It was the summer of ’68 and I was working as a boat mechanic on Coniston Water in the Lake District. In July I got a letter informing me that Donald Campbell and his famous Bluebird boat would be coming mid-week to try for the water speed record. I was so excited because we had never experienced anything like this in the remote part of The Lake District.
He already held the world record, but this time he was going to try to break the 300km/h record, which had never been achieved before.After I had read the letter I went about setting up the lake so that it was capable of hosting a record attempt. This involved moving all of the boats out of the water, because they would be sunk by the huge waves produced by Bluebird, and setting out a line of buoys, which Donald Campbell could drive between and keep in a straight line. I was so proud to think that I would be the man in charge of operations on and around the shores of Coniston Water.Finally the day came, and at six o’clock in the morning two Landrovers, a motorbike and a lorry came rolling up the gravel path to the lakeside. The lorry reversed and lowered its trailer into the lake.
The door was then opened and three men pushed out the record attempting Bluebird boat. As it hit the water it sent small ripples over the still, morning water. The boat was tied up to an offshore buoy as the team came into the cabin to discuss the order of the day. From my cabin I could see the tint of blue coming from the sunshine reflected body of Bluebird. Just thinking about what monumental event was going to happen today sent shivers running down my spine and down my hands to the tips of my fingers.They told me that Donald was going to make two practice lengths of the lake to test the boat and get a feel for how the boat handled on Coniston Water. One test would happen either side of midday, with the time between the two runs being used as modification time on the boat.
I informed his crew members that the lake was 15 miles long, and when Donald hit the 300 km/h mark he would have two minutes in which to push harder, and then three miles at the end to slow down and turn. Telling them this information somehow made me feel in an authoritative position and for a second I felt like I was one of the crew members.At 11:23 the Bluebird engine roared into life as, from the north end of the lake, Donald started her up. At just a stationary position the Bluebird clocks over 7000 rpm and at full speed it can generate up to 23,000 rpm. On a quiet day the noise from his roaring engine sent tremors through the ground and up through my body sending my feet and legs into jelly in anticipation and excitement.
Donald pulled down the jettisoned top and it made a loud industrial click which secured him in tight. He started his run up and, as he came past me, he had already reached the 200 km/h mark. Water sprayed up two or three metres high as the boat bounced and bobbed over the incredibly still, untouched lake, leaving a huge wake behind it. After he had passed I felt the light spray from the water waft across my face, which gave me some idea as to how fast he was actually going. The line of orange buoys that I had laid out earlier was doing a good job of making sure he stayed in a straight line. The whole test run, from start to finish, lasted only six minutes.
He finished his run and pulled the Bluebird up to a jetty by the lakeside. He opened the top and had a big smile on his face which showed that the run had gone well. I asked him what speed he got up to. “It was only a test run, so I didn’t push as hard as I could have done.
The boat is handling and responding well so I believe the record is well within our reach,” he said to me. The sense of anticipation was huge now with every second passing representing another second closer to the world record attempt run later in the day.Between 11:40 and 1:30 the mechanics and crew members worked busily on their computers, sifting through all the data they had collected in the first trial run. Donald and I kept away as he said we would only get in their way and slow the improvement and modification time down.
We went into the waterside cabin, which I used as my office, and he told me about how he got interested in boats and record attempts. He told me that it was his father who inspired him to break records because he held the land speed record with the road version of the Bluebird. The story he told was very emotional as he described the attempt his father had made at the land speed record, which was to be his last.
Thinking about it brought a tear to my eye as I reminisced on the days I spent as a child staying up late watching Donald’s father break world land speed records on the salt flats of Utah in his legendary Bluebird car. I could now understand where Donald had got his thrill for speed and the motivation he needed to be the best in the world at his sport.At 1:30 a mechanic came into the cabin to tell us that they were ready for the second run on the lake.The second run, like the first, went off without a hitch, as this time Donald pushed the boat further than he had done before.
The official speed for that run was read off as 268.3 km/h, just over 30 km/h short of his target. I got butterflies in my stomach as I thought about the world record attempt and how, after all these years of waiting for something interesting to happen on Coniston Water, it was only a short time away.At two o’clock crowds started arriving and gathering by the lakeside in an attempt to witness this historical event. By four o’clock, half an hour before the record attempt, thousands upon thousands of people lined the shores of the lake, showing their support for this British record attempt. It gave me a sense of admiration to see all these people turning out to watch the Bluebird’s record attempt as they’re parents probably did some 30 years before did witness the late and great Malcolm Campbell in his world renowned Bluebird car.
At 4:15 Donald Campbell came out of the cabin and received a standing ovation from the crowds. He waited for the applause to die down and then moved towards his sparkling sky blue Bluebird boat. He was lowered into the cockpit and harnessed tightly and securely in. The jettisoned top was lowered, once again making that loud industrial click, and the engine was powered up. As it motored to the end of the lake, the north end, I felt shivers run up my spine as I though of what I was about to witness. He got to the end, turned and then waited for the ripples he had just produced to settle, so the lake was now like a mill pond. He revved up the engine, full throttle, to 16,000 rpm and then, at the stroke of 4:30, he roared away on what the last three years’ training had been leading up to.
He got faster and faster as the front started to lift off the water, creating the illusion that the boat was hovering over the water.He reached the end of the run-up zone and started on the 10 mile stretch of water in which he had to break the speed record. There was a speed counter on the lakeside by me so I was able to see what speeds he was achieving.
As he got nearer and nearer to the miracle 300 km/h mark, his acceleration was decreasing so the speed was increasing slower and slower – 288 km/h….
291 km/h….297 km/h..
..303 km/h. He had made it! The counter kept on increasing – 314 km/h…
347 km/h. Then, at 359 km/h the boat rose up beyond its normal height and flipped. The boat was totalled and completely wrecked.
My heart pounded, along with thousands of others, like the beat of a drum. Immediately we rushed out on our boats to aid the probably close to death Donald. As we got closer to the wreckage there was a trail of debris and a large mass of scrapped blue metal.
After hours of work we finally lifted the lifeless body from the bed of the lake. We were in shock because we realised in that split second we witnessed the death of one of the most famous record breakers in history.The next day we held a memorial service in the lake and we lowered the body of Donald Campbell slowly into the lake. It was a terrible occasion to witness. We never saw a record attempt ever again on Coniston Water.