Destriero is the ultimate big boy's toy, with 54,000bhp and sexy Italian styling. Next month it will attempt to snatch the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic voyage. Corporate sponsors' names decorate its deck; but who owns it?

(Report by Stephen Wood. Photographs by Sandy Porter.)

It's all Richard Branson's fault. The record for the fastest sea crossing of the Atlantic, the Blue Riband, had been held for more than 30 years by the SS United States, the last of the great high-speed liners. The liner itself lay mothballed in the harbour at Norfolk, Virginia; its owners had gone out of business; and the Hales Trophy which it won was gathering dust in the American Merchant Maritime Museum. Despite one American team's attempts on the record in the Seventies, interest in the fastest transatlantic ship had dwindled. Nobody cared because everybody flew.

But Branson wanted everybody to fly on his new airline, Virgin Atlantic. So in 1985 he set out to take the Blue Riband in the Virgin Atlantic Challenger powerboat and to generate publicity for the airline. He failed in the first objective (the boat sank 138 miles off Land's End) but succeeded magnificently in the second, with the result that a queue of contenders for the Blue Riband began to form. Branson tried again (this time successfully), and was followed by the American millionaire Tom Gentry, who also had two attempts; Hoverspeed's Sea Cat made the crossing, Italy's Azimut Atlantic Challenger failed to do so, and earlier this month the French boat, Jet Ruban Bleu, turned up in New York for its second attempt. And as the contenders multiplied, so did the prizes: there are now four different trophies for the fastest Atlantic crossing. The most powerful challenge for the Blue Riband since its revival will come from the Italian vessel Destriero, which next month aims to take all four trophies by breaking the record in both directions across the Atlantic. The power does not come merely from its 54,000bhp engines. Behind Destriero's challenge are the Aga Khan, Fiat's Giovanni Agnelli and the presidents of Italy's state-owned industrial holding company, IRI, and its Olympic committee. The all-white boat is decorated with the logos of Fiat, the petro-chemical giant Agip, Ciga Hotels and the Meridiana airline (both controlled by the Aga Khan), and the nationalised shipyard, Fincantieri, which built Destriero. Together with other sponsors they have invested $12 million in the challenge -- and that excludes the cost of the vessel.

For the last month Destriero has been undergoing trials at its home port of Porto Cervo on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda, the holiday resort developed by the Aga Khan. Moored initially near the clubhouse of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda (president: the Aga Khan), under whose flag it has entered the Atlantic challenge, the 67-metre, 400-ton vessel dominated the small bay. Early-season holiday-makers gathered on the quayside to look at it, buzzed around on jet-skis and in dinghies, bought spin-off merchandise with the Destriero badge (polo shirt L40, wind-cheater L75) or simply gazed across the bay at the high-tech apparition. "Look at that yacht," said an astonished young girl as she caught her first sight of it. "That's not a yacht, it's a ship," replied one of her friends scornfully.

They were both right. Cesare Fiorio, the 52-year-old former sporting director of the Ferrari Grand Prix team who has masterminded the Destriero challenge, takes pains to distinguish it from the other challengers of the Branson generation: "It's not a powerboat, it's a sea-going ship". But the brass plaque issued by Det Norske Veritas, which classifies vessels for insurance purposes, describes it as a "Gas Turbine Yacht". Destriero calls itself "a steed or war horse" (the English translation of the name), but anybody who thought it was an aeroplane wouldn't be far from the truth: it has three General Electric aero engines, while an FA-18 Hornet jet fighter gets by with only two.

One could just hear the rising whine of the turbines up on the bridge, set high in a superstructure styled by Pininfarina, Ferrari's designer, as Destriero was towed out of the marine by a tug. But the loudest noise was the hum of the computers. A total of 16 screens display information from the two on-board computer systems. One of them controls the engines and the three water-jets; the other is for navigation, and is so sophisticated that it not only guides the vessel along a predetermined transatlantic route but also warns of obstacles like ships and buoys (the former at a distance of 96 miles) and even suggests ways of avoiding a collision.

On a short trip along the Sardinian coastline, the closest we got to a collision was with the tug, which radioed Destriero to slow down until it had got out of the way. Thereafter, all was peace and quiet: on an almost completely flat sea, Destriero accelerated to 59 knots -- just short of its maximum speed but still almost 70mph -- with about as much drama as an Intercity train leaving Euston. Down below, fuel was being sucked out of the 740-ton tank and into the turbines at the rate of 8000 litres per hour; but up on the bridge most of the 14-man crew in their corporate sport outfits just wandered from one suede-look chair to another, and the rest of us watched the sea slide past and wondered why cross-channel ferries make such a fuss about doing 22 knots.

The technology of Destriero is not new -- its aluminium hull, gas turbines and integrated navigation system are already familiar marine features -- but it is being tested beyond the known limits because, as Fiorio says, "nobody has ever done 65 knots in a 67-metre vessel before". He is confident that "although sea navigation has not developed to the same extent as cars and aeroplane in the last 50 years, Destriero's philosophy will be adopted for high-speed, 45-knot ships in the near future". The Fincantieri shipyard has, Fiorio says, already designed a ferry for the Sardinian crossing which would be capable of that speed while carrying 400 passengers and 150 cars. He is equally confident that, barring misfortune or very bad weather, Destriero will break the records, both on the crossing from Gibraltar to New York and the more familiar, shorter voyage back to the Scilly Isles. "The first 10 to 15 hours will be critical: with a full fuel load, the vessel floats much lower in the water, and in bad weather the waves break right across it".

But whether Destriero will take all the available prizes is a matter for lawyers rather than mariners. The Virgin Atlantic, Daily Mail and Columbus Atlantic trophies (for, respectively, the fastest crossing, the fastest crossing without refuelling, and the fastest return crossing, again without refuelling) pose no problem. Nor does the Blue Riband, which was never a formal competition and therefore has no rules and no trophy. The difficulty lies with the Hales Trophy, first presented in 1935 by Harold Keats Hales, MP for Hanley. The premier award for the transatlantic crossing and now commonly regarded as the symbol of the Blue Riband, it is currently held by the Hoverspeed Great Britain Sea Cat with a time of 79 hours and 54 minutes; it was not given to the Branson generation of powerboats (although Tom Gentry's fastest-ever crossing took 17 hours less than the Sea Cat) on the grounds that specially-built vessels which had to be refuelled en route were not in keeping with the spirit of the trophy, which was originally intended for high-speed liners.

"For Destriero" says Fiorio, "the problem is the requirement that the Hales Trophy can only be awarded to a ship which ultimately has a commercial use: it must be operated by a sea transportation company to carry passengers or freight. The trustees asked us to make a declaration that Destriero would have a commercial use; if we didn't, we would not get the trophy".

In early May, Fiorio had still not decided what to do. "It's not up to us what happens to the vessel afterwards, it's up to the owners. And we don't know what they want to do with it". So who are the owners of the Destriero, valued by some people at $50 million? Fiorio wasn't saying: "We don't know, we just run the ship", he replied with a smile and shrug that made it clear that anybody who did want to know would have to find out for themselves.

Surreptitious questioning elsewhere led to a tip that the ship was controlled by an Irish company called Bravo Romeo. (The name is the call sign for the letters 'B' and 'R' which presumably stand for Blue Riband.) A company search revealed that 99 per cent of its shares are held by a Swiss-based company, and the two American designers of Destriero are among its directors. Connections with a familiar name began to crop up. The remaining 1 per cent of the shares are held by a senior official in the secretariat of the Aga Khan; the third director, a lawyer, is also a director of a British company associated with the Aga Khan.; the Notes to the Financial Statements record that in the year ended November 1989, the company owed $1,282,715 on a loan account to...the Aga Khan.

Finding out what the owners of Destriero propose to do with it after the attempt on the Blue Riband shouldn't be too difficult for Fiorio. He probably only has to pop into the yacht club and ask its president.

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