Famous Speedboats of the World :
Yet Another Bluebird

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

It might be interesting at this point to look back at what the world's fastest boats had been achieving during the last twenty years or so. Between 1928 and 1952 the world's record had been raised a dozen times, on eight occasions by Englishmen and on four by Americans. Speeds had increased from the 92.862 m.p.h. of Miss America VII in 1928 to the 178.497 m.p.h. of Slo-Mo-Shun IV in 1952they had, in fact, almost doubled during the period. The boats had also changed remarkably. No boat had held the record longer than Miss America X (if we exclude the wartime years when Sir Malcolm Campbell's 1939 record stood unchallenged) and she, we have seen, was a kind of floating power station in which were packed four engines developing a total of 6,400 horse-power. When next an American took the record it was with the little Slo-Mo-Shun IV, a light wisp of a boat with a single engine and only one-quarter of Miss America's horse-power.

With her speed of more than 178 m.p.h. Slo-Mo-Shun IV proved not only difficult but excessively dangerous to beat. In October 1951 Donald Campbell, you remember, was wrecked when piloting his father's Bluebird at high speed. Then, less than a year later, John Cobb was killed. Two years afterwards an Italian pilot, Mario Verga, while travelling at about the same speed as John Cobb on Lake Iseo in his boat Laura 3a met with a similar tragedy, his boat disintegrating beneath him and sending him to his death.

Two men had thus been killed while trying to raise the water speed record above the figure established by Stanley Sayres' wonderful little boat Slo-Mo-Shun IV and both of them had met their end while travelling at about 200 m.p.h. And Donald Campbell was lucky to have escaped with his life. It was becoming clear that at speeds in the vicinity of 200 m.p.h. there were special and acute dangers to be guarded against. Man was attacking the unknown and daring greatly in trying to make even higher speeds over the water

But this did not daunt Campbell, who now set about preparing an altogether new boat with which to attack the record. As a result another Bluebird was evolved, and she was not only remarkably different from the earlier Bluebirds and Slo-Mo-Shun IV, but was in many respects unlike Crusader. She resembled Crusader, however, in being designed with the help of numerous models.

We have already seen that not the least of the problems facing the designers of boats intended to reach more than 200 m.p.h. is the tendency of the hull at top speed to want to behave like an aeroplane. A boat skimming at speeds exceeding 200 m.p.h. has a tendency to take off and fly. Indeed, one wit described modern record-breaking boats as aeroplanes that are just not quite good enough to fly. We have seen, in our story of speedboat development over the years, how it has always been the main object of designers to free the boat as far as possible from contact with the "sticky" sea. Each increase in speed has been gained by a boat that has skimmed a little more lightly over the water than her predecessor. But clearly there is a limit to this process if a boat is to remain a boat. Once a record breaker creates, owing to her speed, a wind of more than 200 miles an hour, the air forces acting on the boat become great enough to take charge of her, and lift her out of the water or slew her off course. But if a boat does lose contact wholly with the sea when moving at these high speeds it is unlikely that she will return to it upright or in one piece.

This may be clearer to you if you think what a wind of 200 m.p.h. means. The greatest storms experienced in nature are known as hurricanes. They rarely occur in our part of the world. A man cannot stand up in a hurricane wind. It lifts houses from the ground, has been known to flatten whole towns, and once, on one of the rare occasions when a hurricane visited Europe, in 1703, only four of the ships out of hundreds that were lying in the Pool of London were afloat when it had passed. A storm becomes a hurricane when the wind speed exceeds 75 m.p.h. So a boat travelling at more than 200 m.p.h. has to move through a wind force equal to more than double that of a hurricane. It will be clear that this fact presents no small problem to the designer, and potentially much danger to the pilot of the boat.

So a number of important tests with models for the new Bluebird were made in a wind tunnel, where the effect of the air forces acting on the boat might be studied. Then there were further tests on the water with rocket-propelled, radio-controlled models. Everyone was particularly anxious that the design of the boat should be such that the fatal porpoising action might be avoided. And there was equally much anxiety about the strength of the boat, owing to the tremendous pressures and violent hammering that the small areas of the hull in contact with the water would be subject to when running fast over even the smoothest lake.

The boat that resulted from these experiments was, if possible, even odder-looking than Crusader. She was rather smaller, and of much the same size and weight as the earlier Bluebird piloted by Sir Malcolm Campbell. She consisted of a central hull with two floats on either side, and in this respect she was like Crusader rather than Slo-Mo-Shun IV. But the floats, attached to the central hull by four rigid spars passing completely through the hull itself, were placed, unlike Crusader, far forward, and the pilot's cockpit was near the nose of the boat. This seemed to be the best way of getting the maximum strength in the right place; for the earlier fatal accidents to speedboats had apparently been due to the forward part of the hull, where the pressures were greatest, collapsing. When running fast Bluebird was carried on three small planing or skimming surfaces, one at the after end of each sponson, the third on the centreline at the stern of the hull.

Bluebird was built wholly of metal. The main frame of the hull was of tubular steel, and over this a skin of Birmabright, which is a kind of light alloy of aluminium, was laid. The bottom of the hull had a double skin of Birmabright with a corrugated sheet of the same metal between them for strength. Special instruments were provided to record by radio to a shore station the forces acting on the hull of the boat when travelling at speed. As we have said, the question of strength was an anxious one.

To drive her, Bluebird had a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl Goblin jet engine which swallowed air at the rate of three tons per minute and kerosene at about eleven gallons a minute. With this remarkable boat Donald Campbell and his team of engineers and helpers went to Ullswater, and began a long series of trials; while the rolling hills of the Lake District echoed and re-echoed the roar of the jet engine.

On one occasion Bluebird ran at high speed through the wash that a motor boat had created. Donald Campbell was luckier than John Cobb had been in like circumstances. The craft bounced wildly and rolled to more than fourteen degrees, and for a few hectic seconds she left the water and travelled, it is said, five hundred feet through the air. Donald Campbell told me himself that he thought then that the end had come. But the boat stood the shocks and was got under control again.

You may wonder what it is like to pilot a tiny boat at more than 200 m.p.h. Approaching the measured mile, while the boat is accelerating, it seems to the pilot as though he is receiving a giant's shove from behind; the back of his seat pushes heavily against him and his head seems to be forced back into the headrest. This feeling ceases once the boat reaches a steady speed, and she is hurtling over water that seems to have become harder than concrete. All the pilot's concentration is then focused within the little space of the cockpit and ahead through the windscreen on the mark buoys that rush nearer. The most delicate touch must be used on the wheel. There is no hard muscular work involved when handling these small, light, boats.

They respond to the lightest movements, and react violently and dangerously to the least clumsiness.

Donald Campbell once described the control of such a boat as being rather like trying to run fast while carrying in one's hands, without spilling it, a child's bucket almost full of water. The rush over the measured mile or measured kilometre lasts only a few seconds; less than a minute elapses between the time when the boat starts the run and when it comes to rest having completed it. During those flying seconds the pilot, apart from the control of the boat, has to watch his many instruments closely, for their readings may indicate the approach of danger. There are many of them-the water-speed indicator, the fuel pressure gauge, the temperature gauge for the cooling water, the air-speed indicator, the revolution counter, and in a jet-propelled boat, the dial showing the jet pipe temperature. Also, radio contact has to be maintained with the shore station. And all this has to be done while moving at more perhaps than 200 miles an hour.

All the time that the boat is running fast the pilot must be ready to act quickly and instantly. His brain must operate at lightning speed as his little boat is rushing through a distance in every second of perhaps 350 feet, or the length of five cricket pitches. To achieve the excellent and rapid coordination between hand and brain a pilot has to be physically very fit, even though he need not be tough in the muscular sense. Donald Campbell gave up smoking some time before undertaking a record, and spent some time in the Mediterranean swimming and diving to keep himself in training.

Above all, a pilot must have steady nerves. There is tremendous nervous tension involved in breaking records by high speed travel. Firstly, there is much publicity involved, with the normal kind of stage fright to be faced, such as a cricketer may feel before going in to bat. But on top of this there is a very much greater strain of knowing that there is danger involved, and of facing this fact in cold blood, not merely for a few brief moments but during all the months when the record-breaking attempt is being planned, and during the shorter weeks immediately preceding the attempt, when tension and excitement is steadily mounting.

If anything goes wrong when the boat is running at high speed the pilot must be able to sustain the shock that a few wild seconds may give him while he feels that the end is near. When John Cobb was picked up out of the water his leg was broken, his face was cut, and he had several internal injuries; but, as I mentioned earlier, according to the doctors who examined him none of these were enough to cause his death. It seems likely that he died of shock in those few seconds that transformed Crusader from a boat moving at more than 200 m.p.h. into numerous small pieces of wood and metal debris.

During the first weeks of 1955, when Bluebird was at Ullswater, there were times when the spray froze on the floats, and even danger of the lumps of ice that formed on the hull being drawn into the engine and wrecking it. But June and July came with their sunshine before this new and experimental boat was ready to attack the record. Numerous problems had to be surmounted, and the solution of each seemed to lead to one more. Time and again the boat had to be partially dismantled in the boathouse and put together again. Once more it was being demonstrated that the breaking of records is usually an exacting, frustrating, worrying job; also, as speeds became higher, one that became more packed with difficulties as well as dangers.

When photographs began to appear in the newspapers and magazines it was clear that Bluebird was running with her nose too deep in the water; she looked as if she might dive under the lake at any moment. When speed was increased water rose up over the foredeck, flooding it and threatening to enter the air intakes. How was this problem to be cured? Already the floats on the hull were fixed as far forward as possible, and the engine could not be fitted further aft. After much discussion the buoyancy at the aft end of the hull was reduced-a major alteration. This cured the nose-down trouble of the boat, but water still persisted in entering the intakes, and hence the engine, as the boat was accelerated to full speed. Several alterations were made and the trouble was cured; but now a further problem arose. For the fairings and baffles that had been added to the hull to keep the waves away from the intakes at low speed had the effect, at high speed, of so disturbing the flow of air over the hull that there was the liability of the boat being thrown over onto her back by force of the air. Though Bluebird proved herself capable of accelerating up to 150 miles an hour in only a quarter of a mile, further tests with models in a wind tunnel showed that it would be dangerous to drive her at speeds approaching 200 miles an hour.

How different were the problems that were now arising compared with those that were solved when boats were capable of about 100 miles an hour only -the Miss Englands, Miss Americas, even the first Bluebird. With each increase in speed new and formidable obstacles presented themselves-porpoising, snaking, and now the problem of the air itself generating enough force to upset the equilibrium of the delicately poised boat as she sped over the water.

The weeks passed into months with more tests in the wind tunnel and with models run on a pond. Hundreds of yards of film were taken at a speed that gave fifteen photographs to the second, and afterwards, once more, Bluebird was stripped down for extensive alterations. It was all a matter of patience, hard thinking, and hard work. In early July 1955,

Bluebird was once more ready. And this time she was going to be successful, though not even yet for a few more weeks.

More trial runs were made; more slight alterations followed. At one time she proved so sensitive to steer that the slightest touch of the helm sent her careering off to one side or the other. Meanwhile, the reporters and the Press photographers gathered round, wondering if Bluebird was a failure, questioning why there was all the delay. Some people were even heard to say that Campbell was frightened of pushing the boat up to record-breaking speed.

Throughout all these trials and difficulties that beset Bluebird her Goblin jet engine gave no trouble, in spite of the hardships that it suffered from wet and over-heating and high speed running. Donald Campbell's father had fitted a jet engine into the earlier Bluebird with the object of showing the possibilities of a power plant of this kind. He had failed to make a new record in spite of his faith. But his son was about to prove that the faith had not been misplaced. The Goblin jet was known as "Beryl". Beryl was a triumph.

The successful end of six years' struggling, first with the old Bluebird and afterwards with the new boat, came on the 23rd July. It was a heavy, grey morning over Ullswater when Campbell took his place behind the steering wheel in Bluebird's cramped cockpit. Today everything was over quickly. There was the first run over the measured mile, a brief rush lasting only a fraction more than ten seconds from one end of the course to the other. Then the return to the jetty for refuelling. After that off once more to the start of the run up to the measured distance. The buoys marking the start flash by and the boat is held at high speed for another ten or so seconds until the end of the marked distance is almost reached. Then she is slowed down to a stop.

Later the information comes from the timekeepers-a new record of 215.08 miles an hour. Six years' effort is rewarded in the two recordbreaking runs over the measured kilometre, lasting altogether one-third of a minute. For the first time since 1939 a Bluebird has raised the world's water speed record. Subsequently Bluebird raised her own record to 239.62 m.p.h.

In August 1958 Donald Campbell announced to the world in a Press conference the daring programme of water speed record-breaking on which he was about to embark. In the following month, he said, he proposed to reach a speed of 250 m.p.h. on Coniston Water, and to work up gradually to a speed of 300 m.p.h. by 1960.

His boat was the same Bluebird that already held the world's record, but a few important changes had been made in her. Though in one burst of speed he had already exceeded 250 m.p.h. with this boat, there had been signs then that the tremendous force of the air on the forward part of the boat was almost enough to bring up the old danger of lifting the bow and throwing the boat over on her back. To prevent this further changes were made in the forward part of the hull, and new sponsons were built, larger than those formerly used, and specially shaped so that the rush of air over them would not produce the lifting force that might turn the boat over. To ensure the correctness of their design many tests were made with models in the air tunnel, and eventually the modified Bluebird was ready for her new adventure. So she was taken to Coniston Water.

One year and three days after establishing the record of 239.62 miles an hour Bluebird sped once more over Coniston Water to achieve a new record, nearly 10 miles an hour faster, of 248.62 miles an hour. This was the culmination of seven weeks of difficulty. At speeds of between 150 and 180 miles an hour Bluebird started to snake violently. Similar troubles had been encountered before, and now they seemed to stand in the way of the record.

The experience of snaking at high speed was like that of skidding in a motor car on an icy road; but the speed at which it occurred was perhaps eight times higher and the helplessness that the man at the wheel must feel, correspondingly greater. As Campbell once said at this time: "No one has any idea how frightening it is to start, as I have been, snaking at high speeds and knowing that it is uncontrollable."

More changes were made in the boat. The rudder was altered so as to be able to maintain a better grip of the water, a small stabilizing fin was fitted, and after some experiments and alterations this combination proved able to steady Bluebird on her course. The boat still yawed and swayed a little, but with skilful handling it proved possible to hold her on her course.

So the record attempt was made, and three times Bluebird streaked up and down the course. With the speed she was travelling only one minute would elapse from the moment of accelerating at the start of a run to the time when the boat would again be brought to a stop on the water after completing it. Under the conditions governing the making of the record the two runs used to establish the average speed for the record must be made within an hour. For the record on this occasion the last two runs of Bluebird were counted. After the second run the boat was brought back to the jetty to refuel, but when she set off again she ran into waves which entered the air intakes and stopped the engine. At this dramatic moment the launch attending Bluebird also had engine failure. The crew worked frantically to get the boat going, and succeeded. She hurried over to Bluebird and soon the jet engine was running again. The last run over the course, which made the new record, was completed within the last ten seconds of the last minute of the hour allowed. Once more Bluebird had raised her own record. Gradually she was climbing towards the goal of 300 miles an hour.

In 1959 we leave her still climbing, her story unfinished, preparing for fresh records.

(Reprinted from Famous Speedboats of the World by D. Phillips-Birt [St. Martin’s Press, 1959], Ch.9)


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Leslie Field, 2000