If at first you don't succeed ........


Richard Branson 1986


Sir Richard Branson isn’t just a guy with a beard and a penchant for sweaters, balloons and boat racing.  He’s also the man behind one of the most successful brands in the world: Virgin. But then you probably knew that already.


Richard Branson is synonymous with Virgin – and this isn’t an accident:  “If you get your face and your name out there enough, people will start to recognise you. Many people know the Virgin brand better than the names of the individual companies within the group. A young girl once came up to me and told me I could be famous because I looked just like Richard Branson. Branding is everything.”


Of course, there’s more to Richard Branson than Virgin, although for most people this would probably be enough. But then, Richard Branson is not most people. He’s a man who likes a challenge, whether it’s in business or pleasure. On top of being knighted for ‘services to entrepreneurship’, he has been involved in a number of world-record breaking attempts.


“My first success was in 1986 with my boat “Virgin Atlantic Challenger II”. I wanted to rekindle the spirit of the Blue Riband by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the fastest ever recorded time.”  A year later, he crossed the same ocean, this time in a hot air balloon. The "Virgin Atlantic Flyer" was not only the first hot-air balloon to cross the Atlantic but was also the largest balloon ever at 2.3 million cubic feet. 



Virgin Atlantic Challenger II


Virgin Atlantic Challenger II being re-fuelled 10 miles off Halifax in 1986




The Blue Riband was established by shipping magnates in 1838 as an informal competition.  Richard Branson broke the record, but the Hales' trustees refused to award him the trophy because his boat did not have a commercial maritime purpose and he had stopped to refuel.


The SS United States' record was not broken until 1990, when the 74m (243ft) catamaran Hoverspeed Great Britain completed the crossing with an average speed of 36.65 knots.  In 1987 Mr Branson abandoned the sea and took to the air. His Virgin Atlantic Flyer hot air balloon was the first to cross the Atlantic that year, and in 1991, he broke the Pacific record by crossing from Japan to Arctic Canada.


Richard Branson's first attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1985 followed the launch of his Virgin Atlantic airline.  The voyage was a failure, his boat sinking off Land's End, but his second attempt the following year brought him recognition and publicity.


But he was denied the Blue Riband by the trustees of the award because he had broken two rules of the competition - he had stopped to refuel and his vessel did not have a commercial maritime purpose.  The SS United States' record was not broken until 1990, when the 74m catamaran Hoverspeed Great Britain completed the crossing with an average speed of 36.65 knots.



The 72 foot aluminium Virgin Atlantic Challenger II


Length over all - 72 feet  Hull - Aluminum



26 June 1986: Branson on course for Blue Riband


Entrepreneur Richard Branson set off on his second attempt on the 26th June 1986 to claim the transatlantic crossing record for Britain.  Mr Branson and his team left New York at dawn on their 72 ft powerboat Virgin Challenger II for the 3,000 mile (4,828 km) voyage.  If they reach Bishop's Rock, off the Isles of Scilly, by 2100 BST on 29 June they will recapture the Blue Riband for the UK - held by liner SS United States since 1952 for a crossing in three days and 10 hours.


The millionaire businessmen tried to break the record last year, but his boat sank just 138 miles (222 km) from the British coast.  Mr Branson told the BBC he was confident they would succeed this year.  "The boat's ready, the crew are ready and the weather forecast is reasonable - hopefully we'll be there for Sunday lunch," he said.


A spokesman at the Virgin Challenger London headquarters said the team had almost reached Nova Scotia for the first of three refuelling stops at 2100 BST and was two hours ahead of schedule.  After taking on more fuel, the £1.5m boat will head across the ocean on the "great circle" route - the quickest course across the Atlantic.


BBC Tomorrow's World presenter Peter Macann is on the Challenger and said conditions had been perfect for the first stage of the voyage.  "The only point of excitement was when I was driving and a whale surfaced about 50 m (164 ft) from the boat - I just managed to swerve to avoid it," he said.


29 June 1986: Branson beats Atlantic speed record


Millionaire Richard Branson today smashed the world record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. His 72-ft powerboat, the Virgin Atlantic Challenger, reached the Bishop Rock off the Isles of Scilly just after 1930BST.  Mr Branson completed the voyage more than two hours faster than the previous record-holder, the SS United States, which has held the title since 1952.  The Challenger's successful crossing came in spite of problems with the fuel system.


Her voyage was closely monitored from an operation room in London, where tension mounted as the £1.5m powerboat headed for the finishing line at more than 50 knots. Mr Branson's voice was relayed over the radio, keeping the team up-to-date on his progress.


It took the Challenger one hour from the finishing line to reach the island of St Mary's, where crowds were waiting in their hundreds in spite of the pouring rain.  After three days at sea, Branson, the head of a multi-million-pound airline and record empire, arrived triumphant - before being pushed into the Atlantic by his crew for a joke.


In London the champagne flowed, but it is still not certain whether the team will be able to claim the Blue Riband, the trophy awarded to the American boat in 1952.  The prize currently resides in a New York maritime museum, and the final decision on the Challenger's claim appears to lie with the museum and trustees of the trophy.


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Richard Branson onbard the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II in 1986


Virgin Atlantic Challenger II - Richard Branson waving





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?


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.



Richard Branson's Open Letter (and picture!) to Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon

Sir Richard Branson is a genius at scoring public relations coups.

His open letter to Geoff Dixon creates a spectacular 'win-win' for Branson (and perhaps a lose-lose for Dixon!).


Whatever now happens, the certain result is that Branson will earn substantial more publicity for himself and his airline, in the 'underdog' role that he portrays so well.



Flamboyant Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984.  In 2000, he started a new airline in Australia - Virgin Blue.


At the time of Virgin Blue's conception, there was a fair measure of skepticism within Australia as to whether it would be possible for what would have become a third Australian airline to survive.  Several earlier attempts by other would be competitors to the two established airlines (Qantas and Ansett) had all ended in ignominious failure.  Of course, Qantas did all it could to discourage and disparage its new competitor.


Nonetheless, Virgin Blue proceeded, and then, more or less fortuitously perhaps, Ansett (owned by Air New Zealand) went bankrupt, and Virgin Blue suddenly found a market that was reasonably full of air service change to a market where 40% of all flights had suddenly ceased.  Partly because of that, and partly because it is a good airline anyway, Virgin Blue now  appears to be flourishing.


Flash forward to 2003.  Virgin Atlantic have often stated their desire to be able to operate flights to Australia, and their interest has again surfaced to the point where they're aggressively planning to start such flights (if they can get permission from the Australian government!).


Qantas has again been understandably disparaging about this - for sure, Qantas would very much prefer not to see another major competitor on its 'Kangaroo Route' (ie London-Sydney).


And so, with this as background, please enjoy the following open letter from Sir Richard to Geoff Dixon, CEO of Qantas.





Sir Richard Branson

                                                                           24 July 2003




Dear Geoff,


I was amused to read Qantas’s completely dismissive comments about Virgin Atlantic’s chances of getting permission to fly to Australia.  It would be prudent for you to remind yourself of your and James Strong’s equally dismissive comments about Virgin Blue’s chances of entering the Australian market only three years ago.


 Here goes! This is the gist of what you said:

  •  “Virgin Blue is a lot of media hype.”

  • “This market is not big enough to sustain Virgin Blue.”

  •  “Virgin Blue doesn’t have deep enough pockets to cope.”

  •  “Qantas will employ any option to see off this interloper.”

  •  “They’ll be unlikely to survive a year.”

  •  “Claims by Richard Branson that domestic fares are high are a misnomer!” (my exclamation mark)

 Here is what James Strong, your former C.E.O, said about Virgin Blue and myself:


  “If you listen to most of the pretenders there is a distinct air that they are making it up as they go along. In terms of real plans and real commitment you could fire a shot gun up the main street and not hit anybody.”

Yet three years later you are telling your staff that this same airline, “that was making it up as it went along” and that now has 30% of the market could, “Drive Qantas out of business!” We also find it flattering, if a little silly, that three years on you now have spies hiding behind pot plants in the Virgin terminal trying to work out why we are so successful.


Even if some of your comments don’t suggest it, your actions indicate you are taking us seriously. But let’s not take ourselves too seriously. I would like to propose a friendly challenge!


If Virgin Atlantic fails to fly to Australia (within 18 months, say) I’d be prepared to suffer the indignity of donning one of your stewardesses brand new designer outfits and will work your flight from London to Australia serving your customers throughout.


However, if Virgin Atlantic does fly to Australia you would do so instead. On our inaugural flight from London to Australia you would wear one of our beautiful red Virgin Stewardesses uniforms and serve our inaugural guests all the way to Australia.  Oh and in case you were wondering, we’re not hung up on flying through Hong Kong. You might end up doing your days work experience through Singapore, Thailand or Malaysia instead.


This is the challenge. If you believe in what Qantas said to the press there can’t be any risk for you. We expect your response within one week. Our inaugural flights are great fun and I look forward to welcoming you on board personally. Oh and by the way my preferred drink is ………..!


Kind regards,




p.s. I enclose a picture to give you an idea of what you might look like.



Dixon wasn't impressed with Branson's offer.


"We are running an airline not a circus," Dixon said through a Qantas spokeswoman.



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