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Friday, 25 April 2014

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Donald Campbell's Bluebird: Almost ready to ride on water again

“Tramping like hell here... I can’t see much... and the water’s very bad indeed... I can’t get over the top... I’m getting a lot of bloody row in here, I can’t see anything. I’ve got the bows out... I’m going!”

Bluebird photo
Bill Smith with the Bluebird project

Donald Campbell’s final words, difficult to decipher through a hiss of radio waves and jargon, do not hang in the air here, at this workshop in North Shields.

A grey metal skeleton lies on the floor. This, apparently, is Bluebird.

It bears little resemblance to the beast which gently lifted off the surface of Coniston Water, somersaulting, crash-landing and cartwheeling into legend.

But this is the boat which sank to the lake bed and stayed there for 34 years, until a Geordie engineer and diver called Bill Smith found it, recovered it, and brought it here – with a view to a resurrection.

In 2012 Bluebird could ride again on Coniston. The spirit of an English hero, the fastest man on land and water, reborn in Olympic year.

Rarely has a lump of metal meant so much.

After all this time, Bluebird is still about speed. Today the big question is not “How fast will she go?” but “How long until she’s ready?” The official answer is: “When the last rivet goes in the last hole.”

How long that will take is a matter of shrugged shoulders and hope.

Donald Campbell surveys slow progress from a picture frame on a wall of Bill’s workshop. Next to him is a Union Jack.

Sheets of mottled grey metal are strewn around the place. Original parts make up the vast majority of Bluebird’s gradually growing body. The team has developed processes to repair and reuse even badly damaged wreckage. One man wears a Bluebird Project polo shirt.

On the back are two words: ‘It’ll fix’.

About a dozen people, all volunteers, are bringing Bluebird back to life. They are working to original drawings and footage of the craft in the moments before it crashed.

Equipment is given or loaned by engineering companies. Funding comes from sponsors and well-wishers.

Bill wasted four years failing to secure Heritage Lottery Fund backing. He’s a big, brash man, a natural leader. Those who follow him are rewarded with relentless banter, filthy jokes and a ticket to wherever this journey is heading.

Those who do not share his vision, such as the lottery staff who rejected two applications, fare less well.

“They couldn’t sit the right way round on a toilet seat,” he declares. “One of them said anybody under the age of 40 wouldn’t remember Bluebird and so wouldn’t be interested. Well I don’t know ANYBODY who remembers the Romans...”

Bill was born in May 1967, four months after Donald Campbell died. He has a grainy memory of sitting on his grandmother’s floor, watching the black and white footage of Bluebird’s final run and its brief, fatal flight.

He never gave it another thought until the mid-1990s when rock band Marillion released a song called Out of This World.

‘Three hundred miles an hour on water, in your purpose-built machine...’

This hymn to Donald Campbell transported Bill back and retrieved memories he didn’t know had been mislaid, memories of a shipwreck in the middle of an English lake.

“I was sitting round being miserable, ’cos my girlfriend had buggered off. I heard the song, rang the lads, and said ‘We’ve got a project.’ It got a bit out of hand.”

Bill found the wreck in October 2000 and raised it the following March, with the backing of Campbell’s daughter Gina.

Not everyone approved. Some thought Campbell should have been left to rest with his craft.

“I always heard about it rather than encountered it,” says Bill of the criticism. “I could understand people being concerned. This legend’s been lying on the bottom of the lake for 34 years. Then this bunch of hooligan Geordie divers turns up.

“But in Donald’s last will and testament, he said if anything happened to him his team were to pick up and carry on. Gina said if Donald had survived the accident he’d have had the boat brought straight back up. On ethical and moral matters, I’ll always defer to Gina.”

She decided that Bluebird should be rebuilt and so the craft was brought to North Shields, where it has spent almost 10 years.

The question of when the boat will be ready to glide down Coniston again is being asked with increasing frequency.

Bill is keener than anyone to provide the answer, but claims he’s not bothered whether Bluebird’s long-awaited return to water takes place in Cumbria or somewhere else.

“All I need [to see that Bluebird works] is two miles of straight water. I don’t care if that’s Coniston or the River Tyne or a Scottish loch. As long as it’s water I’m happy, from an engineering point of view.”

Of course: Bill is an engineer. This is an engineering project... but does emotion ever leak into it?

“Not really... the odd little time, you kind of cross paths with it. The best example recently: we fitted the cockpit. And I couldn’t get out quick enough. Every panel is original. The seat, everything. To be sat in THE cockpit... that was weird.”

After she glides again – probably at about 90mph; no record attempts this time around – Bluebird will be housed at the Ruskin Museum in Coniston village. Bill hopes it will not spend its entire second life there.

“We always said this is not going to be a dead husk of a thing on the shelf. It will be a living, breathing thing.

“Without inspiring the little people, this is just an exercise in self-indulgence for a bunch of middle-aged blokes. Annually we could arrange a project with youngsters at the heart of it. They can be taught engineering and team work.

“Nowadays kids spend their lives on ipods and computers, not going anywhere, not doing anything.”

The world has certainly changed since January 4, 1967, the final day of a former public-schoolboy who circled the globe breaking speed limits, accompanied by a teddy bear mascot called Mr Whoppit.

Donald Campbell’s story is extremes of success and failure in the same package. Scorch down a lake at 328mph; the fastest anyone has ever travelled on water. And die seconds later.

Bill Smith has written himself into the story and may yet add a happy ending. Maybe he’s earned one.

Two months after raising Bluebird, Bill brought up Donald Campbell. Four months after that he helped carry the coffin into St Andrew’s Church in Coniston on an afternoon rendered even more surreal by its timing: the day after 9/11.

“It probably would have been quite a pure emotional experience, if everyone hadn’t been wandering around thinking World War Three had just started.”

Looking back, the big Geordie thinks he may have used up a substantial portion of emotional energy when he first found the body.

“Donald was about 60 metres from the point of impact. The boat landed on its side. He came out the cockpit and off to the left.

“I got it into my daft head that we should go to the bottom and tell him what was going on.

“We ended up building this lighting tower, positioned over the site. I’m slowly sinking to the bottom in all this brilliant light. Donald’s lying there. ‘Look, Donald, we’re mates. Gina sent us. She wants to take you home.’”

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