lived abroad and so the route familiar to many of his generation (Dunstone is in his late 40s) wasn’t open to him – with no mum and dad available to drive to race meetings, there was no Mirror, Cadet or 420 dinghy. So his sailing was very much connected to North Norfolk, and the trail only leaves the tidal flats and marshes of Overy Staithe after Dunstone’s first wave of business success.
First taste of racing
At that point he joined with another early-days Carphone Warehouse man called Guy Johnson, and together they bought a Beneteau 45F5 called Space.
Like hundreds of others on the Solent they raced it with friends and contacts, doing Cowes Week, the Round the Island, and across the English Channel with the Royal Ocean Racing Club.
‘My deep dislike of offshore racing was [already] developing by then,’ adds Dunstone.
They were never going to win anything in that boat, and eventually Dunstone struck out on his own and upgraded to a much more competitive Bashford Howison 41. It was followed by a Corby 42, each boat owned and raced for about three years.
To an outside observer of Dunstone’s sailing career, the yacht that came next is probably the most memorable – but it’s the one I have to remind him about. She was called Enigma, and started her life as a Reichel Pugh 76 called Chance with just one TransPac under her belt.
Dunstone bought her during the winter of 2002-03 and as he says, ‘That was an amazing year.’
In 2003, Enigma won the Rolex Fastnet Race, in the autumn they won the Rolex Middle Sea Race, and finally in 2004 the Giraglia Rolex Cup. The crew included such luminaries as navigator Jules Salter, who went onto win the Volvo Ocean Race with Ericsson in 2008-09, and Neal McDonald, who at the time of writing was leading the latest iteration of the VOR as a watch captain aboard Telefónica.
‘I remember coming back up the Solent having gone round the island on that boat, coming back from the Needles at a steady 27 knots,’ recalls Sir Dunstone. But despite the fond memories and all the successes, Enigma taught him that offshore racing really wasn’t his thing.
‘You feel that if you get a bigger boat it’s not going to be as bad, but in truth it’s not much better.’
The ride didn’t last much longer anyway. In Cowes Week, barely a couple of months after the Giraglia win they came up against the first of the TP52s to reach British waters.
‘We just couldn’t get away from it, and realised this has been amazing… but unfortunately, no one-off boat is ever going to compete with a TP, because they have been so optimised over time, refined and refined and refined.’
So he sold Enigma and went shopping for one of the new boats. ‘TPs were the hot, hot thing.’
It was the second of the two he owned that was the more successful: a 2007 generation Judel Vrolijk that Dunstone bought in 2008 and raced through the back-end of the noughties.
Rio was named after the Duran Duran song (pop star Simon Le Bon would race on board), and picked up more than her fair share of trophies, including Cowes Week class wins in 2009 and 2010. This was despite the presence of RAN, Niklas Zennstrom’s TP52 and his first truly serious foray into racing boats. The latter had a fully professional crew that included helmsman Tim Powell.
Dunstone still drives his own boats. ‘It was painful looking at the back of RAN as much as we did. But it was very, very good to watch someone round the mark in front of us and put half a boat length on because they did it better – we really learned.’
In parallel to the racing boats Dunstone has also owned cruising yachts, initially a Swan 86 and more recently Hamilton II, a 36m Briand design built by Construction Navale Bordeaux. He raced these boats too and sure enough, soon took it more seriously. His experience will ring a bell with many.
‘It just got out of control, because we started to put Kevlar sails on and put more and more load on the boat, and we kept upgrading system after system to take the bigger loads, and in the end we were going to break the boat.’ He formed the view that, ‘Compromise boats are not the thing if you want hard-core racing.’
And then in June 2010, on a big breezy day at the Loro Piana in Porto Cervo, Hamilton II and the 45m Dubois design Salperton IVwere trading tacks up ‘bomb alley’, the narrow channel between Sardinia and the offshore islands to the north.
The bigger Dubois design had just ducked behind Hamilton as they beat towards the finish. Then as Salperton luffed back to her course, a jib sheet parted. First mate Mark Goodwin got caught by the flogging rope and was hurled against the boom vang. He broke six ribs and damaged his spleen, which later had to be removed.
‘It was blowing 30 knots and we’re sat on this boat with loads the builders and the designer probably never imagined we’d put on it. At that stage, I said we’re not going to race this boat anymore.’
It was a decisive moment. Despite not being directly involved in the accident, Dunstone was clear about the impact. ‘It brought it home to everyone.’
So where does he stand on the burgeoning superyacht regatta circuit?
‘It is amazing fun, but you’ve got to understand that [racing] is what you’re going to do with the boat when you design it.’ Or…? ‘I sincerely hope not, but I fear there will be a real tragedy at some point.’
Dunstone’s own solution will hit the water this summer. His new boat is a Wally Cento, a 30m ‘box rule’ superyacht class with lightweight, carbon composite hulls. Dunstone will have one of the first two built, a Judel Vrolijk design constructed at Green Marine’s UK yard.
‘It is,’ says Sir Dunstone, ‘a proper superyacht that’s designed to allow you to race it.’ He hesitates, then adds, ‘It’s slightly like truck racing.’
Prettier than trucks, I point out. Sir Dunstone laughs, and clarifies: ‘You’re racing something bigger than you need to, to go at that speed.’
‘I was really keen to do something that was around a rule of some sort,’ Dunstone explains. This goes back to his belief that a TP52-style development class boat will always beat a one-off?
‘Yes, so they’ve done this box rule, it’s looser than the TP52, but that’s really good – you’ll get close racing, and get this kind of evolution. If you look at the sort of people that Wally attracts and the events they go to, they are the absolute pre-eminent brand of performance superyachts.’
Does he prefer racing or cruising? ‘Racing. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re not sailing to go as fast as you can, you might as well put the engine on.’
So no more cruising superyachts, then?
‘I like going and doing proper racing. We did the St Barth’s Bucket two years ago. We’d never go back and they’d never have us back – I think that was the understanding we came to. You’ve got to radio someone and ask permission to overtake them?’
It’s easy to see why the Wally should suit him – and Dunstone was never likely to go down the route of the line honours leviathans like Shockwave and Wild Oats.
But what about that other option? The 300 pound gorilla in the room when Dunstone is talking sailing: the America’s Cup.
Lunch with… superyacht owner Nancy Mueller
Dunstone had some involvement with Sir Keith Mills’ challenge in the America’s Cup, which was shut down late in 2010.
‘We concluded that [it] was impossible for us to raise enough money, or anything approaching enough money to be able to take part. We reckoned it was £130 million. And you think you might be able to raise… Well, Keith’s good, Keith’s done the Olympics… £30 million he thought – and Larry [Ellison] is almost certain to win it. And it would just be making us miserable. Sailing is meant to be about fun.’
So does he see himself ever getting involved again, if the game changes?
‘Never say never. I’m too busy at the moment with my work to be able to do it. So right now, if it looked feasible and there was someone credible trying to put a team together, I’d be minded to try and help them. But I’m certainly not going to…’ He tails off. Front it? I finish for him, rather tactlessly. ‘No. It seems like a lot of agony,’ he replies, ‘but someone’s got to bring it back to England at some stage.’ And he smiles.
Meanwhile, up in North Norfolk, he still has Enterprise 3241, now beautifully renovated. ‘I’ll never sell it,’ he says. And while he gets to go dinghy sailing occasionally, he’s found having a young family makes it easier to go to Sardinia to race for five days, than to weave the Enterprise into his everyday life.
So the Wally Cento will move to the Med for the Maxi Worlds, after her Solent debut in the Olympic summer of 2012, and then on to the Nioulargue and the rest of the Mediterranean circuit. And for now, one suspects that will be plenty enough sailing for Sir Charles Dunstone.
Originally published: June 2012.
Photography: James McCauley, Superyacht Media, Kos Pictures, Bluegreen Pictures