Thundering out to set a world record
Meet the daredevil who wants to round Ireland at high speed in his superboat
SOME men get their kicks from hitting the perfect hole-inone, cycling the Ring of Kerry in record time, or landing a specimen salmon on the first day of the fishing season. Frank Kowalski is not that kind of guy.
An individual with a degree more athletic ambition than most, his idea of a worthy challenge is grappling with the controls of Thunder Child – a turbocharged, wave-piercing Interceptor speedboat – as it crashes through mountainous seas powered by twin supercharged Caterpillar diesel engines producing a howling 2,000 revs of horsepower.
And it’s not enough that this futuristic craft delivers an adrenaline blast comparable to Disneyland’s Space Mountain on steroids – but add in the fact that much of the experience happens at speeds of 160kph in total darkness and it’s clear this is a whole other level of thrill-seeking.
Sometime over the next two months, Frank will put Thunder Child through its paces to set a new world record by circumnavigating Ireland – via Rockall which lies 500 kilometres off the Irish coast. It’s an ‘extreme’ route that has never been attempted before. (The current circumnavigation record, minus the Rockall detour, stands at just under 13 hours.)
‘Setting a new record for this circumnavigation is a real challenge for any vessel,’ he explains. ‘The route involves a 1,000km openocean crossing into the North Atlantic, one of the roughest and most notorious seas on the planet. The trip will involve several hours’ navigation in the dark and will inevitably encounter rough conditions which will put incredible stress on both vessel and crew,’ he adds. ‘However, Thunder Child is well equipped for all such challenges, with high-definition radar, high-spec thermal night-vision cameras, surface drive propulsion and advanced composite construction that is both strong and light to give the boat its unique properties, another of which being that it is probably the most striking and stylish boat of her type.’
AS the founder of Safehaven Marine, Frank has been designing and building boats in Cobh since 1996, supplying more than 120 vessels to 26 countries worldwide. ‘Our vessels are in use in the US, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia. We continuously innovate to build faster, stronger, more effective, multi-functional boats that are not only built for the incredibly difficult conditions at sea, but also high-speed marine operations,’ he explains.
Having established its reputation supplying vessels to port authorities and naval institutions across the globe, Safehaven recently branched out into the military and law-enforcement sector, providing interceptor and patrol vessels aimed at the increasing demand for maritime border controls.
‘As the world continues to evolve, the traditional global threats to countries’ ocean borders has begun to change significantly,’ Frank says. ‘The twin threats of global terrorism and piracy increasingly present significant challenges to nations as well as to global commerce.’
Thunder Child is the latest creation from the Safehaven Marine stable – a technological masterpiece representing two years of research and design, and valued in excess of €1million.
‘The idea for the record attempt first came up last summer when Thunder Child was in production, and it occurred to me – what better way to showcase the vessel and prove her capabilities to potential customers than to set a new world record?’ explains Frank.
The chosen journey – the circumnavigation of Ireland via Rockall – is a brand new route sanctioned by the Union Internationale Motonautique, which governs powerboating records. ‘We chose this particular route to play to the vessel’s strengths, namely her ability to combine high speeds of 90kph-110kph, that can be utilised in the calmer sections, with high levels of sea-keeping enabling it to handle the inevitable rough conditions that will be encountered on this particular route.’
One of the rules for a record such as this is that boats can only refuel on land, not at sea. The openocean crossing to Rockall and back, however, requires a large fuel range which Thunder Child’s 5,000-litre fuel tank can handle comfortably.
Sailors are notoriously casual in detailing the challenges lurking in any expedition across the briny blue – a pretence concealing an airtight attention to the thousand details that could mean the difference between survival and disaster.
‘A trip such as this,’ says Frank Kowalski, ‘will always produce challenges. It will include a lengthy open-ocean crossing across the North Atlantic, one of the most notorious seas on the planet, and the location of the world’s largest wave – recorded by a buoy last year near Rockall.’
Taller than a six-storey building, the huge wave – measuring almost 20 metres – occurred last December after an extreme cold front passed through the area. ‘A significant portion of the trip will need to be carried out at night which has its own inherent dangers,’ he adds. ‘Rough conditions, combined with high speed, will impose high levels of stress on both the vessel and the crew.’
EVEN in June, weather conditions around Rockall can be notorious, changing from calm to cyclonic within an hour. ‘Weather is one of the challenges,’ according to Thunder Child’s skipper, ‘and our intention is to pick the calmest weather window possible. However, the range we have to cover – south, west, north and east coast of Ireland in addition to the 1,000km open-ocean crossing will make it virtually impossible to have calm conditions in all areas for the duration of the trip. This means that challenging weather conditions will be inevitable during certain parts of the journey.’
Among its many technological attributes, Thunder Child is fully self-righting, capable of recovering after a capsize by a large breaking wave, and further bolstered by a number of other coping mechanisms for similar maritime challenges. Frank and his crew of five are currently continuing with preparations for the record attempt – including night rides at high speed. ‘Night-time travel at sea always brings its own dangers, particularly when travelling at high speed. Thunder Child is fitted with high-definition radar and high-spec thermal nightvision cameras to mitigate the risk and to allow maximum speed to be maintained,’ he explains. ‘But, at the end of the day, in a situation such as night-time travel which can pose a lot of risk, it will all come down to the crew and their ability to deal with any situation that may manifest itself.’
So, as the rest of us normal mortals content ourselves with contemplating an early summer trek up Carrauntoohill or along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Frank Kowalski and his Thunder Child stand on the cusp of something a good deal more remarkable – but also more dangerous.
Having poured two years’ worth of intelligence, innovation and many tens of thousands of euro into birthing this potential maritime master, the man from Cobh continues with his preparation checklist, sure in the knowledge that this baby will deliver something very special.
‘In developing a new boat such as this, you can’t simply design it and expect potential customers to buy into just a design,’ he says. ‘You have to invest in building a prototype which is what we have done with Thunder Child. The ability to prove this prototype through setting this world record will be very beneficial to our future.’
Turbo drive: Thunder Child powering through the ocean Cobh base: Frank Kowalski