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LOP, POPPLE & SWELLS
Three times, in early morning stillnesses last week, Donald Campbell walked out on a metal ramp set in the shallows of New York's Lake Canandaigua, eased himself into the cockpit of his jet-powered Bluebird and addressed himself to the shocking task of breaking his own 225.63 mph world speed record for water. He is a handsome, stocky fellow with thick, disordered brown hair and a stubborn and sensitive face. He moved and talked casually as he pulled a bright yellow life jacket over his pale blue flying suit, crouched in his narrow metal den, adjusted his fighter plane harness and pulled on a golden crash helmet and oxygen mask. But each time, as one of his crew sealed him under Bluebird's Plexiglas canopy, it was a little like watching a man being strapped into an electric chair.
For all his burning fascination with speed, Campbell is no daredevil; indeed, he says: "I'm getting to be a very nervous fellow." Although he was intent on two measured kilometer runs of 250 mph, he had long since discovered that Lake Canandaigua is not a proper surface for such speeds. It is a resort lake and more than a thousand potentially dangerous pleasure craft are moored around its shores. Worse, it is subject to faint but persistent swells which are virtually invisible to the naked eye but which become iron-hard ruts at 200 mph.
No one in the world understands the dangers of running on disturbed water better than Campbell; it is he, in fact, who is responsible for most of today's knowledge of the so-called "water barrier." Any structure has its own critical rhythm—a point at which its vibrations begin re-enforcing each other. Tacoma's Narrows Bridge shook itself to pieces in a wind. John Cobb died when his jet boat disintegrated while vibrating seven times a second at 206 mph. Bluebird, too, of course, is subject to this same deadly effect. A two-inch wave at 200 mph causes 6 Gs of vertical stress ("You feel," says Campbell, "as though you're tied to a trip hammer"), and stress increases fantastically as speed goes up—3 Gs at 100 mph would become 27 Gs at 300. And all the while Bluebird must be handled as delicately as "an automobile going 100 mph on ice."
For all this, Campbell—who must be a sort of carnival attraction as well as a driver to finance his adventures—was resolved to make the best of his troubles. Civic-minded citizens of Canandaigua (pop. 9,000) had raised money to bring boat and crew from England in the hopes of attracting tourists to an exhibition area and financing a new YMCA building. They went $50,000 in the red instead. Nevertheless they labored mightily in Campbell's cause—a fleet of 29 patrol boats was organized to police the course, and volunteers called at hundreds of homes on the lakeshore before each run to warn boat owners. A new record might bail Canandaigua out—Bluebird will be exhibited in Canada this month and the town will benefit from the proceeds.
At dawn on Thursday morning a windsock at the lakeshore hung motionless. Not a leaf moved. The lake shimmered with infinitesimal ripples which Campbell and his crew call "popple" (slightly bigger ripples are "lop") but under them the ever-present swell still moved. Bluebird made four runs—two each way over a four-mile course and past great yellow balloons moored on the surface to mark the critical kilometer. It was a fantastic sight: each time the boat crept slowly away screaming like a floating sawmill, accelerated gradually, rumbled and then suddenly disappeared in a cloud of smoke and steam, as though Beelzebub himself were tearing along just below the surface.
Campbell came back looking wan. He had reached 220 on one run but had averaged only 204.5. "That bloody swell," he muttered. "I had 4 Gs on the meter—at 250 I'd have had 10—it was just simple mathematics." He had one more day; after that the official timers from the American Power Boat Association would depart. That night it rained. But at dawn, miraculously, there was no swell. Campbell was in the cockpit almost as soon as Bluebird was in the water and was moving only a minute or so later, unaware that a power boat had just crossed the lake, miles away, and that its waves were rolling up the course.
Bluebird entered the measured kilometer at 240 mph, looking less like a boat on the flat water than like a racing car raising a long streamer of dust on a desert. Then, with a great squirt of spume, it bounced and was airborne, just over the water, for perhaps 200 feet. It bounced like a skipped stone and sailed again—with a sound like a laboring locomotive, "choo-choo-choo-choo-chooooo"—and went tearing off out of sight.
That ended the hope for the record and almost ended Campbell. "I don't know how we got away with it," he said afterward. "After we hit that wave we were off the water so long I could just sit there and contemplate it. The boat went off with one shoe higher than the other—I just don't know why the lower one didn't dig and roll us when we came down. I could only ease the throttle off a little. We came out of it at 210. The engine felt sick coming back [he did 198 on the return for an average of 209.75], and we're through." He walked to a parked car and leaned against it. After a bit he said: "I could cry."