Some Time very soon now Donald Campbell, the jaunty Scotsman shown at right who is the world's only jet boat pilot, will settle into the soft blue seat of Bluebird and send her two lobster-claw pontoons probing into New York State's Canandaigua Lake. If he does what he plans to do he will race along the western shore at better than 250 miles per hour, breaking the world water speed record for the fourth consecutive time.
His plans, of necessity, are to a certain degree speculative. Bluebird at full throttle skating down the lake on small bits of her three planing shoes is a skittish proposition indeed. A sudden cross wind can send her sliding and whipping about like a misfired ballistic missile.
"In which case," Campbell explained one day last week from Bluebird's dock, "you have to watch it and not over-correct her, you know. If you do, you slew around and it's over you go."
He paused, then added drily: "And then Bluebird has a naughty period. Somewhere between 160 and 225 she tries to shake your teeth out."
He squinted calmly down the waters of the lake.
"If that doesn't stop fairly soon after it starts," Campbell said, "you are in trouble. The vibrations may start reinforcing each other and get bigger and bigger and—well, a boat just disintegrates under that sort of thing. In three-fifths of a second perhaps. That fast. That's what the journalists have called 'the water barrier.' It's the sort of thing that can make you sweat."
Campbell has been sweating out various Bluebirds for some time, now. He is the only son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, whose famous Bluebird cars held the land speed record seven times and whose Bluebird boat set the water speed record three times.
Sir Malcolm died in December 1948, and less than three months later his son heard that Henry Kaiser was set to go after the Campbell water speed record.
"That made me feel just bloody-minded," Donald says now. "At the time there was also a lot of talk about Britain being washed up as a first-class power."
For Sir Malcolm and for Britain, Donald enlisted Leo Villa, his father's old racing mechanic, and plunged elbow deep into grease, lab calculations and model building with Ken and Lewis Norris, two consultant design engineers. Two years and $70,000 later, Donald Campbell and the new jet-powered Bluebird brought the record back to England with a run of 203.32 mph on Lake Ullswater on July 23, 1955.
Campbell pushed the record up again in 1955 on Lake Mead, Nev. with a 216.25-mph run, and again at Lake Coniston in England last year with 225.63 mph. In all probability he'll set it again on Canandaigua this year. Next year he will go after the world land speed record in a jet auto, and after that he'll try to set new land and water speed records during the same summer.
There's more to this than the settling of Sir Malcolm's disease in his son's bones, a pernicious inheritance, as it were. The achievements of Sir Malcolm have stayed with Donald Campbell in a very compelling, way.
Sir Malcolm was a forceful and successful man. At Lloyd's, he made out very well by becoming the first in the field to insure newspapers against libel actions, among other things. His heart, however, lay with speed. If some thought this preoccupation juvenile, Sir Malcolm might not have denied it. "Don't be in a hurry to grow up," he once told Donald. He practiced this advice, too. Once he went off to Cocos Island to hunt for pirate gold. Another time he gave Donald an electric train and then got so interested in it himself that he carted the whole thing off to a shed and built a complete track system which Donald was then only allowed to see with his father's special permission.
Just how strong his father's influence still is only Donald knows. He himself has said that on several occasions—notably one on Lake Coniston when he went slewing sidewise in the old Bluebird—he felt that his father's hand intervened to save his life. Following up this intuition, Donald last year undertook to try out several practicing mediums to see if they could get any authentic-sounding messages from the late Sir Malcolm. One medium even seemed to be able to transmit his father's mannerisms. "My father—if indeed it was my father—seemed to laugh uproariously as he called me a 'complete clot,' " he told one journalist.
To Campbell, this was all in the scientific spirit of the practicing engineer. "The day we stop seeking answers from the unknown," he said recently in reference to the persistence of spirits, "is the day we end as a race." Up at Canandaigua now, however, there are no speculations on seances. Donald is strictly business in his search for his particular unknown.
"This is not just another ridiculous attempt to go fast," he said briskly. "Bluebird is not a hot rod. Underline that not, please. Our object is not to create a noise, but to explore the unknown scientifically. When exploring the unknown, it's best to go step by step. At least that's what I think. We have a saying in England for that. It goes: 'Softly, softly, catchie monkey.' "
WILLIAM BELKNAP JR.