Last Thursday, the 13th, 46-year-old Lee Taylor, a cheerful, dedicated man devoid of superstition, climbed into his 40-foot rocket-powered boat, U.S. Discovery II, intent on reclaiming the world water-speed record he had once held for 10 years. The site he selected, alpine Lake Tahoe, 6,200 feet up in the Sierras, was ideal for such an extravagant gamble. The thin air at that altitude would not only afford less resistance to Discovery II as it sped along on a limited fuel supply, but would also reduce the risk of the craft's taking off into the air—a common failing of vehicles that attempt water- or land-speed records.
The weather was perfect, the water conditions nearly so. The sky was almost cloudless, the wind so soft it could barely be felt on the cheek. On the lake surface there were slick, silvery patches of untroubled water, but most of the course over which Taylor would travel was darkened by two-inch ripples that would help his sponsoned craft break out of the water and onto a plane. There were random swells a few inches high, but none seemingly as bad as those he had encountered on test runs at record speed a few days earlier.
At 10:58 a.m., with his craft aligned for the first of her two required runs through a one-kilometer timing trap, Taylor reported by radio: "Hydraulics on. Safety valve open. Inner safety valve open. Regulator, 100 p.s.i." He then gave the rocket engine two quick bursts, and 20 seconds later, two more. At 11:01 he reported, "Regulator, 525 p.s.i." At 11:02 he was off. At first Discovery II seemed to be struggling to escape the fury of spray and fuming steam she created. As the boat leaped higher out of the water, moving ever faster, the spray and steam thinned out behind her. On the previous day, in a preliminary run over rougher water, Discovery II had bounced so violently that the paneling on her 40-foot fuselage had buckled. On that run the spray had so blinded Taylor that he had shut down prematurely, thinking he had exited from the far end of the trap.
This time the trim of the boat, laterally as well as fore and aft, was obviously better. As the craft streaked through the trap, Jack Arden, communications director in Taylor's recovery boat, shouted to the radio network strung along the 6¼-mile course, "It's looking good. It's looking good." A brief moment later—two seconds, perhaps three—Discovery II was swallowed in billowing spray. In the next sliver of time, fragments of the boat flew 50 feet high. "Oh God, Lee!" someone cried. "Lee, can you read me? Lee, can you read me?" Arden shouted.
In five seconds a helicopter was over the destruction site. Nearly 200 feet of the course was strewn with chunks of flotation foam. There were five identifiable objects afloat. The largest was the forward 22 feet of the fuselage; the smallest, Taylor's red helmet.
A liquid-fueled rocket of the sort used by Taylor is a simple machine of multiple virtues. It doesn't require the many precision parts of a turbojet; it doesn't have the complexities caused by the many moving parts of a gas engine. It produces power by the simple catalytic reaction of hydrogen peroxide. Its only offensive emission is noise. Beyond all that, a rocket's output is very consistent and predictable. Through the kilometer on his final, fatal run, Taylor was clocked at 269.83 mph. well off the 318.60 mph he needed for a record. It is likely, however, that when he crashed he was moving at close to record pace. Some who saw the horror say he seemed to be slacking off in the last seconds, but because the boat was moving rapidly away in the distance, such judgments are suspect. At the speed dialed in for that trip, Discovery II's fuel load of 104 gallons allowed a running time of about 42 seconds. The actual time to the crash was 32 seconds. The fuel tank recovered in the fore section of the fuselage was still about a quarter full. Discovery II's time through the kilometer trap was 8.29 seconds. When these scraps of data are plotted against known performance of the craft, they support the thesis that Taylor had started his run too close to the trap and was still climbing up the steep slope of the acceleration curve when he was killed.
Taylor likened his boat to the Saturn moon rocket, describing it as a "zero defect design." As the Saturns had progressed, so, too, would he, faster and still faster, in cautiously measured steps. He was enthusiastic, yet always low key. In discussing his ambitions or the fine points of rocket power, it was his habit to tiptoe from word to word softly, slowly, almost musically, as if telling a bedtime story to a child. His optimism was well-contained within the boundaries of cold fact, and understandably so.
Taylor grew up in Southern California, the land of speed. In high school and junior college in Compton, a community that has produced quite a few incredible athletic hulks, in his words, he "majored in football." He went to the University of Washington on an athletic scholarship, but being married and already a father of three when a scandal in the old Pacific Coast Conference broke in 1956, he couldn't afford to carry on without the extra pay under the table. So Taylor returned to California and became a precision grinder, making a living sharpening cutlery, surgical instruments, poodle clippers, whatever. He got into fast boating largely because he lived near the noted marine designer, Rich Hallett. In the '60s Taylor set a water-ski record of 92 mph and competed in aquatic drag racing.
In 1964, in his first quest for the world water-speed record, he was almost killed aboard a jet boat called Hustler, in the process subjecting himself to double jeopardy that should have dissuaded him from ever trying again. During a test run on Lake Havasu, he misjudged his speed with relation to the rapidly approaching shoreline. As they say in the trade, he ran out of water. While still going 175 mph, Taylor jumped out of his boat, skipped more than 50 feet across the water, bounced as limp as a Raggedy Ann doll over a rocky spit of land and then landed again in water.
A Coast Guardsman, Nick Galish, jumped from an escorting helicopter and pulled Taylor out. The chopper pilot found a sloping rock face on which to put down. While Galish was strapping the unconscious Taylor into the helicopter, the craft began to slide off the rock. The pilot applied power, lifted off at a dangerous, canted angle and crashed into, the water. Taylor was pulled out by another Coast Guardsman. In the double disaster Taylor sustained a fractured skull, hip and ankle and lasting damage to his left eye. Hustler had come to rest, relatively intact, 25 feet up a 30-degree slope. Taylor was in a coma for 18 days and spent six and a half months in hospitals. Three years later in the same Hustler, he broke the world record on Lake Guntersville in Alabama with a two-way average speed of 285.21 mph.