Charlie Sheppard - Fast On Water 2017

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Charlie Sheppard

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Powerboat Racing in Bristol – the story of one man’s dream and determination

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Bristol’s historic Floating Harbour was being seriously coveted by developers who saw the then largely defunct docks as an ideal candidate for the “Fill it in and build on it” mentality.

Charles (Charlie) Sheppard a boat-builder from Saltford (just outside Bristol) and self-confessed speed-fiend had owned businesses in and around Bristol for many years. One of these businesses had been in St Georges Road, which backed onto the floating harbour area. His business had been there during the years immediately after WW2 and the docks (as the floating harbour was more generally known then) had still been a working dock with ships still being built, repaired and re-launched from William Hill's boatyard, and the comings and goings of ships plying their trade between Europe and Ireland as well as further afield.  The dock walls still had massive cranes for loading/unloading, the roadway system was functional and busy, there were giant warehouses, timber stores, customs offices, harbour officials and docks security personnel.  
Port Manager Mr George Edney said the Port Authority would welcome an early closure of the city docks, because of the losses being made.  They are due to be closed to commercial traffic in 1980.
                                   Extract (Western Daily Press January 25 1972)
 
Can you imagine how Charlie felt? A ‘naturalised’ Bristolian who saw the city’s maritime heritage slowly deteriorating and becoming an eyesore.  He wanted to draw people’s attention to the great asset Bristol had.  However, some others saw the monetary gain for selling the acreage of city covered by the docks. 
 
He quickly realised that unless something was done quickly then the docks would be lost.  He was very involved with powerboat racing and the idea quickly took hold.
 
A massive powerboat event, which would draw crowds to the docks area!
 
He set about making enquiries of how, who, what and when. He already knew 'Where' the event would be.  His first approach was to WD and HO Wills – an obvious choice as the fortunes of Wills had been closely linked to Bristol and the bonded warehouses at the far end of the docks were still owned by them.
 
WD and HO Wills were initially cautious and then persuaded by the enthusiasm and drive of Charlie.  By then he had also managed to persuade his own Club, the Cotswold Motor Boat Racing Club which was based at Fairford in Glos, to embark on organising this potentially huge event.
 
In December 1971, Charlie received a letter from the Town Clerk’s department stating that “the Corporation had no objection to a race being held in the Floating Harbour in1972.” 
 
Mr James Lavery Crook, Public Relations Officer for Bristol City and Town Council, contacted Charlie in early January 1972 and said that the Town Clerk had “omitted to point out specifically in a letter to Mr Sheppard dated December 22 that formal approval could only be given by the Docks Committee.”
 
By January 1972 things were beginning to seriously get going.  The Sponsors and the organising club were lined up, however the approval of the Docks Committee was still needed before any event took place. The Harbour Master at that time was Captain Hobart, a man in his sixties like Charlie. He had previously seen his role as overseeing a winding-down of the docks activities. Instead of watching less and less docks activity from his office in Underfall Yard, Captain Hobart saw the potential to revitalise the docks.  The two men became firm friends even though they often crossed swords.
 
By February 1972 the Docks committee had deliberated and decided to ask the Organisers headed up by Charlie to stage a trial event. This would enable them to determine at least some of the issues regarding the possibility of the ‘wash undermining the quay walls’.
 
Then 4 days before the Trial Race was due to take place the Docks Committee decided that there had to be adequate insurance cover for the crowds likely to be drawn to the trial.
 
Once more the whole event was in jeopardy and once more Charlie’s resolve to have powerboat racing in the Docks was tested to the limit. Mr John Tomlinson, deputy Town Clerk, had tried to get insurance to cover spectators but had found it impossible.
 
However, the organising club’s insurers came up trumps and in a letter dated just 3 days before the Trial the insurance had been “extended to indemnify the Lord Mayor, Alderman and Burgesses of the City of Bristol in connection with  the motor boat trial..”
 
“Powerboat boats jostle for position in Bristol’s floating harbour as the city gets its first taste of international high-speed boat racing. Fifteen boats yesterday staged a 70mph trial before members of the Docks committee and hundreds of spectators. Docks committee members insisted on the trial before giving the go-ahead for an international race planned for July 8 and 9.
They were worried about noise from the boats, collisions and damage to the harbour wall by the wash.
But after the trial, a spokesman for the Docks committee said members were favourably impressed. The committee will make a final decision on March 13.”
(Western Daily Press, Monday March 6 1972)
 
 
This was probably the first time many Bristolians had heard that powerboat racing in the floating harbour had been proposed. 
 
One week after the trial race the Docks committee approved the race to be held in the summer. Now another snag - the Royal Yachting Association were insisting that ALL ships be removed from the area of any race.
 
By May the Bristol Evening Post were the first to report that “Everything is GO for the International Power Boat Race schedule for Bristol City Docks.”
 
The first event in 1972 was a tremendous success with local businesses able to reap the rewards from the massive crowds attending the event.  Local hotels were full and so many people enjoyed a wonderful free and spectacular event.
 
What some people did not know was that all the profits* from that first race which was indeed held on July 8 and 9, were donated to the SS Great Britain project.
 
(* From sales of programmes and other memorabilia. No charge was made at that time for admission or seating to watch the races.)
 
1973 was the year of Bristol’s “600”Celebrations (600 years of being a Chartered City and County) and by then opinion in official circles had changed so much that Charlie was ASKED to organise a special powerboat event in August that year 
 
There followed another 19 annual Powerboat events in Bristol City’s Floating Harbour and all of the top International Drivers of their time were proud to race in Bristol.  It was a challenging course and there were some dreadful events involving the loss of drivers’ lives. 
 
As Charlie always maintained it was not dangerous because there could be no such thing as an ‘accident’ – it was always avoidable. He always listened to constructive criticism and acted upon it.
 
Bristol was the first powerboat venue to employ doctors so that treatment was immediate for any injuries. It was also the first venue to have every rescue boat equipped with floating stretchers to enable casualties to be lifted from the water without risk of further injury. It was the first venue to have the rescue boats in direct communication with each other and the Chief Rescue officer who was based at Race Control.
 
The design of full-face helmets, neck support helmets, back braces, air-bag technology were all influenced by the constant pursuit of safety initiated by Charlie and his team at Bristol.
 
It is a fitting tribute that racing was never stopped at Bristol due to any fatalities or incidents.  It stopped when the costs of mounting an event of such magnitude became so great that a sponsor could not be found in credit-squeezed Britain of the early 1990’s.  By then the Docks had been saved from the bulldozers and there is now a peaceful but busy oasis which properly reflects the maritime history of Bristol and still allows it to be enjoyed by all. 
 
(Please see the copies of documents, newspaper clips and photographs.)
Evening Post Jan 22, 1972
Western Daily Press, February 29, 1972
Daily Telegraph, Bristol Evenin Post March 1 1972
Norwich Union Indemnification, 2 March 1972
Evening Post, March 14 1972
Western Daily Press, March 6 1972
Yachting & Boating Weekly, March 9 1972
Proposed Course for Race, July 8 and 9 1972
Bristol 600 Celebrations to include ‘Boat Race’
 
Many thanks to Penny Fisher (Charlie's daughter) for permission to use this article.
 
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The Charlie Sheppard Archive: To view a full list of the contents of the archive,
please click here.
 
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The Embassy Racing Team
Charlie with daughter, Penny, during organising the Bristol event
Fred Oram, Bob Hering, Jim wagner and 
Charlie Sheppard. Bristol 19??
Nick Cripps holds the Harmsworth Trophy while 
Charlie has the Duke of York
Bill Seebold, Earl Bentz and Charlie in discussion.
Bristol 1979
Charlie watches as Bill Seebold is interviewed 
by Murray Walker. Bristol 1981
Len Britnell (LMBRC) with Charlie. Bristol 19??
Charlie during the Bahamas Grand Prix, 198?
 
 
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