Thursday


Death on the water as the cards foretold


Times graphic

The bellow of the Orpheus jet engine resounded among the hills surrounding the lake. Then in its place came a terrible silence. Those who stood along the edge of Lake Coniston in the UK's wild and beautiful Lake District on that misty grey day watched in mute disbelief as the first tiny fragments of wreckage were blown towards the shore.

On that morning in January 1967 the last of the speed kings in the boys' book tradition died amid the cart-wheeling steel which seconds before had been the gleaming Bluebird hydroplane.

Donald Campbell had joined the elite company of John Cobb, Henry Segrave and other men of speed who had escaped death on salt and sand only to find it on water. He died — like Cobb 15 years earlier — in that tiny fragment of time when a boat tries to fly.

Campbell's death was violent and mercifully quick but it was not unexpected. He had boarded Bluebird earlier believing implicitly that this was his last day on earth...

He had gone through his usual ritual — arranged his lucky mascots in the cockpit, kissed the bluebird badge he wore around his neck and touched the St Christopher medal mounted on the dashboard.

For Donald Campbell, superstition had been almost a way of life and now it had become a way of death. He knew all the omens were against him but the record run had been arranged for months and he could let down the team who had worked so hard to prepare Bluebird for its great day.

So he moved Bluebird out on to the grey ruffled water of Lake Coniston and, as the world knows, he never came back.

Some thought Donald Campbell was an anachronism trying to break water-speed records on an English lake while spacemen were circling the earth, but no one ever denied that he was brave.

And to go all out for the record when every superstitious instinct in him cried out in protest, needed courage of a very special kind. It was on the night of January 4, only hours before his death that Donald Campbell finally became convinced that his doom was sealed.

A couple of days before, when the weather held up the attempt and made the engineering team jumpy he  had wandered over to a group of pressmen and joked: "You boys will see me carried away in a box one of these days. That's all you're really here for."

Donald Campbell had long since accepted such facts as part of his trade. He knew how deadly record-breaking could be and how he needed all the luck he could get. Certainly up to now he seemed to have had more than his fair share. He believed that at least twice his life had been saved by the intervention "From another dimension" of his father, the late Sir Malcolm Campbell.

Ten years earlier Donald had come to Coniston with another Bluebird, intent on raising the water speed record to 240mph. Before the bid he had received a frantic phone-call from a psychic medium he had consulted earlier, urging him to examine the boat carefully before the run was attempted.

The medium claimed that the instruction had come from Sir Malcolm Campbell and involved something he called "rods". The attempt was postponed, the engine dismantled ... and several piston-rods were found to have suffered damage.

A high-speed run with the engine in that state would almost certainly have ended in a major explosion. But by 1967, science had largely taken over from superstition in record-breaking — apart from where Donald Campbell was concerned.

On the evening of January 4, after a poker game with members of his crew in his lakeside bungalow, Campbell took the cards and settled down by himself to pay Russian patience... and got his final premonition of disaster.

The first card he turned up was the ace of spades — the card of death — followed by the queen of spades. He sat staring at the cards and then turning to his long-time friend and mechanic Leo Villa and said: "Mary Queen of Scots turned up those cards and knew that it meant she would be beheaded.
"Someone is going to get the chop — and I rather think it's me."

He was clearly disturbed by the turn of the cards and soon afterwards went to bed. The following morning he was out early on the landing-stage where Bluebird was being prepared. Several friends who had heard of the events of the previous evening tried to persuade him to postpone the record attempt but Donald Campbell wouldn't listen.

His father had bequeathed to him a single-minded passion for record-breaking and not even the fear of death and destruction could shake it. For Campbell, like his late father, was hooked on speed.

A watery sun peered down as they coaxed the Orpheus jet into deafening thunder. They closed the cockpit, cast off the mooring hawsers and said their last goodbyes.

And Donald Campbell turned Bluebird towards the distant marker-buoys of the measured mile and went out into Coniston Water to meet his destiny and his death.   

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