I started working in Italy with the aluminum race boat builder CUV (Cantieri Uniti Viareggio) in 1987, just as offshore powerboat racing in Europe was reaching its peak. A Class 1 race start would have 30 boats of all types and manufacturers in those days; for me, it was a thrilling competition to be involved in as a young designer.
CUV had won several UIM Class 1 championships with Don Shead-designed monohulls by the time I met them, but they were losing against the new catamaran hulls built by Cougar Marine of England. I was hired to design a series of racing catamarans that would help them become competitive again. CUV was headed by Umberto Bergamini and the famous former Italian offshore racer, Commander Attilio Petroni. Together, we built more than 30 catamarans over the next 10 years, and won several American and European races, including the 1991 UIM World Championship.
Around this same time, the Victory Team from Dubai was beginning to compete in offshore. Fielding a three-boat team and headed by professional racers from America, Victory was starting to dominate the sport. The privately funded European teams were outgunned and offshore racing was shifting its historical center from the United States and Italy to the Middle East. CUV began to fade from the scene as their clients couldn’t afford to compete against the wealthy state-sponsored Victory Team.
In the summer of 1997, CUV was contacted regarding the entry of a new multi-boat race team that intended to take on the Victory Team. This team would be from Saudi Arabia and was the answer to CUV’s dreams. They asked me to come to Italy and meet with their client. They did not know his name, but were assured through well-known contacts that it was the real deal.
I was reluctant to fly to Italy without knowing who the client was, but CUV had hit hard times, so I flew over as a favor to my old friends. I arrived on Saturday, the day before the meeting, to talk strategy. I can’t remember the time Sunday’s meeting was scheduled for, but we ended up sitting all day waiting for the client. He was a no-show, not even a call. I was pissed about flying over and being stood up, and Umberto and Commander Petroni felt terrible.
That night at dinner with the folks from CUV, a very embarrassed Umberto, in a moment of absolute humiliation, took his personalized “CUV” gold watch off his wrist and gave it to me. It doesn’t even fit around my wrist, but I saved it as a special gesture from my old friend, given at a time when he realized the proud racing history of his company had come to an end.
A couple of months passed and I received a call from a British sports journalist who covered offshore. He called to tell me that he knew the name of the client who had stood me up that Sunday, on August 31, 1997. “It was Dodi Al Fayed who was supposed to meet with you.” He had died in the early morning hours in a Paris car crash with Princess Diana.
I continued designing racing catamarans for Tencara and Victory Team for another five years, winning a total of 21 Class 1 World Championships through 2016, but the meeting that didn’t happen remains my favorite racing story. I will never know if it was true.