Gentry eagle in motion, a strong wake is behind

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Gentry Eagle: The life and legacy of a former transatlantic record holder

14 April 2023 • Written by Holly Overton

There are only handful of true superyachts that can claim membership to the 60-knot+ club, but Gentry Eagle was the blueprint for them all. Holly Overton remembers her legacy after she was scrapped last year.

In the early hours of a summer morning in 1989, Gentry Eagle roared past Bishop Rock at the southwestern tip of the Isles of Scilly, her grumbling engines drowning out the sound of the Atlantic swell washing against the rocks at the foot of the lighthouse as she made landfall.

The 35.6-metre vessel and her five crew had broken the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, making the 3,436-mile trip from Ambrose Light in New York in just 62 hours and seven minutes, unseating record holder and British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. In fact, the team had shattered the record by such a distance that there was nearly no fanfare at all as local press were left sprinting for their cameras.

From left to right: John Connor, Norman Gentry, Tom Gentry, Ron Whitelaw, Jeff Brown, Eckhard Rastig

Before Gentry Eagle, no one had thought to fit a civilian vessel with a gas turbine engine, or perhaps no one had dared, but power was not something feared by owner Tom Gentry. Nicknamed “the fastest man in offshore”, Gentry was a highly decorated powerboat racer with two championship titles to his name and the first man to hold three concurrent ocean speed records. He made his fortune in real estate in Hawaii, but his true passion was engineering and testing the limits of speed.

“These boats were quite something,” explains Norman Gentry, the eldest son of Tom Gentry and co-pilot of Gentry Eagle. “Back in the day you could take a 38-foot V-bottom running at over 100 miles an hour in a three to four-foot sea, you would come off a swell and go the length of a football field before you hit the water again,” he says.

Gentry Eagle arriving in the Scilly Isles

Some say such feats might take a touch of madness, but those that knew Tom Gentry say that he was a softly-spoken ideas man, engineer and innovator. “Tom would always be scribbling things on the back of a cocktail napkin and saying ‘build this’,” says Tammie Weech, former publicist and friend of Tom Gentry. One of his many ideas was to break the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing that was held at the time by Branson and his 22-metre Atlantic Challenger II.

Peter Birkett, the naval architect who worked on Atlantic Challenger II, was on board from the get-go and the pair came up with an aluminium deep-V hull, and an engine room packed with two MTU turbocharged diesel engines, a Textron Lycoming gas turbine and an Arneson surface drive. “It did raise eyebrows,” said project manager and throttleman John Connor. “We had a lot of proving to do.”

Gentry Eagle spent a year and a half in construction at the Vosper Thornycroft shipyard in Southampton before she was shipped back to the States. In true American style, her propulsion was supersized with the gas turbine offering an extra 4,500hp of pure power, bringing her total output to 11,500 horsepower (about equivalent to 11 Formula 1 cars).

“Typically, these boats had three men in them: a driver, a throttle man and a navigator. Imagine you hold the steering wheel, someone else presses the gas pedal and somebody in the backseat tells you where to go,” Norman explains. Inside, she was little more than metal, fuel and electronics. There were seven black leather Recaro racing seats and a GPS by Garmin that was the size of a small carry-on suitcase. “Your phone now has more capability, but it was state of the art at the time,” Norman recalls. 

For the crossing, the team planned for every eventuality from icebergs to fallen containers lying beneath the waves, bad weather and headwind. But the make-or-break moment would be the refuelling point halfway across the Atlantic – a 45-minute pit-stop to collect 15,000 gallons of fuel. “That’s about one and a half fuel trucks emptied in less than an hour through three-inch fuel lines. It was quite something,” says Norman.

The process was carefully rehearsed. “There was a staircase, you'd go down to some bunks and a head, and then it was all fuel tanks all the way up to the bow,” says Norman. “However, when I tried to open the watertight door to the front bulkhead, we couldn't open it .” The only other way in was on the foredeck but it wasn’t designed for walking on. “We had to shimmy over the deck to get to the front hatch to open it and climb in from there.” As it turns out a floorboard had popped up which was jamming the door from the other side. 

Despite the hiccup, Gentry Eagle fulfilled her purpose by snatching the coveted Blue Riband back from Branson and bringing it back to its birthplace in the United States. 

She set a couple more offshore records in her lifetime, including the Chapman Trophy from Miami to New York, but eventually retired. “My dad decided we should convert it to a more friendly-yachty-type boat rather than a racer, but keep all the power,” Norman explains. He paid a visit to Barnes in the UK where he met with a young Andrew Winch to dream up ideas for the conversion. "Tom was inspiring and such a positive man for our little studio of five people to work with. His was one of our first design projects," Winch recalls. "We created a powerful sharp design. We needed huge side air intakes for the jet central engine, which gave her the look of a Ferrari Testarossa – all long bonnet and rear cabin. Very 1980s."

In the end, Tom Gentry decided to work on the project in-house with the help of Peter Birkett and naval architect Grant Robinson and the designs were archived. "Why he walked through our door 35 years ago, I don’t know, but his pony skin briefcase from which he unfolded his drawings of his biggest ever Gentry Eagle has always remained one of those special memories," says Winch.

Gentry Eagle at Mamaroneck, New York, USA, prior to a transatlantic record attempt.
Credit: Wikimedia

There was a great deal of work to be done. The area forward of the engines was nothing more than fuel tanks and wires and the crew would have to shuffle along a plank down the centre of the hull to get from one end of the boat to the other. The refit began with an extension of the main deck towards the stern to allow for an open-plan main saloon and a flybridge.

American designer Robin Rose lead the interior outfitting and everything was designed around what had to stay. She used the three existing bulkheads to her advantage acting as dividers between the engine room, master stateroom and the two guest cabins on board, and crew quarters. Complicating things were a series of hatches running along the centreline of the boat, which became skylights, and bulky air ducts leading from the engine room that ran through, which were hidden behind cabinetry. 

The main saloon was a family space finished with overstuffed furniture, straw basketweave wall coverings and Hawaiian Koa – a reminder of home for Tom Gentry. Her interior was finished in neutral champagne leathers and upholstery, with cushions and throws in midnight blue and black to match the bootstripe on the hull. Some elements like the Recaro racing seats were preserved as a tribute to her racing heyday.

Waterskiing behind Gentry Eagle in the San Francisco Bay

Converting Gentry Eagle to a fully-fledged superyacht increased weight to 78.5 tonnes, up from her light displacement of 52 tonnes in racing configuration. Her propulsion was left alone allowing her to top out at 63.5 knots – just six knots short of her racing speed.

The Gentry family sailed her to the Mediterranean, the Azores, Bermuda, through the Panama Canal and up the west coast of America, all the way to Alaska. “She had a fabulous second life,” says Weech. There were still many places left for her to see, but in 1994, Tom Gentry was racing his 12-metre Skater catamaran at the Key West World Offshore Championship when it spun out and overturned. The injuries he sustained in the accident put him in a coma and he died four years later at the age of 67.

Gentry Eagle never left the Gentry family, but lay idle for over a decade at the Ventura Harbor Boatyard in California. When the shipyard changed ownership, the incoming owners wanted to reclaim the yacht’s slip for their own use. She needed to be moved but had no place to go. There were whispers of a heroic rescue – a producer looking to film a documentary on the restoration and a partnership with fashion designer Thierry Mugler who created a design concept with a couture twist. But it was not enough to save Gentry Eagle. The appetite for high-speed superyachts had dwindled.

“The challenge has been that it's like inheriting a Formula One race car. Everybody wants to come and see it. But nobody wants to own it because it's too specialised,” says Norman. “Most people in the yachting world want four staterooms, walkaround decks and a big kitchen […] and the gas turbine was a no-go for many people.” She was hauled out in March 2022 and that was the last time she would see the water, with footage emerging showing her carved up for parts.

Gone but not forgotten, Gentry Eagle's formidable power package pairing water jets with a gas turbine inspired a whole generation of record-breakers. Some of the fastest yachts in the world owe their achievements to Tom Gentry, including the King of Spain's 70-metre Foners (packed with three Rolls Royce 6,700hp gas turbines) and the Aga Khan's 68-metre Destriero which went on to shave an hour off the record set by Gentry and his crew. 

But even these speedsters appear to be condemned to a similar fate as Gentry Eagle, with Destriero last seen languishing ashore at Lürssen and Foners lying dormant in Spain with many others having fallen off the radar. Speed is no longer sought after, as shipyards shift their focus to alternative power solutions, pursuing instead record-breaking solar crossings and zero-emission cruising. Gentry Eagle had its glory, but now it is time to see what the next generation of innovators can achieve. 

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