“Of all the many events held by the British Olympic Association these were the most unfortunate as regards the weather,” wrote the Official Report of the Motor Boats competition, which was held as an official Olympic sport for the first and only time in 1908.
This was the stage on which Ernest Blakelock Thubron, racing for France under the first name ‘Emile’, wrote his name into the history books – if almost by default. Thubron was another of the Games’ older competitors, aged 47 by the time London 1908 came around, and was an experienced player in his field, winning the Harmsworth Trophy for motorboats in 1904 and owning his own boat engine construction works in Cairo. He was not the kind of athlete you would nowadays associate with Olympic competition, but nor was this an event you would expect to see at a Games and it came as little surprise when it was quietly discontinued after this Olympiad had finished.
“The heavy sea running made racing an enterprise of some considerable risk, and robbed it of all its enjoyment, except to the most confirmed enthusiasts, continued the report. “That any competitors started at all was a strong testimony to their pluck and determination.” There had been a keen feeling of expectation around the British boat, Wolesley-Siddely, whose return from America had caused the competition – originally scheduled for July – to be postponed into August. Certainly, the British organisers could not be faulted for their appetite in hosting the event, for which the definition of a motor boat was “boats propelled by means of internal combustion engines”.
The course took in 40 nautical miles, the vessels circling an eight nautical mile course five times each. The ‘A’ class event – contested by individuals rather than teams – was rerun after weather conditions took a turn for the worse. Thubron and his boat, ‘Camille’, came out into the open water against Wolesley-Siddely – captained by the Duke of Westminster – and another British boat, Daimler II. Things did not look bright for Thubron as his boat soon trailed behind his two competitors and was lapped by Wolsesley-Siddely, but by now a gale was howling once more and things took a turn when Daimler II was forced to retire and the Duke’s boat eventually ran aground on Hamble Spit, a sandbank close to Southampton, the nearest city to which the event took place. It meant that ‘Camille’ had victory to itself in a race that “proved most disappointing from both the record breaking and the spectacular points of view”, although the Official Report consoled itself with the view that it had “furnished another instance of what can be got out of modern boats when handled with skill, nerve and determination”.
Thubron died in 1927 after being involved in a car accident in New Zealand. His nationality had remained a point of contention after his participation in the Games, with some suggesting that his French-built boat was his only link with the country and that he had raced under that flag in order to bring some extra competitive edge to the occasion. Whatever the truth, his was an unexpected and permanent Olympic legacy in an event that was perhaps ill-starred from the beginning.
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