• Michael

#0019: When Bluebird Came Over

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of weekends spent camping in the woods in Coniston, Cumbria. We'd spend evenings sat around a fire, sharing stories, and would climb into bed, happy and exhausted, smelling of wood smoke. In the morning, after breakfast, we'd make our way down through the coppice, scrambling over moss-covered boulders and picking our way through the bracken, the smell of bacon still twisting its way through the air, until we reached the shore of Coniston Water.

These weekends were dedicated to adventure. Hours lost exploring the forest, or swimming, kayaking and sailing on the lake.

It was during these times that I became fascinated by stories of Donald Campbell and his Bluebird K7 hydroplane, a legend of the jet age which reached its peak in the mid-1950s, some forty or so years before I played in those woods above Coniston Water.

Bluebird was built to break water speed records. To make the world rethink what is possible. Her pickle-fork shaped hull, designed to minimise drag and maximise speed, was built by Samlesbury Engineering, just a few miles from the house I grew up in. The last of her engines, a Bristol Siddeley Orpheus, was capable of producing four and a half thousand pound-force of thrust. She was as powerful as she was beautiful.

A mesmerising monster.

No less impressive was her pilot. Driven to surpass his father's legacy, Donald Campbell picked up the family spirit of adventure and ran with it. Constantly pushing himself and his machines to the limit of what was possible at the time, in 1964 he became the only person ever to break the speed records on both water and land in the same year. By that time, however, his days were numbered.

On 4th January, 1967, during an attempt to set his eighth water speed record, Campbell piloted Bluebird at speeds peaking over five hundred and ten kilometres per hour. This was new territory for man and machine, and it proved a push too far. Bluebird became unstable at such high speeds, her nose twitching and lifting away from the surface, ultimately causing her to somersault clear of the water and cartwheel across the surface, killing Campbell instantly and shattering her hull before sinking to the lake bed, more than forty meters below.

Kayaking on the lake, many year later, I was entranced by the thought of Bluebird and her skipper resting in silent darkness beneath me. A watery grave where they would remain forever.

Or so I thought.

It's 4th August, 2018. Today is a day my childhood self never imagined would happen.

Today is the day Bluebird gets back on the water.

Continuing the intertwining paths of my life and Bluebird's, the team which salvaged her in 2001 have chosen to refloat her minutes away from the Secret Coast.

The sun is sparkling off the surface of the Isle of Bute's Loch Fad. Around me, people are smiling. Excited. But there's a feeling of uncertainty in the air. No one knows quite what's going to happen.

Will the team manage to get her into the water?

Will she even float?

As I walk toward the shore, I catch my first glimpse of her. Glinting under a sky as blue as her hull, she's more beautiful than I imagined. She's elegant but muscular, leaving no doubt of what she's capable of.

A relic from another time, brought back to life, the union flag on her tail fin has been left unrestored as a mark of respect to those who came before.

The gathered crowd falls silent as she edges closer to the water, the wheels of her trailer going deeper until her hull breaks the surface and she lifts free, floating on the loch.

The restoration team, who have been building up to this day since they pulled Bluebird out of Coniston Water seventeen years ago, cheer and hug, barely able to believe this moment has come.

The crowd erupts.

The party begins.

For the next two weeks, the sleepy Isle of Bute will echo to the shriek of the Orpheus, as Bluebird races across the loch at speeds of up to two hundred and forty kilometres per hour. She'll make headlines across the world. She'll inspire a whole new generation of engineers, mechanics and thrill seekers who had never heard of her, or of Campbell, until now.

But for today, fifty one years after she disappeared under the surface of Coniston Water, Bluebird is finally back in the water.

It's a privilege to witness her new beginning. I can't wait to see how this next chapter in her story unfolds.

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