Famous Speedboats of the World :
Bluebirds

Toothpick Boats
Skimming Boats
Miss Englands, Miss America and a Miss Britain
Bluebirds
Bluebird Goes On
Crusader
Yet Another Bluebird
Boats That Can Almost Fly

The Campbells, father and son, have made the name Bluebird perhaps the most famous that has ever been carried by high speed craft. Already in 1937 the name was well known, for it was borne by Sir Malcolm Campbell's racing motor car which held the world's land speed record. Ever since 1910 there had been a Bluebird racing car, for in that year, during a season when London audiences were each evening finding delight in Maeterlinck's opera Blue Bird, Campbell chose the title as the name of a large Darracq he had bought. Now Sir Malcolm turned to the sea for fresh conquests. The hydroplane Bluebird was the result, designed and built to capture the world's water speed record.

In 1937 the 1932 record set up by Gar Wood in Miss America X still remained standing. To attack it, Fred Cooper, the designer of Miss England II, was called on to produce a new and faster craft. The boat that was evolved in his fertile brain was remarkably different from such earlier record holders as the Miss Americas and even from Miss England II and III. But she did resemble Miss Britain III.

It was Fred Cooper's idea that the smallest, lightest boat possible was the answer to higher speeds over the water, and this principle on which he relied has guided the design of all the record holders that have appeared since the first Bluebird. When discussing earlier the Miss Americas we described them as floating power stations. Miss England II was by comparison a small, light boat. But even she was both large and heavy compared with Bluebird.

The new boat that Fred Cooper designed, which took shape at the yard of Saunders-Roe in East Cowes, where many famous hydroplanes had been built, was only 23 ft. in length, compared with the 36 ft. of Miss England II, and her weight of 2. tons was less than a half that of the earlier record holders. And unlike these boats, differing even from Miss Britain III, Bluebird was built to carry one man only, the pilot, wedged into a tiny cockpit amidships. It was reckoned that so small and light a boat would be capable of reaching 130 m.p.h. under a single Rolls-Royce engine developing 2,150 brake horse-power. This power was a mere one-third of Miss America X's, and less than two-thirds of Miss England II's. But she still had an important advantage. The power of the new boat was greater in proportion to her weight than that of Miss America X. She carried only 2.14 lb. for every horse-power. Miss America X, in spite of her four great engines, weighed 2.6 lb. per horse-power. Bluebird may have had less power than earlier boats, but she had a bigger kick in proportion to her size.

Fred Cooper worked out the design of the unusual new boat by means of models run in the testing tank. We shall find from now on, in the design of high speed craft, that models play an increasingly important part. At the beginning of the story we saw Sir Charles Parsons using them when developing the shape of Turbinia. By 1936 the technique of tank-testing models was more highly developed and scientific. Fred Cooper made use of twenty-two models in all, comparing their results and behaviour, and finally selected the best, which became the first Bluebird speedboat.

She had a short, beamy, shallow hull with a single step in the bottom. The Rolls-Royce engine, which was of the kind developed for the Schneider Trophy aircraft, was placed at the stern beneath a streamlined cowling which extended beyond the hull proper in order to ensure a smooth flow of air past the stern of the boat. As in Miss England the propeller shaft was arranged on the V-drive principle. The propeller itself turned at 9,000 revolutions per minute at full speed; this means that it revolved 150 times in every second.

Lightness was the keynote of Bluebird's construction, but while saving every pound of weight possible the boat had to be made strong enough to withstand the tremendous hammering that she was bound to get at speeds in the region of 130 m.p.h. At such speeds water becomes like concrete. Along the bottom of the boat, where the impact forces of the water are strongest, it is as if strong men swinging the heaviest sledge hammers are endeavouring to batter the hull to pieces.

She was built chiefly of plywood of various thicknesses. That of the deck, where the stresses were least heavy, was only one-eighth of an inch thick. The plywood skin of the hull was reinforced internally not only by frames of the same material but by bracings of Duralumin and Alclad, two light alloys of aluminium. The streamlined hooding over the engine was of doped aeroplane fabric. Inside the hull were packed 36,000 ping-pong balls in pillow cases to provide buoyancy in case of damage. Such was the remarkable little Bluebird, a fairy-light creation compared with the boat whose record she was built to capture. And she was successful.

In September 1937, on Lake Maggiore in the North of Italy, she established a new record of 129.5 m.p.h., which was about 4, m.p.h. faster than the previous five-years-old record-a narrow margin of success. But Gar Wood's record had at last been broken. A most noticeable feature of Bluebird at speed was the cleanness with which she ran, the hull riding almost level and leaving little disturbance in the water; though unavoidably as she sped noisily over the smooth water she threw into the air astern a long plume of spray and exhaust. And in the narrow cockpit, bouncing on the sprung seat raised only a few inches above the whirling shaft, Campbell watched his elaborate array of dashboard instruments while holding the leaping little craft straight on the measured mile course.

In the following year the record was raised again, to 130.9 m.p.h. on Lake Halwill in Switzerland. This was quite satisfactory up to a point, for Bluebird had now taken the record twice in succession, and the figure was about 6 m.p.h. higher than that established by the former record holder. But it was not felt to be good enough, and it seemed that the engine was capable of giving a yet higher speed. Campbell had hoped for more, but the boat proved unstable and difficult to control on the recordbreaking runs, and though the power was available in the engine it appeared likely that the Bluebird could not survive being driven any faster.

A number of experts at this time were, in fact, doubtful whether it would ever be possible for man to achieve higher speeds over the water than those that had now been reached. Gar Wood's record had waited five years to be beaten, and had now been raised by only a small amount. People wondered if any further improvement could be made on a boat like Bluebird, which was so different from the Miss Englands and Miss Americas-so tiny and light and packed with so much power in proportion to her small size. Could a pilot keep control of such a little and delicate thing skating over even the calmest water at speeds of 150 m.p.h. or more? Could a propeller be devised able to deliver the necessary engine power efficiently and not simply churn a hole in the water? It was not unreasonable that people should wonder about these things.

Campbell was a man who delighted in facing difficulties, and he made up his mind to break the record again, using the same Rolls-Royce engine that had given the record to Bluebird twice, but installing it in a new hull of entirely different design. The question was: how should the new boat be shaped?

Fortunately, at this crucial point a new idea appeared. It was due to an American, Arno Apel, who was chief designer of a boatbuilding concern in Atlantic City, U.S.A., and he had produced what was known as the Ventnor type of hydroplane. In the course of our story of man's efforts to achieve higher and ever higher speeds over the water we have seen that from time to time entirely fresh ideas appeared about what a fast boat should be like. Thus the long, thin, toothpick boats gave way to skimming hydroplanes having steps in the bottom, so that the hull might be carried at high speed simply on the front part of the step and a small area of the boat at the stern. Boats of this kind became smaller and lighter, with more power in proportion to their weight, and the limit to this line of development was reached in Bluebird.

We may imagine that Arno Apel argued the matter out to himself thus:

"The whole secret of speed over the water is skimming, and the more easily a boat can skim-the more feather-light her touch on the water-the more her speed is likely to be. We want as little boat as possible to be in contact with the water when she is running at her top speed. On the other hand, she must make enough contact to be controllable by the pilot. She must not sheer wildly about or tend to jump clear of the water, or to capsize or skid. What we will do is to make the boat skim along, not on her bottom but on three small floats that are not part of the hull itself and having much less area than the bottom of the boat. The side floats can be arranged wider apart than the beam of the hull, which will make the boat more stable and prevent her capsizing."

This roughly was Arno Apel's idea. It became known as the "three-point support" type of boat. He designed a number of successful boats on this principle which had proved capable of high speeds with quite small power. For example, one of them had reached 85.12 m.p.h. yet her engine was only 180 horse-power compared with the more than 2,000 horse-power available in Bluebird's RollsRoyce.

So it was decided to build a new boat, and the well-known shipbuilding firm of Vosper were asked to produce the hull. A speed of 150 m.p.h. was aimed at-the speed that was commonly regarded then as impossible. Commander Peter Du Cane, managing director of Vosper, together with the Admiralty Experiment Works and the American designer Reid Railton, who had worked with Sir Malcolm Campbell on his racing cars, set about producing a new Bluebird based on the ideas of Arno Apel.

Five months of experimenting with small models followed. At first the results were unsatisfactory. But eventually a type of hull was devised that appeared able to give a speed of about 140 m.p.h., or a little more, when driven by the now twelve-yearold Rolls-Royce engine that was to be installed. Tests were also made with models in the air tunnel, for a new problem, that we shall find becoming increasingly important, was beginning to face those who aimed at travelling at yet higher speeds over the water. There was the possibility that the force of the air on the hull might be enough to put the boat out of control. As a result of the tests the deck of the new Bluebird was rounded downwards at the fore end to prevent the boat from developing a dangerous trim as a result of air pressure.

She was built chiefly of specially manufactured plywood laid on top of wooden frames, internally braced by a number of girders of light aluminium alloy. The deck was of mahogany planking with doped fabric on top of it, and the cowling over the engine, which was placed right aft and extended round the pilot's cockpit, was also of light alloy.

Bluebird was a strange looking craft, and less like a normal boat than any previous record breaker. On either side were the broad sponsons or stabilisers, increasing the beam of the boat by a few feet. Each of these was hollow and open at the after end, but at their forward ends there was a small area of surface on which the boat skimmed, while another small surface on the hull aft carried the stern of the boat. Thus at high speed she would ride on those three tiny areas-the three points of support-with the fore part of the hull wholly clear of the water; and this was very different from the previous record breakers, which were poised on the wide step across the bottom of the hull. Bluebird II was a bold experiment; so bold, in fact, that Commander Du Cane received many letters from people while they were at work on the design and construction of the boat, warning him that the whole idea was dangerous and could not hope to prove successful.

Lake Coniston in the Lake District was the place chosen by Campbell for his record-breaking attempt. In 1939 another war was threatening, and there was the danger that if the boat and her equipment were taken abroad all might be lost in the event of sudden hostilities. He decided against Lake Windermere, perhaps because it held the memory of the tragic death of Sir Henry Segrave. Having reached Coniston the boat was launched and christened with a bottle of champagne by Donald Campbell, his son, who was himself later to make a world's record on the same lake. Then events followed rapidly. Usually record-breaking attempts encounter all sorts of initial difficulties and delays. This one proceeded briskly and without any important hitches. The boat and staff arrived at the lake on Monday the 14th August. By the following Saturday the record was broken. One embarrassment encountered, however, had nothing to do with the problems of high speed. Some of the residents of that quiet and salubrious lakeside objected to the noise and publicity that inevitably must attend record breaking. However, the majority of the local inhabitants welcomed Sir Malcolm Campbell and all was well.

It was on Tuesday that the boat was launched, and the final preparations were completed by the evening of Wednesday. This work included stowing in the hull 50,000 ping-pong balls-more than in the first Bluebird-and these gave just enough buoyancy to support the engine should the hull be damaged and become liable to sink; but the balls themselves weighed about 150 lb., and so sensitive are small, light boats like Bluebird to weight, that even this was considered to be enough to lower the maximum speed by about 5 m.p.h.

During the first trial runs the engine tended to run hot. Sir Malcolm decided to make his attempt on the record early on the Saturday morning, though his mechanics were against it, wanting to adjust several small matters first. However, they worked all Friday night and until 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, altering the engine cooler so that the water scoop, which gathered up the cooling water, functioned better. Later in the morning Campbell climbed into the cockpit and shot down the measured mile, a streak of blue and silver, making a deep roar of noise. Without even waiting for the wash of the first run to die down he skidded the boat round and flew back over the course to complete the two runs needed for the record. The boat appeared to onlookers to be running on rails, so steady and sure was her action, and the impression of speed was tremendous; everyone felt sure the record had been broken.

There was only one moment of anxiety, when flames appeared to spring out from the hull; but this was simply a belch from the exhausts. Life in the cockpit, however, was less easy for Sir Malcolm than it appeared from the shore. He found himself being nearly suffocated by fumes, and on several occasions, with the boat going at full speed, he had to stand up to get fresh air. But all proved to be well in the end. The record was broken, by the comfortable amount of 10 m.p.h. Bluebird's measured speed was 141.74 m.p.h.

Soon after making the record Sir Malcolm told the gathered newspaper reporters that "There's a lot more speed in the boat yet." Indeed, he had ideas of reaching 160 m.p.h. with another and slightly more powerful engine installed. This, however, was not to be attempted until the following year. But what he had already done gained him the Segrave Trophy, and Commander Peter Du Cane was awarded a Segrave medal.

By then Europe was again at war. Commander Peter Du Cane's firm of Vosper, the builders of Bluebird II, became busy producing the fast motor torpedo-boats and many similar types of craft, the high speed and ability of which owed not a little to the record-breaking speedboats that Du Cane and other designers had been producing during the years between 192o and 1939. For six years Bluebird and the world records had to be neglected.

When the Second World War broke out most people had forgotten the C.M.B.s of the kind that had swept inshore off Dunkirk in 1917 and under cover of darkness torpedoed the German destroyers lying at anchor, and which had crept in beneath the shore guns of Zeebrugge and attacked the harbour mole. High speed fighting boats had hardly been thought about in Britain again until 1935. In Germany, however, a type of fast vessel known as the E-boat had been produced. They were larger craft than the old C.M.B.s, with a length of about 11o ft., and they were faster too. Even more important, they were of much superior seaworthiness. Their main purpose was to attack merchant ships with torpedoes in the coastal waters of the North Sea, relying on their speed to escape into fog or darkness before more powerfully armed naval vessels were able to catch them. In some ways the E-boats, with their long, narrow hulls, were not'unlike the old Turbinia; but unlike Turbinia they were propelled by three diesel engines.

Britain entered the war with few of the huge numbers of fast craft that were to appear during the years of hostilities and comprise what became known as the Mosquito fleet. A few people during the years of peace had, however, been thinking about such boats. In 1936 Vosper built, as a private venture, a motor torpedo-boat, which became known as No. 102. We may now look back on her as a famous vessel, for no firm built more of the Navy's war-time Mosquito fleet than Vosper, and the No. 102, which by 1937 was to be seen on trials, was the predecessor of this big fleet of Vosper's craft.

A year later many people saw in the Solent another remarkable craft. Her hull was low and streamlined, her sheerline made a serpentine curve that expressed power and speed, her deck was a clean, unencumbered space broken only by a low deckhouse. This too was one of the early types of motor torpedoboat, a skimming warship designed and built by the firm of Hubert Scott-Paine, who, you will remember, had owned and raced the speedboat Miss Britain II. Now, with the outbreak of war, hundreds of such craft were urgently needed, and during six years a few firms devoted themselves during the days and much of the nights to building them. The firm that had built Bluebird II was the most important of them.

The war was only just over when Sir Malcolm Campbell again began thinking about Bluebird and the world's speed record, which still stood in his name. Many new ideas had emerged during the war years, and the plans he now proceeded to develop differed from those he had in his mind when, in 1939, he left Coniston Water, with the object of returning in the following year.

A new system was about to appear for propelling high-speed boats. Speeds of more than 200 m.p.h. were now being thought about, and there were some doubts in peoples' minds whether the ordinary marine propeller, which had been used in all but a very few kinds of ships since the clumsy paddle wheel had been discarded, would be able to operate properly at such speeds. Jet propulsion, in which no propeller was needed, offered a solution to the problem. Here the jet of hot air discharged into the atmosphere might provide the powerful kick to push the boat without the difficulties involved in the use of a tiny very-fast-turning propeller screwing its way through "water" which at the speeds considered tended to be little more than creamy froth.

But unfortunately nobody knew anything about speeds over the water as high as those dreamed of; and also, in spite of the use of jet propulsion in aircraft, they knew nothing about the application of the jet engine to boats. One thing alone was realized: that a boat had to move very fast before jet propulsion could be efficiently used. But nobody had any information to tell them at what speed the ordinary propeller ceased to function properly, or how a boat would behave when driven by the terrific kick of an air jet. To find out the answer to such questions meant long hours of research and experiment and finally the biggest experiment of all -the building of a jet-propelled boat capable of such high speeds and driven by a man willing to risk his life to discover what would happen.

The principle of the jet engine is not hard to understand, and even in its mechanical details it is a simpler piece of machinery than a diesel or other internal combustion engine. In a jet engine air is driven at high pressure by numerous fast rotating blades-a super-efficient fan-into a chamber where it is heated by burners. As a result it expands suddenly and violently. It is then released through the propulsion orifice at the back of the engine, and this stream of hot air, leaving at a speed of more than 1,000 m.p.h., gives a tremendous kick back in the process, which drives the boat or aeroplane in which the engine is fitted. A jet engine swallows air at an enormous rate in order to maintain without pause the continuous rush of air which provides the drive.

Sir Malcolm Campbell planned to have his Bluebird, which had been lying idle during the war years, converted to jet propulsion. To do this the whole of the upper part of the hull had to be rebuilt. The new engine was a De Havilland Goblin II type jet, and a large model of the modified boat was tested in a wind tunnel. Compared with the substituted petrol engine it was calculated that the Goblin II was capable of giving nearly half as much power again, while the engine itself was actually lighter than the petrol machinery. The fuel tank fitted carried sixty gallons, which was enough for about seven minutes' running at high speed.

You will note from the photographs following page 96 the great changes made to Bluebird when she was converted to jet propulsion. They show the boat as she was when she made her record on Lake Coniston in 1939; and then the wholly new upper part of the hull that was constructed, with the two large air intakes to feed the jet engines, and round these the flowing curves of the hull gathering up the pilot's cockpit into a better streamlined form than hitherto, and sweeping down in an uninterrupted sweep to the low, pointed nose of the bow. Looked at from above, the rejuvenated Bluebird may have seemed to lack grace; but it must be agreed that the new boat had a greater air of speed and sleekness than when she was originally designed.

All indeed seemed hopeful for a new record. But this was not to be. Experiments are not always successful. By July 1947 Bluebird was once again at Lake Coniston and Sir Malcolm Campbell began to make trials. All would go well until the boat was travelling at about 100 miles an hour. Then suddenly she would take a violent sheer to one side or the other, and though the pilot might give full helm to bring her back on course she would continue running at something like right angles to the correct direction until speed was eased down. The behaviour was like a violent skid, and of course attended by great danger. Bluebird persisted in behaving in this unmanageable way, and it was decided that nothing more could be done until she was returned to Portsmouth and the trouble investigated by the builders.

So a year passed, with more tank tests using models, which were unable to give any explanation of the boat's surprising behaviour. It was decided that the violence of the skidding action might be modified by fitting a metal fin under the hull, a steel plate, which would serve as resistance in the water against the tendency of the boat to sheer off course. By the following summer Bluebird was again ready, but before being sent to Coniston once more trials were run on the relatively open waters of Poole Harbour. Here really high speeds were impossible, for even this fairly landlocked stretch of South Coast sea was not often smooth enough for such work; but at speeds of about 100 m.p.h. there appeared to be great improvement in her handling qualities. It seemed worth putting her once more onto a lorry and sending her to the familiar lakeside by Coniston.

But Bluebird, after the brilliant success of her prewar days, now seemed to be gripped in a rut of misfortune. At first the weather was bad and no record-making runs could be attempted. When the weather improved, Bluebird was towed out to the start of the course, and in a short time Sir Malcolm Campbell had worked his little craft up to a speed of 120 miles an hour. But at this point, which was still some nineteen miles an hour below the record, she developed a violent fluttering motion. This was not the same as the snaking or swerving from which she had suffered before. It was a quick bouncing action, the hull see-sawing with first the bow up and then the stern up, but doing this not in the gentle manner of a see-saw but at a rate of many times a second. It would have been enough to smash the hull if allowed to continue, while it sent terribly severe shocks through the pilot, who in effect was being thrown violently up and down in the air at a rate that the human frame could hardly stand. In spite of this experience Campbell persisted in the record attempt; but he proved unable to pilot the boat at anything approaching the speed of her earlier record. For the while a failure, Bluebird was taken away from Lake Coniston.

Sir Malcolm Campbell was now faced with the problem of what to do next. This boat might be reconverted to the petrol engine and screw propeller with which she had set up her record in 1939. But this would have meant sacrificing one of the chief objects of the record attempt; which was to show that the jet engine had a great future for highspeed boats. Sir Malcolm Campbell foresaw their use in propelling fast naval craft, and believed that the publicity of setting up a new world's speed record using such an engine would draw attention to their value. What he might have achieved we shall never know. Already, when piloting Bluebird on her last runs, he was a sick man, and also elderly for such work. Shortly after the disappointing venture on Lake Coniston he died.

Bluebird's failure may serve to remind us of the formidable problems that were being faced in attaining yet higher speeds over the water. When all appears to go easily, such as in Bluebird's record runs of 1939, the operation of record breaking may appear to be easy-a simple matter of building a boat that is light enough and carries enough horsepower, and then rushing it over the measured mile or kilometre a couple of times. If success is immediate everyone, except the few people involved in the business, forgets the months of experiment and preparation that made the record possible. We are now reaching, in our story of speed over the water, what might be called a sticky patch. New difficulties appeared, the solutions to which were not immediately found. There was so much that was unknown; much that could not be forecast until the boat was built and run at high speed over the water, with the life of the pilot depending on the way the tiny, skimming machine might behave.

One of the new problems offered by jet propulsion was the effect on a boat's behaviour of the great weight of rushing air that had to be drawn up into the turbine through the air intakes; this, which could not be examined by using a small model, might so upset the smooth air flow over the body of the boat as to make her uncontrollable. Then again, there was the "fluttering" from which Bluebird had suffered. It was dangerous behaviour, and soon to prove itself the most serious of all obstacles to higher speeds over the water. It was to cause the death of one gallant pilot, and had already foiled Bluebird and deprived her of success. Before higher speeds could be reached an explanation of why such behaviour occurred had to be found, and the means of preventing it devised. The jet-propelled Bluebird may not be able to take her place amongst the successful record breakers; but she was a link in the chain of experience and pointed the way to future records. In the story of mechanical progress the apparent failure is often as important as the success. It is only those who do not know much and cannot understand how material progress is made, who worship success only.

And even then, though Sir Malcolm Campbell was dead and Bluebird for the present an unsolved problem, the Bluebird story was not at an end.

(Reprinted from Famous Speedboats of the World by D. Phillips-Birt [St. Martin’s Press, 1959], Ch.6)


Hydroplane History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at wildturnip@gmail.com
Leslie Field, 2000