Famous Speedboats of the World :
Bluebird Goes On

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

Sir Malcolm Campbell's son Donald, who nine years earlier had christened Bluebird II by breaking the conventional bottle of champagne over the bow when the little boat had for the first time gone into the water, determined to improve on his father's record. He was encouraged to do this by whispers from the other side of the Atlantic that there were Americans who had a boat under construction with the same object in view. So he decided to have the jet propulsion engine removed from Bluebird and to convert her back to the internal combustion motor and ordinary propeller with which she had been successful in 1939. He had reason to hope that she might be made faster, for he intended to use better petrol than had been available to his father, and also to have the design of the propeller improved.

Then Donald Campbell met an almost insurmountable obstacle. He found that unknown to him his father had sold the Rolls-Royce engine it was intended to replace in the boat. This might have ended the Bluebird story, for it would almost certainly have been out of the question to buy another suitable unit. However, he discovered who had bought the engine-it was a car dealer, and it was said that he had paid only 150 for it, which is not much for a Rolls-Royce of about 2,000 horse-power! And the dealer was a shrewd man of business. It cost Donald Campbell more than five times as much to buy the engine back from him.

But soon he had the boat in Vosper's yard being altered, and he had a team, still headed by his father's old friend Leo Villa, reconditioning the engine and working on the many fittings needed for the boat. He returned to Lake Coniston, where he had watched his father setting up the record that it was now intended to better, and made preparations for the arrival of the boat. By the end of July 1949 Bluebird was back beside the lake surrounded by the usual busy team of engineers; the buoys marking the course were moored out in the water; and everyone was occupied with the mass of detail work that a record-breaking attempt entails.

It was not long before Donald Campbell found himself, for the first time in his life, out on the water piloting a fast motorboat-the fastest in the world, in fact, at that time. This is what he wrote about it:

"I settled into the cockpit. Easy to hand in front of me was the steering wheel. I fingered the throttle at my right hand and also the booster magneto and the main cock from the compressed air bottles; with my right foot I felt the foot throttle, with the left foot the air-starter valve. Everything seemed snug and handy.

"The cockpit was uncovered, but in front of my face was a small windscreen and through this I glanced at the long torpedo-shaped cowling, the wide expanse of deck and the air-speed indicator spigot on the bow. Then I looked along the auxiliary instrument panel at eye level; in the centre was the air-speed indicator dial to show how fast the engine was turning, to the left a thermometer measuring engine-water temperature. I felt at home.

"Behind my back was the engine, with rows of exhaust stubs on either side, and while I glanced round Leo primed it. I switched on the main starter valve, shut the throttle, turned on the main air cock, opened the switches, pressed the air starter valve with my left foot and turned on the magneto with my right hand. The engine came easily to life with a deep-throated roar, and in a couple of minutes the thermometer was showing 60 degrees .... Bluebird surged forward, we were off.

"She moved smoothly, riding easily, and I was exhilarated. The steady roar of the engine behind me was not too loud but rather comforting, the lake slipped by and out of the corners of my eyes I could see the green-wooded shores gliding by . . . We passed the red marker buoy at the beginning of the measured mile, and finally the second red marker at the end of the mile . . . Soon I was easing up at the end of the lake, rounding an island on a dog-leg and pulling over to Harry Leech and his radio telephone launch.

" ‘Well done, Donald,’ he called. ‘All O.K.?’ "

All was not to continue going so well, however. The next day almost saw the end of everything. Campbell accelerated Bluebird too abruptly. The result was to produce the very dangerous condition I have mentioned earlier, when the powerful twisting action of the propeller turning at about 150 revolutions in each second, tends to revolve the whole boat round its own propeller shaft. Bluebird suddenly heeled over while doing 90 m.p.h., dipping violently down to port. As Campbell took his foot quickly off the throttle the little craft swerved violently, for once travelling at high speed a boat of her kind is liable to become uncontrollable if she heels. Fortunately she was pulled back into a straight course.

Hardly was this hazard passed and Bluebird running again at high speed than a big log appeared directly in her course. To miss it she had to be swerved, and again there was the danger of her becoming out of control. The boat skidded and reared, but once more was brought back to the straight safely. It was a dangerous morning. As Campbell himself said a little later. "I was now a little too respectful of Bluebird and the tremendous and terrifying power of her engine."

In spite of this, within a few days she was running at her full speed, and 145 m.p.h. was reached, which was enough to beat the record. So the authorities necessary to time the record-breaking runs and make them official were called.

Not only officials but the public in thousands came to the shores of Coniston to watch Bluebird streaking over the lake. But like Bluebird and her pilot and the team of engineers, not to mention the swarming crowd of newspaper men who were assembled to watch the event, the public had to wait several days in vain before the weather was suitable for an attack on the record. At last the rain and wind cleared. Early in the morning, when the sun was coming up over the sleepy lake and the surrounding mountains were made mysterious by a light haze, which also hid the far end of the course, Bluebird was towed out to the starting point. The towing warp was dropped, the engine started, shattering the morning peace, and the tiny boat headed up the course. For a while all seemed to be well. The red buoys marking the course rushed by in a sunrise-coloured smear, and in the cockpit a speed of 150 miles an hour appeared on the indicator. A few moments later, when a little more than half way over the distance, boiling oil suddenly fell on the wind-screen and over the pilot's goggles.

We have seen that when a boat is travelling at such high speed, to slow down suddenly may put her out of control. But a deluge of hot oil is a shock. Campbell lifted his foot off the throttle, and in a moment Bluebird was skidding and snaking over the lake, almost completing a circle, while the pilot was half blinded by the oil on his goggles. At that moment Campbell thought to himself: "This is it. This is the end. She's going over and that's that."

That, however, was not that. He managed to bring Bluebird back into control. The measured mile was completed. Campbell quickly changed his goggles, turned the boat, and went back over the mile to complete the two runs necessary for the record. She did not run so well this time, and apart from having to cross the wash that had been made on the previous run down the lake, she seemed sluggish. But it was thought that a high enough speed had been maintained to make a record, in view of the high speed of the first run; and this indeed appeared to be the case. For when at the end of the measured mile Bluebird had once more been brought to a stop and lay lightly on the water, the launch carrying the timed results from the official timekeepers reported that the record had been beaten.

Perhaps at such moments people are too excited to do simple arithmetic. Once before, when Donald Campbell's father had been making an attempt on the world's land speed record, the timekeepers had sent down incorrect results. They had done so again this time. When the results were checked it was found that Bluebird's speed had been about two miles an hour below the record. The news had already been broadcast by the B.B.C. on the early morning bulletin that the record had been beaten. Bluebird's ill luck had persisted. All that could now be done was to wait until another attempt might be made next year.

Before this could happen the record set up by Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1939 of 141.74 miles per hour, which the successive efforts of Sir Malcolm and his son had failed to raise, was beaten; and it was beaten by an American boat. For the first time since the massive Miss America X of Gar Wood, with her four engines, had been defeated by the first little Bluebird the world's water speed record returned to the U.S.A.

The boat that achieved this was as unlike any of the Miss Americas as it would be possible to conceive. More like Bluebird, she was a tiny, light craft with a single engine. She proved capable of 160.23 miles an hour; also she was able to race over open water courses, manoeuvre round marks, and in the manner of the earlier world's record breakers, like the Miss Englands, she showed herself to be reasonably versatile and not tied to placid lakes and straight courses. She was a remarkable craft, most skilfully handled by her pilot, Stanley Sayres.

This new boat was called Slo-Mo-Shun IV, a name that you may or may not find funny, and up to a point she was an ordinary propeller driven boat, with the usual tiny two-bladed screw which might be put without difficulty into your overcoat pocket. This was turned at full speed at 3,300 revolutions per minute by an Allison petrol engine of about 1,500 horse-power. It was the kind of propeller that had first been fitted in Miss England, when the virtues of the very small, very-fast-turning propeller had first been proved. But in Slo-Mo-Shun there was a difference. She demonstrated a new principle in the design of record-breaking boats.

We have watched various changes in design since the days when boats were long, narrow toothpicks, through the period when skimming boats were evolved with steps in the bottom, and onward from this to boats supported simply on three small areas of bottom-the three-point support type such as all the Bluebirds. In Slo-Mo-Shun IV a further step was taken in the same direction. But instead of being supported on three planing surfaces she was lifted by two only. The third was provided by the propeller itself. This may seem surprising, and I will try to make it clear.

Above a certain speed it became apparent that a small part of the total power delivered by the propeller, most of which, of course, operates near the horizontal direction and drives the boat, becomes enough to lift the stern of the boat. It was possible to make valuable use of this effect. At the very high speeds, in the region of 160 miles per hour, or 235 feet per second, the propeller was able to lift the stern enough to raise much of the length of the propeller shaft outside the hull, clear altogether of the water. In the process the propeller itself came half out of the water as well, operating at speed with only one blade at a time submerged. This might seem to be a disadvantage; but it was offset by the fact of the shaft and bracket being lifted clear of water resistance.

You will remember my saying that when a boat is moving at a very high speed and skidding along on only a few square feet of bottom surface, the resistance to the water offered by the shaft and bracket is comparatively enormous. In earlier propeller-driven boats these awkwardly shaped pieces of metal had to be dragged through the water at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour; and what this means you can visualise if you try to pull a small toy yacht through water as fast as you can. The speed of the model will not be more than about two to six miles per hour, and we are interested here in speeds of up to thirty or more times greater.

Boats like Slo-Mo-Shun IV became known as "prop riders"-that is, their aft end was supported by the propeller. A most valuable new principle had arrived in the propulsion of record-breaking boats. It even looked as though the jet engine was not required-at least, not yet. The propeller was still capable of driving the fastest boat in the world.

Efforts were made to get as much information as possible about the remarkable American boat, but it was not easy. Meanwhile, alterations to Bluebird were proceeding. More tests with models had shown that she was liable to be dangerous, if not actually prone to capsize, at speeds above 150 miles an hour, which was not enough to better the new record. At higher speeds the model started lifting its nose, and on one occasion actually somersaulted backwards. This was one of the new dangers, due to air pressure, that pilots were now finding they had to contend with when travelling so fast over the water.

Bluebird was fitted with a new propeller and shaft. Another change was made too. The world's recordbreaking boats since Miss England III, which had three cockpits and carried two engineers as well as the pilot, had been single-seater boats; now it was proposed to make another cockpit in Bluebird so that Campbell's chief engineer, Leo Villa, might travel with him and observe how the boat was behaving. Leo Villa, you will recall, was as experienced in record breaking, both on land and sea, as anyone in the world, having been engineer to Donald Campbell's father.

When the two of them went out in Bluebird on Lake Coniston in August 1950 the needle of the speedometer crept up almost to 160 miles an hour on one run. But something else happened too. Instead of rising by the bow, it seemed to both Campbell and Villa that Bluebird was dipping her head as she increased speed, and this was not what had been expected from the model tests. And worse trouble occurred; for as the stern lifted, the water scoop, which was under the stern and gathered cold water up into the cooling system of the engine, was raised clear of the water. As a result no cool water was able to enter. The temperature of the engine rose, and suddenly, with the boat running at more than 150 miles an hour, Leo Villa noticed that the needle of the temperature gauge had moved so far as to be almost off the dial altogether. The engine might soon be red hot. Bluebird was brought to a stop, but not before the engine had been damaged beyond any immediate repair. As the boat was towed back to the landing stage cylinders of the engine were cracking one after the other, for they cooled suddenly from the high temperature they had reached when running at full speed without the cushion of cool water to keep down their temperature.

It was beginning to seem that Bluebird's days were nearly at an end. People were suggesting to Campbell that he was more likely to break his neck with her than break the record. She was an old boat now, trying to capture the record established by one that had been recently built. But still Campbell and his team persevered, and the mystery they first had to solve was why the stern of the boat persisted in lifting higher into the air as she was driven faster. You may have guessed what was happening. Bluebird, like Slo-Mo-Shun IV, was beginning to ride on her prop. But Campbell and his team did not understand this immediately, for information about the American boat was scanty. They had to learn for themselves.

During the next few months several more fast runs were made. A mere 140 miles an hour began to seem almost uninteresting, but nothing they did was able to coax Bluebird over the speed of 160 miles an hour, which was now necessary to gain the record. So they retired from further action that year and once more Bluebird was sent by the road journey on a lorry to the south.

She was yet to win one more success. During the winter the importance of prop riding became understood, and Bluebird was converted so that she might take full advantage of the phenomenon. This entailed altering the shape and angles of the bottom surfaces and adjusting the weights in the hull so that it would be able to ride steadily at a smaller angle when running at high speed. The engine had to be moved forward, the cockpit positions altered and these changes meant virtually rebuilding the upper part and the bottom of the hull, and modifying most of the details of the engine's installations.

So Bluebird was once again rebuilt. Now another kind of adventure awaited her. More than twenty years earlier a trophy had been presented, known as the Oltranza Cup, in memory of Sir Henry Segrave. It was raced for not on a straight measured mile but over a triangular course, and unlike the conditions when record breaking, the boats not only had to take turns round mark buoys but also to keep going as fast as possible in water that might not be as smooth and glassy as that chosen when breaking a record. Kaye Don in Miss England had raced for this trophy, which was won by the boat making the fastest speed round the course, but he had failed to win it.

The race was held on Lake Garda in Italy, where Miss England II had once set up the world's speed record of what now seemed so tame a speed-a mere 110 miles an hour. Here Bluebird achieved her last success.

Trials were run under the blue Italian skies and all seemed well. Watching them from the shore was a Mr. John Cobb, whom you will be hearing about further; for he was planning to attack the world's water speed record in a boat of his own. He watched the Bluebird bouncing and bounding over the lake at about 80 miles an hour and was duly impressed at the hammering that the people on board must be enduring.

When the day of the race came Bluebird began to misbehave for the first time in Italy. The engine refused to start. It was still silent when the other boats burst towards the starting line, and it was some minutes after the rest of the boats had crossed the line, and they were well down the course, that the Bluebird, her engine at last roaring, sped after them.

There was no hope now of her winning the race itself. But the Oltranza Cup was given not to the boat winning the race but to the one completing two laps of the course in the fastest time. Moving at about 100 miles an hour Bluebird lurched and slithered in her wild career among the small waves of the lake-not at all like record breaking on glassy water-and at one moment the metal fin under the starboard float was torn off by the stress of the rushing water. At the end of four laps Donald Campbell brought the boat to rest. Soon it was learned that she had made the best lap in the race, with a speed of only a little less than 100 miles an hour.

By September, 1950, Bluebird was back at Coniston and being pepared for one more attempt on the world's water speed record. A few weeks later she lay sunk at the bottom of the lake. Just when the record seemed to be within reach Bluebird had struck a log, like Miss England II before her; or else the bottom had been torn open by the tremendous stress of the hammering water. We cannot be sure which. Bluebird, unlike Miss England, did not crash to destruction at high speed. Though travelling fast when she shuddered under the shock of the blow that broke her-a sound that was heard far from the lake-she was brought to rest without capsizing, and was actually being towed towards the shore by a launch when, quite quietly, she slipped under as though tired, the water pouring into the hole that had been torn in the hull. Leo Villa and Donald Campbell were almost taken by surprise when she sank beneath them, and for a few moments they were in the cold water of Lake Coniston, in October.

So, sadly, ended the story of this Bluebird. Early in the following year Stanley Sayers in Slo-Mo-Shun IV raised his own record to 178.5 miles an hour, an increase of no less than 18 miles an hour. And in the same year another and tragic attempt was made by John Cobb to reach a higher speed on Loch Ness.

(Reprinted from Famous Speedboats of the World by D. Phillips-Birt [St. Martin’s Press, 1959], Ch.7)

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Leslie Field, 2000