There are a lot of incredible motor yachts out there, money-no-object masterpieces far beyond the means of the common man and pretty much irrelevant aside from being nice to look at. Some, though, have a certain tangible quality that shines through, beyond a mere gloss of showmanship.
There are some indecently fast ones, too. Stick enough grunt inside and any old hull can be forced to move at a decent lick. But it’s rare that you chance upon a motor yacht that combines speed and beauty with history.
This is the Brave Challenger. Not just a historic yacht, more like water-borne nobility. Speed? Oh yes. 60 knots. Plus.
The giveaway as to what it is that we’re looking at here is in the name, Brave Challenger. It’s also in the fact that she was built by Vosper, who know a thing or two about quick boats. She was built for fabulously wealthy Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos at the turn of the ’60s and named Mercury.
“Brave” is a reference to the fact that Mercury was heavily based on another interesting piece of kit that Vosper were building at the time, namely the Brave Class patrol boats, a class of only two ever built for the Royal Navy. In turn, the Brave class lead to a smaller prototype named Ferocity being built and forming the basis of several vessels which would be exported overseas.
The Brave Class was the successor to the Dark class, an awesome machine propelled by twin Napier Deltic 18 cylinder diesels. That meant 6200 hp available for duty and a maximum of well above 40 knots. Now, Deltics, as also found in the Nasty class patrol boats which operated from Da Nang in Vietnam, are amazing engines. But not as amazing as what the Brave class was packing.
Mercury was based on the exact same hull design and mechanical package as the Brave class, but was designed from the outset as a luxury high speed yacht so there’s bound to be a few differences here and there. But not with the engines, oh no. Mercury was still equipped with three Bristol Siddeley Proteus gas turbines.
These were the same engines as powered the Bristol Britannia airliner and the Saunders Roe S.R.N.4 cross-channel hovercraft. They were also supposed to have been used in coupled twin-proteus form in the cancelled Brabazon airliner and Princess flying boat. They could muster something in the region of 3500hp each, making them bloody awesome in a boat.
When you’ve got three at your disposal, along with a pair of GM 6V 92s for auxiliary duty the effect is profound, hence numbers like 60 knots being thrown around. Mercury was among the very fastest motor yachts ever built. And, as far as I know, in her current, developed guise as Brave Challenger, she’s still around.
When Stavros had finished with her she passed to an Italian called Roberto Memmo who eventually sold her to a chap named Wensley Hayden Bailey, who changed her name to Brave Challenger and based her around the Portsmouth area.
Knowing full well what it would take to keep a unique vessel like this in operable condition, he bought up a pretty comprehensive set of spares, including, slightly tragically, both the Brave class boats which had been decommissioned from naval use in 1970. Thus Brave Swordsman and Brave Borderer both met their fates, but important service items went into the Brave Challenger “spares pool”. Other boats met their demise to feed Mr Hayden Bailey’s requirements; two of the exported “Baby Braves” came back home from the continent, “Strahl” and “Pfiel“, ex of the German and Hellenic Navies.
Finally, stocks of working Proteus power units were reinforced with the purchase of GH-2006 Princess Margaret and GH-2007 Princess Anne, the two remaining MKIII S.R.N.4 hovercrafts and their huge stockpile of spare parts upon their retirement from cross-channel service in 2000. Thankfully, no inroads have been made into stripping the hovercrafts down as yet and they reside intact at the Hovercraft Museum.
What’s she like as a yacht, then? Well, she’s as luxurious as any private yacht with three gas turbines should be. Trawling around The Internet netted me the above image which gives a distinct impression of gentleman’s club ambience, quite at odds with the technology packed away in the engineroom.
Speaking of which, this has to be the most imposing set of throttle quadrants I’ve ever seen on a private yacht. I can only imagine what sliding them forwards would do. I’m actually feeling a bit giddy just thinking about it.
The Internet offers scant information as to the present status of Brave Challenger, aside from her “Not Being Available For Charter”, and I hope this uniquely and obliquely historic vessel is kept active for a good while yet. And I long to hear the sound of those Proteus turbines ringing out across the Solent at least once in my lifetime.
(All images sourced from various corners of The Internet courtesy of Google Image Search. If they belong to you, let me know and we will acknowledge you for them. If you happen to be Mr Hayden Bailey, and Brave Challenger belongs to you, please, please, please get in touch next time you take her to sea and need a crew. Thank you.)