As Dave Tenny viewed Aggressor for the first time since it had been rescued and restored, it was impossible not to get caught up in the emotions of the moment. The location was the 2007 Sydney International Boat Show and the place was the upstairs display area in the main hall. A living legend in Unlimited Class power boat racing, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through Tenny’s mind as he looked at the boat that had once almost killed him and permanently injured his co-driver and good mate, Les Scott.
“It’s definitely brought back some memories,” said the quiet, unassuming 65-year-old at the time. “Ten out of ten to the blokes who restored it.”
Like Tenny, Aggressor also enjoyed legendary status amongst power boat racing enthusiasts, in Australia and across the world. In its heyday, it was totally dominant; an unbeatable race boat that managed an unprecedented 10 wins from 10 successive starts in one memorable season in the early ’70s. No other Unlimited race boat in the world has achieved this result.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Aggressor story was how the boat had come to be built in the first place.
Tenny was a young apprentice fitter and turner in Melbourne in the early 1960s when he became interested in power boat racing, which was a high-profile sport at the time, attracting large crowds to venues such as Albert Park Lake, Port Phillip Bay and various regional lakes and rivers, particulary in NSW and Victoria. The sport had its heroes – and villains – and Tenny was soon caught up by the spectacle of the high-speed craft as they roared around the race courses, sometimes on a knife’s edge, teetering between glory and disaster.
With a healthy dose of do-it-yourself confidence, and the help of a few mates, Tenny decided to build his own race boat. But not just any craft. Tenny decided to aim for the stars from the start, embarking on a project that would ultimately help shape the fortunes of Australian power boat racing for the better part of a decade.
In power boat circles in the ’60s and ’70s, the ultimate expression of a thoroughbred race boat was the Unlimited Class – the name accurately describing the sorts of boats that regularly competed on the Australian circuit. These boats, mostly hydroplanes, were built to pretty much any specification, just so long as they could hold together at speeds well in excess of 160km/h. Engines most commonly were large American V8s, while in a handful of cases they were of entirely different lineage.
Apart from inflicting much death and misery around the world, the Second World War was also responsible for a huge leap in technology, mostly of the lethal kind. But one of the enduring engineering accomplishments to come out of the conflict – at least to fans of serious technology and race enthusiasts – was the Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Built to power death-dealing machines such as the British Spitfire and American P51 Mustang fighter planes, the massive 27lt, 2000hp (depending on configuration and application) 12-cylinder engines were – and still are – marvels of mechanical engineering. When they are running, they sound like the Apocalypse, encourage those nearby to run for cover, and cause the earth to shake and grown men to tremble. In the annals of internal combustion, the Merlin is king.
Which is why Tenny decided that a Merlin should occupy the space between himself and the bow when he set about designing the boat that would come to strike fear and loathing into all who would try and outrun him on the water. It should be noted that, at the time, Merlins were considered the engine of choice amongst the leading racers in the capital of Unlimited Class racing – the USA. As leftovers from WWII, there were plenty of them around in scrap yards and since they had outlived their military usefulness with the advent of jet engines, they were dirt cheap.
The same applied in Australia, where many a Merlin could be found corroding quietly in the dust and dirt in military scrap yards around the nation.
Deciding on and acquiring the engine was the easy part. The design of the hull was achieved with valuable assistance from Harry West and Errol Jay, who had previously designed many top Australian racing boat hulls. An Australian magazine in 1961, Popular Boating, happened to have a feature on Unlimited Class boats in America and Tenny was inspired by a photo of a green and gold hydroplane named Miss Bardahl. Since its colour scheme was the same as our national colours, Tenny thought it appropriate to adopt the same colours for Aggressor.
Most construction techniques were about as low-tech and basic as you could get, and the Melbourne of the early ’60s wasn’t exactly a hotbed of race boat technology. People had to design and build boats in their backyards and Tenny thought that by at least starting with a proven layout and hull shape, albeit using makeshift pencil drawings and basic measurements, he couldn’t go too far wrong. As it turned out, building and racing Aggressor would prove anything but plain sailing.
After sorting prop, fuel and gearbox problems – with Tenny making his own gearbox as nothing available could handle the enormous power and torque of the big Merlin – the 26ft hydroplane finally hit the water in 1965 and Tenny and his co-driver, Les Scott, went in search of races to win.
What they found instead was that racing an Unlimited Class boat could be a punishing and potentially lethal activity for a novice. In one of their first outings, they were flung from Aggressor at high speed, giving the pair a wet and bruising introduction to the dangerous sport.
The first couple of seasons were mostly about sorting out the boat, replacing various broken driveline parts with stronger components and coming to grips with its handling idiosyncrasies.
“In rough water it was a real handful – very lively,” was how Tenny described life behind the wheel of Aggressor. “Because of the enormous torque of the engine when running at better than 100mph, it would unexpectantly ‘prop walk’ sideways across the water when under acceleration, so you were constantly working against that while trying to keep the boat on the course. If it stepped out, you had to catch it straight away to make sure it kept on track.”
ON THE ROCKS
As Tenny and Scott became more used to Aggressor’s difficult handling characteristics, they became more confident and the wins began to come to the young upstarts from Melbourne. Upsets still plagued them from time to time though, including one early incident in the Castrol one hundred mile race on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, when the pair ended up on the rocks at Point Cook, southwest of the city. They attempted to repair the damage, replaced the prop and headed back out into the Bay, only to be immediately swamped. Aggressor sank to the bottom and left them to swim to shore. The boat lay there for three days until they could tow it in and repair the hull and drowned engine.
But it all finally came together for the team during the ’71/’72 season. In competition with much more favoured and experienced teams, including such illustrious names of the day as Air New Zealand, Assassin, Black Knight, Wasp, Vulture and Stampede, Aggressor was winning races.
Such was the domination of Tenny, Scott and their homebuilt craft, that in all races, the team would give the rest of the field a good head start, before hunting them down one by one and invariably sprinting across the finish line in first place. Tenny was, and still is admired today by many for his philosophy that, “If I can’t catch them and pass them, then I don’t deserve to win.”
By the end of that season, Aggressor had scored a perfect 10 – 10 wins from 10 starts. All the work, sacrifice and struggle that the privateer pair had put in had finally paid off. Their future seemed assured, but fate was to intervene just as they were at the peak of their form.
In April 1972 at a race at Hen and Chicken Bay in NSW, the team suffered a crushing blow. While racing against Air New Zealand, Aggressor’s rudder hit a submerged object that caused the boat to cartwheel across the water at nearly 250km/h. Tenny recounts the incident: “We were battling with Air New Zealand, when the next thing I know I’m in the air and out of the boat. I remember thinking ‘this is it, I’m dead’. We were thrown around 100 yards and I reckon we were probably going close to 180mph by the time we hit the water.
“Then I remember coming back to the surface and not being able to breath. My shoes and helmet were gone and my life jacket was over my head. We were pulled onto another boat. I had broken bones in my face and ended up with black eyes and bruising all over my body.”
But for co-driver Scott, the crash would result in permanent paralysis, rendering him a paraplegic. Scott was clinically dead when taken to hospital, but fellow hydroplane racer, Thornton Simpson refused to let him die and gave him CPR till his vital signs returned. It was a devastating blow and one that has left Tenny with life-long emotional scaring at the impact the accident had on his mate.
“After that, things just weren’t the same,” said a pensive Tenny. “I tried to repair the boat over a couple of years, but my heart just wasn’t in it and I have to say, I’m still uncomfortable working with boats to this day.”
After the crash, Aggressor languished in a shed for nearly a decade, before another racer, Barry Taylor persuaded Tenny to part with his broken creation. Taylor went on to race Aggressor in a couple of campaigns, before it again was retired and slipped into obscurity.
RACER TO THE RESCUE
Enter NSW classic boat enthusiast, restorer, collector and international racer, Dave Pagano, who discovered that Aggressor was still in one piece, albeit in a state of advanced decay. He eventually bought the boat in 1999, but took another five years before he set about bringing it back to its former glory.
“I’d known of Aggressor for years and really admired Dave Tenny and how he’d built the boat from scratch from a few drawings,” explained Pagano. “Not only did he build it, he made it work and went on to achieve an incredible win record. I’d actually seen footage of the last crash and thought that the boat had been destroyed. When I heard that it still existed, I just had to have it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest Unlimited race boat in Australia.”
Pagano set about restoring Aggressor in 2005, a project that involved rebuilding most of the hull, much of which had succumbed to rot over the years, and then fully rebuilding the massive Merlin.
The culmination of his work, aided by a tight and dedicated team of helpers, came at the 2007 Sydney International Boat Show, when Aggressor and Dave Tenny were reunited.
Since the show, Pagano has run the boat on the water and intends to take it out from time to time to show modern day race fans what a ‘real’ race boat sounds and feels like.
“It’s a part of Australian history and I want people to see it and hear it run. Ultimately, I’d like to see it put in a museum so that it will be preserved and people will be able to learn about its history and where it came from.”
A childhood hero
Gary Grant, a member of the Aggressor rescue team, recounts the first time he met Dave Tenny and his awesome creation.
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning … it smells like victory,” said Robert Duval famously as the jungle erupted in flames in the cerebral Apocolypse Now. For some reason, this movie moment came to mind when I heard – and felt – the spectacle of Aggressor’s 2000hp, 27lt, supercharged engine as it exploded to life, assaulting most of my senses with the roar from its 12 stubby exhaust pipes. I struggled for words, then it came to me. For Duval, it was about smell. For me, standing next to Aggressor, it was about the sheer percussive violence as each giant cylinder expelled its explosive contents into the air. That giant Merlin engine from wars gone by “felt like victory”. Awesome stuff.
It was in 1970, at the age of 13, whilst researching an assignment for school titled “My Favourite Australian Sportsperson”, that I became interested in Dave Tenny, the person behind the race boat known as Aggressor. On a number of occasions I had seen the boat on television and read articles in different newspapers relating to Dave and his boat. Most of the stories were about mishaps and failures, but also spoke of the enormous potential and the sheer power of this craft, considering it was powered by an aircraft engine.
With a little persuasion, my father agreed to take me to interview Dave for the assignment. I was so excited and was in awe of the boat and Dave, who soon revealed what a quiet, polite and humble man he really was.
As my father’s family business involved salvaging WWII planes, he and Dave had much in common and talked endlessly about the Merlin engine he had rebuilt for the boat and numerous other incredible engineering feats that Dave had undertaken in the making of this extraordinary craft.
I learnt that in 1961, at the age of just 20 years old and as an apprentice fitter and turner, Dave started out on his quest to build what he hoped would be Australia’s greatest race boat. It took him five years to build Aggressor in his parent’s backyard in a temporary shed that was made out of recycled materials. The boat was made of oregon, fibreglass and aluminium.
Aggressor was first christened in 1965 at Brighton Beach, Melbourne, but the overall project took Dave 10 years to reach the top. He was faced with many obstacles along the way, especially the ongoing financial strain of being an unsponsored privateer racer. Dave’s story is really a testament to the Australian spirit that what you lack in material resources, you can make up for with perseverance and courage.
As Aggressor went on to dominate power boat racing, I continued to follow Dave’s fortunes and watched as he made a name for himself on the water.
In the estimation of many of the fans that were now coming to these boat races in droves to see this amazing spectacle, Aggressor was not only unbeaten, but unbeatable. The sheer presence the boat had on the water was immense; the ground actually shook around the lakes it raced on and it was reaching speeds in excess of 250km/h.
And then, suddenly, it was all over with the big crash. Dave was left emotionally scared and Les, cruelly, was left a paraplegic. It seemed too big a price to pay and was a sobering reminder of just how dangerous boat racing can be.
Dave would have possibly continued racing Aggressor and with adequate sponsorship, may have taken her to the USA where she would almost certainly have been competitive, however the financial strain as a privateer was too much and it was time for him to move on.
After a period of time in the hands of racer, Barry Taylor, himself an engineer, Aggressor’s ageing hull design became a handicap as more modern craft handled and turned better and were able to sustain the high speeds more safely.
And then along came race boat driver, Dave Pagano, who purchased Aggressor with the intention of keeping alive one of Australia’s most famous racing boats.
Meantime, I had stayed in touch with Dave Tenny over the years and when he told me about Dave Pagano and his plan to rebuild Aggressor, I became curious. I contacted Dave Pagano and it was obvious he was driven by the same intense passion and commitment to preserve a true legend of Australian sport. Given the poor condition of the boat when he finally purchased it, it is a testament to Dave that he persevered with the project, putting in countless hours of sometimes frustrating effort in order to restore it to almost better than new condition.
Dave’s dedication was infectious and I soon joined the cause, as did a few other stalwarts, including American Merlin expert, Ike Keilgass, who is involved with the Unlimited Hydroplane Museum in Seattle, USA. Ike flew over voluntarily to assist Dave with the engine rebuild and helped tirelessly over three weeks until the motor was all ready to go.
In the end, it took Dave Pagano and his helpers a few years to complete Aggressor’s restoration, with the crowning point being its appearance at the 2007 Sydney boat show. When both Daves, Tenny and Pagano, stood side by side, both proud of each other’s achievements, I couldn’t help but feel a bit emotional, particularly as Dave Tenny had returned to me the original school assignment I had presented to him all those years ago. Without any hesitation, I handed the assignment to Dave Pagano so that it could accompany Aggressor in her future travels and displays.
The only thing left to do was to put her back in the water, and I felt extremely privileged to be on hand early last year on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, at Windsor, NSW when that big Merlin exploded to life once again.
For me it was another emotional milestone, made more intense by the fact that I was in the co-driver’s seat for the first run of the reborn Aggressor. There we were, flying over the water with the big motor only just ticking over, Dave Pagano taking it easy to begin with, feathering the throttle to keep the engine turning over at a mere 1800rpm. Mind you, even at those relatively modest revs we were still powering down the river at around 200km/h.
It occurred to me that we had all come full circle, Dave Tenny, Aggressor and that 13-year-old school boy from all those years ago. And I was still just as awestruck as I was when I first met Dave and marvelled at his ingenuity and the sight of his wonderful creation.
– Gary Grant