Wilf Gregory - Fast On Water 2017

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Wilf Gregory

Circuit > Driver Profiles (UK)
The following autobiography was sent to Fast On Water by Wilf Gregory (21.10.10) with the title:
 
Warts and All Profile of One Unfulfilled Power Boat Jockey.
 
I undertook my National Service in the Royal Navy from 1948 to ’51 and was demobbed with qualifications in the repair and maintenance of marine engines. It was in 1958 that I started driving ‘fast’ boats in a 12 foot clinker built wooden hull with an 18hp Perkins outboard motor on the River Trent at Burton; achieving the ‘breakneck’ speeds of 32 mph. That was it – I’d got the ‘bug’.

In 1961 I bought a new 14ft Yarecraft from their Yarmouth boatyard for the princely sum of £495. A lot of lolly in those days. I attached a second-hand 850 Merc (they were painted white in those days). This boat I named Fancy Pants because the young females were always leaning over the gunwhales when it was on the trailer and partially exposing their frillies. I joined Chasewater Power Boat Club that same year.

Over the 1963/64 seasons I ‘learnt the trade’, competing in as many National and Club races that I could possibly get to.
 
In 1964 I won the Express and Star Regent Oil Trophy and then shared the drive in the first Chasewater 24 Hour Race with Ron Burchell (I think he was an Oulton  Broad Club member), using his Levi hull. The lake was floodlit and the marker buoys illuminated. All exciting stuff! Unfortunately, Ron hit a turn buoy in the darkness and we lost two hours repairing the damage, but we still got a finishers award. Later that year I won a National Invitation Race at Carr Mill, home of the Lancashire Power Boat Racing Club.
 
In 1966, I got Ron Wolbold to build me a 16 foot Blu Fin single seat monohull. I broke the bank to buy a new 100hp Merc and went serious racing. I entered the second Chasewater 24 Hour Race with Ron as co-pilot. The boat performed very well and we won the IU Class. I also won the Cyril Benstead Memorial Trophy that year.
 
Early 1967 saw me working for Fred Miles Marine just before Dave Burgess was tempted to leave Bill Shakespeare’s yard in Tewkesbury to build race boats under the Miles Marine banner. I didn’t get a drive in any of  Fred’s boats until later. That same year, I raced my Blu Fin in a number of National races and won the Daily Express Trophy at Iver, beating several ‘celebrities’ including Lady Fiona Arran. I also entered the boat in the Duchess of York Trophy at Chasewater, winning the UI Class but having to be content with 3rd overall.
 
In 1968 I took the boat, now named Blu Fin Volante, to race in Stockholm Harbour accompanied by Ron Wolbold, Roy Parks (and my Uncle Harold). We had a very eventful journey hauling the boat and trailer onto the ferry at Harwich to Rotterdam, overland to Lubeck, another ferry to Copenhagen, then a change of ferries to Gothenburg, followed by a hair raising drive through the night (each of us taking a turn at the wheel) across Sweden to Stockholm. I raced against almost every make and type of boat one could imagine, including a handful of 28 foot Cigarette Boats, for 3 solid hours. I eventually came third out of 92 (yes, 92) starters. After  the race, the organisers accused me of using an ‘illegal’ engine despite the lead Mercury Marine crankcase seals being still intact. They just could not believe that a puny little outfit like mine could humiliate their mighty inboard/outboard  monsters. Ron Masterman, who was one of the Mercury Engine specialists from South Western Marine of Poole, Dorset, threatened to sue the race organisers on behalf of Mercury so they very quickly backed down. The sponsors of the race presented me and the team with a small silver cup, an equally small glass goblet and just £250 for all that effort; and to crown it all, we got nailed by the Swedish ‘Stasi’ on the motorway back to Gothenburg for using the outside lane of a 2-lane highway,  because anything towing a trailer in Sweden was confined to the inside lane. That cost us £25 of the winnings before they would allow us onto the ferry for Hull!
 
Later in1969, I drove a Shakespeare monohull for Fred Miles Marine in a race at Oulton Broad just prior to setting off for Amsterdam for the 3 hour race there (see opposite front cover of Powerboat and Watersport Magazine, November 1969, I am the driver of  boat no.2). I took pole position for the start of this race in Holland, but as I recall, this was a very rough race with many capsizes and incidents and I can’t now remember where we finished.
 
That same year, Dave Burgess built his first catamaran for Fred Miles. After a very brief run in the pitch darkness on Chasewater to check power trim function etc., Fred and I set off for Liege to take part in their first attempt at staging a 3 hour race on the River Meuse. During practice, despite being warned of a very dangerous barrage across the river at the bottom end of the course and marked by two extremely large red buoys, Bill Shakespeare and Jeremy James approached this hazard at high speed. Jeremy plunged over the steep drop and was killed. Bill managed to avoid the edge by just a few feet and was able to recover and alert the course marshals of the disaster.
 
The Miles/Burgess boat that I drove in that race was quite quick and I managed to pull out a good lead in the first hour, practically a whole lap ahead of the field. I handed the boat over to the co-driver (someone who was a friend of Fred Miles and whose name I cannot recall), but after a few laps the motor blew and he had to be towed in from way down the course. We were unable to repair the damaged motor so, that was the end of that race for the team.
 
Towing the boat, Fred Miles and I then drove on from Liege to Berlin and I was excited to pilot this excellent hull in the first Berlin 6 Hour Race on the Wansee. After four hours (all of which I drove incidentally) we were fed contaminated fuel from an ancient petrol bowser that had been resurrected for just this occasion. We subsequently came to a stop on the course and it took forever for a tiny, slow, marshal’s runabout to get me back to the pits. After flushing out the fuel lines we rejoined  the race but abandoned any hope of a place. We did manage to complete the last few laps to qualify for a finisher’s award and although the result was disappointing, the experience was good.
 
Fred and I then drove South West from Berlin, through the Black Forest (staying overnight in Baden Baden) towing the boat to Lake Como in Italy where we again took part in a 3 hour marathon but were unsuccessful. Renato Molinari and Cesar Scotti were also in that race. After Como we drove up through France to take part in the Paris 6 Hours in October but we weren’t allowed to race due to ‘paperwork irregularities’ (entry not received in time). The Paris race was always oversubscribed and the French organisers insisted on restricting the entries to the number allowed by the Seine river authority.
 
This entire trip, towing the rig from the Midlands through Europe and return, some 1,970 miles, was completed in my well worn Jaguar 3.4 saloon, which never missed a beat throughout the whole journey. 
 
1970 was the year I got married – no racing for a while, and no prizes for guessing why!!
 
Back to racing in 1971, Fred Miles entered one of the next generation of Burgess cats in Paris in October. This one was smooth and quick and with one of the early T3 Mercury motors, I was timed through the Measured Kilometre on the Seine at 128 mph, which was pretty quick in those days against stiff American and Italian opposition. I seem to recall that we came 4th but I’m not sure. After Paris I started my own business called Solihull Boats. This was a small retail ski boat and engine workshop on Oulton Boulevard in Solihull so therefore, due to business commitments; I was unable to do much racing of note for a while. During this period I did manage an occasional club blowout with the Blu Fin but because I was unable to spare the time (or the cash) to race, with a heavy heart, I sold the Blu Fin to Peter Balmford.
 
In 1973 I co-drove with Alf Bullen in one of the early Windermere races with his Cougar cat and V4 Johnson motor. I think we got a finisher’s award in this race. In order to get back into serious racing, I bought a lightly used ‘pickle fork’ Burgess cat from Bill Kendrick and then the much raced Johnson V4 from Alf  that we used at Windermere in ’73. I entered and ran this outfit in several National races including Windermere in ’74 or ’75; I can’t remember which  as I have no records and only a few photographs of my racing during this period. What I can remember, was that this was my first encounter with the American OMC Wankel Rotary outboard engines. Absolutely awesome!
 
This old Burgess boat performed extremely well in the 1976 Embassy Grand Prix meeting at Bristol and I was presented with the Champion Spark Plug Special Award in ON Class and the Strand Glass Fibre Award for outstanding performance. I completed this race with a stellated fracture of the left kneecap after I’d tripped in the pits trying to carry three props, a life jacket and my helmet before the race had even started. After the race I had to be manhandled out of the cockpit in an exhausted  and pain wracked state. The St. John Ambulance team took me to Bristol Royal Infirmary and my left leg was in plaster for several weeks. Later in ’76 I got Jim Peverelle to build me an ON hull. Between us we got this boat travelling quite quickly and I had a few ding dong battles with John Nicholson’s Hodges at Bristol and Chasewater.
 
A short while later I was approached by Valentine Paints to run a sponsored Burgess boat in their colours. This was the golden opportunity to get into the big time although Valentine stressed that it was only a trial venture into powerboat racing in order to promote their Marine Paints Division. I raced this new Valentine/Burgess hull, and other subsequent hulls, with Dave Burgess running the team.
 
We entered the Embassy meeting at Bristol and won the first heat convincingly (see photo with Sheila Dyke). The second heat looked like going the same way but the sheer speed of this flier carried me into the SS Great Britain turn so fast that I barrel rolled whilst leading by a street and, I’m afraid, that was that for my Bristol weekend.
 
Dave Burgess then built a light sprint boat with which I won the 1979 British Grand Prix at Chasewater We took this to Paris for the 6 Hour and it just screamed up the river during practise. This was the year that OMC of America brought their V8 3litre monsters to show everybody how it was done. In the race, I got away so fast that I was the second boat round the Statue of Liberty turn behind Barry Woods with  a V8 Johnson. There were 7 or 8 other 3litre boats behind me and none of them caught me before the Pont d’Iena turn. Unfortunately, after 3 laps, the water got so rough being churned up by the V8s that my engine was revving way over the red line despite me constantly easing the throttle. I was still heading a number of the big boys when my engine decided it had had enough and let go finally popping a con rod through the side of the block and that, one can say, was end of story.
 
In 1980 with the engine rebuilt, we continued to race this hull with further success, winning the Champion of Champions at Fairford in preparation for the Embassy Gold Cup race. Putting up a good show (being televised by the BBC) we finally had to give way to Roger Jenkins. We also came a creditable second in the British Grand Prix at Chasewater. After that, we again went to Bristol for the Embassy meeting in the  docks and did reasonably well, picking up the Duke of York Special Award in ON Class.
 
It was whilst setting up the boat for a crack at the European Sprint Championships at Holme Pierrepont that my racing world came literally crashing down.
 
It was August Bank Holiday weekend. I had driven several laps of the course at speeds that allowed the Valentine cameramen to take action footage for a promotional film and some still shots for their following year’s calendar. There was a slight  breezy headwind blowing down the course that rippled the water but this had not unduly troubled me; so in order to ‘clear the gases’ out of the motor that had been idled for a few laps I opened the taps wide and let the boat fly. I believe that Dave Burgess had clocked an unofficial time of just over the lap record prior to my flip so I knew that the rig was really ‘hot’. The boat was travelling very fast nearing the 1500 metre mark on the upwind stretch and I remember the  hull just lifting on the breeze moments before it finally let go. The boat somersaulted in the air and I was unable to ‘bail out’.

The rest is history.
 
I was hospitalised with several broken bones, the worst of which was a right leg femur in 5 pieces! That was the end of my racing career but the beginning of 30 years of abject misery after suffering the most disastrous medical negligence blunder imaginable; culminating in the almost total loss of my right leg. I spent a whole year in a hospital bed and was then discharged by a grossly incompetent orthopaedic surgeon whose refusal to accept liability resulted in 9 years of heartbreaking litigation to try and gain recompense. I lost my business and everything I had worked for for ten years. After such a disaster my sanity and my quality of life has always been unselfishly supported by a dedicated and loving wife and family. This has shielded me from mental torture and suicidal thoughts. But that’s another very long story.
 
Despite the shattering loss of a complete way of life, I tried to get involved with fringe activities at Chasewater, even to being a race boat scrutineer but because of my disability I found it impossible to fulfil the requirements of this important task.
 
I counted dozens of fellow powerboat racing adrenaline junkies and their pit crews as friends during my many years of circuit racing both in England and in Europe and I would like to thank them for the happier memories I have of my racing days.
 
Graham Burton mentioned several powerboat drivers of the 1960s including Charlie Sheppard, Andy Sheppard, Bob May, Brian Hunt, Colin Coulson, Don Ross and Jackie Wilson as well as Bill Shakespeare. I raced against all of these great pilots at some time or other and would like to think that I could be mentioned in the same breath. 
 
WG.
 
 
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Wilf at the wheel of Fancy Pants. 1961
The Bluefin Volante
Powerboat and Watersport Magazine November 1969. 
Wilf on pole for the Amsterdam 3 hour
Wilf piloting the Fred Miles Burgess 
at the Berlin 6 hour race, 1969
Wilf racing in the 1971 Paris 6 Hour
in his Miles Burgess
Bristol 1979
Bristol 1979. Sheila Dyke presents the winner's
laurels to Wilf
1979 British Grand Prix at Chasewater
Embassy Gold Cup, Fairford 1980
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News article published ten years after Wilf's accident.
 
 
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