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Bute Tuesday 7th August.

Updated: Apr 8, 2021



Tuesday morning was all a little embarrassing. The day before we’d been stranded for the want of some premium paraffin and today we were equally shipwrecked because our beautifully recreated canopy was in bits on the bottom of the loch.

Sally took some divers to where it splashed down and with the help of the drone pilots and their excellent footage they put a marker on where the drama had taken place but after several drops and squelching blindly about in soft silt they returned empty handed. It was the deepest part of the loch too – a whole 30 feet but Sal reported absolute zero visibility without a torch and almost none with one – an all too familiar scenario to us old hands of the diving world. The sediment was extremely soft and easily capable of swallowing chunks of acrylic too so for the moment we would have to just leave it down there.

It’s not as though we could mend it anyway but all the furniture, the latches and rollers, had gone with it and they were gorgeous pieces of kit made by Clever Barry and we wanted them back. Never mind – they weren’t going anywhere. We’d have to park yesterday’s disaster and build ourselves a new canopy.

When making the first one we’d done it in many parts. The canopy surface itself is 6mm vac-formed acrylic with an additional acrylic frame that we’d hand-made in several sections. There was the curved piece around the front that we’d carved and sculpted from solid to exactly fit the asymmetrical bodywork and cockpit opening and of those we had but one – but fortunately that was about the only part we got back.



A still from the GoPro footage at the moment of recovery (via Jordan Aspin)

And below, this is the same part found airlocked on the surface and quickly recovered by the safety crew.



The footage of it flying skywards shows that it left the boat largely intact then was torn apart by the wind with the sides and rear part of the frame separating in mid-air. The failure occurred at the hole in the top where the latch passes through. It was a very obvious stress raiser but there wasn’t much we could do about it except make sure all the corners were smooth and rounded so it wouldn’t fail in normal use but it was never going to stand being blasted skywards into a 120mph gale. See the blue, curved piece around the front?

We were super glad that came back as it took many, many hours to sculpt and rout that from solid acrylic and we didn’t have another one. Well, we sort of didn’t. We had our MDF prototypes that could be made to work if we waterproofed and painted them but as it happened we got the acrylic one back along with its little roller so we unpacked the spares and set about building a new canopy.



We had a spare canopy surface cut to size and still in its protective film so we sent out a call for epoxy (not that it sticks too well to acrylic) and self-tapping screws and made a start.

First of all we had to make sure it was all going to fit into the canopy rails and they are half an inch different in length. The doublers that run along the outside length of them are the originals so there’s no arguing with how long they are. We propped the parts in place for a look-see.



Then the legendary Jersey Mike produced a generator and grinder from somewhere and began carving a spare rear frame to fit the headrest plate.



Everyone took a hand to get the new canopy into shape as quickly as possible. Novie spent some time on the fine work.



Then we glued and screwed and heated with a heat gun to get the epoxy to go off that little bit quicker.



It was decided we’d best fasten this one down differently so the wind couldn’t steal it but this threw up some other problems. Like, for instance, how would the pilot effect an escape or a diver a rescue if the lid was nailed down? We had many discussions on this and decided that the safest and most reliable method was to bungee the canopy into place from the inside. Part of the cockpit drill would be to fasten it shut before starting the engine but should it need to come off again the bungees ought not be too difficult to overcome. As part of this we did two other things.

We gave the cockpit instruments and controls a proper going over in case anything had got wet or bashed about in the previous evening’s drama. We didn’t want an uncommanded extension of the brake or the fire-suppression going off mid-run so it all got checked and inhibited. And Sally also whipped off the steering wheel. She carried as part of her kit a big spanner for that very purpose in case an unconscious pilot might end up pinned in the cockpit on the wrong side of it so there was no harm in doing some extra training while we were peering in there.



It turned out to be all clean and dry and in order in there but it was good policy to make sure all the same.



And then, with the cockpit reassembled and signed off by the maintenance crew, we put the new lid on and sorted out its bungee arrangement.



It wasn’t as pretty as the one we’d arrived with but it was just as good if not better from a functional position and because it was purely for running it had no rectangular hole in the top and we took the extra precaution of drilling three, one-inch diameter vents in it on each side to let the pressure further equalise and, though the pressurisation problem persisted and occasionally lifted a corner of the canopy, this one remained firmly affixed for the duration.

It was getting on for lunchtime by the time we relaxed a little, relieved to be back with the programme. On top of our hasty canopy build we still had our multitude of other tasks to complete from checking fluid levels and making sure the boat’s on board batteries were properly topped off to placing fire extinguishers in the correct boats and making sure the radios were all charged. Lots to do.



Not only had the crew settled into their individual roles but the families had also set up their own little camp on the outside of the boathouse and occasionally they would augment our standard rations by firing up a few disposable barbecues and cooking an extra treat for us.



Now to say that the Isle of Bute fully embraced the Bluebird Project and all that came with it would be an understatement but we thought they’d lost the plot completely when we heard we could buy genuine Bluebird sausages in Rothesay. Now this we just had to see.

If you found this in your fridge you’d likely throw it out then throw the fridge after it.



But within that slightly off-putting blueness was a feast of good, wholesome sausages and they tasted amazing.




We scoffed the first lot then went to get another batch but they’d sold out and soon after we stopped barbecuing altogether because every time we lit a fire some nutter became convinced that we were going to blow up the whole island so it weas easier to not bother than to explain. The problem was that they could see proper steel drums of paraffin alongside the boathouse correctly marked up with the relevant stickers and beyond that we had all the paperwork on file but in the foreground they could also see a barbecue and in their fevered minds this simple source of ignition was going to magically leap the thirty foot gap and set off an explosion in the oxygen-free, tightly sealed drums that would roast us all to a crisp because, as everyone knows, jetfuel is malevolent volatile stuff that will suck in a mouthful of barbecue at the least provocation and explode in your face just out of spite. It was easier to eat cakes.

We had a visit that morning too from our old mate David Tremayne, author of Man Behind The Mask, amongst many other titles. We’d done a few little jobs on his jet car the year before so he came up to see what was going on with the big tin machine. It was great to have him take time from his hectic schedule in the world of F1 to come see us.



Now back on track with a functional boat we got down to what we were supposed to be doing and that was to get Stew out there for a slow taxi and, if we had time, strap Ted in to try out the new canopy arrangement at speed, though what we were going to do if another canopy went skywards no one wanted to think about.

This was to be Stew’s first time afloat so he was anxious to learn as much as possible from hydroplane ace, Ted. They discussed many things including the best bungees to keep the cover over their heads.



And then, as Stew usually did, he found some peace to do his methodical, RAF pilot thing and set out what he needed in detail on his laptop.



We speculated on what might be were the roles reversed. What if Ted was about to be handed Stew’s Red Arrows Hawk? The consensus was that he wouldn’t read the manual, he’d just strap in, jam the throttle wide and blast up into the sky. We’d then all witness a few heart-stopping moments as he reared and bucked around the stops before it all smoothed out and he’d land safely wearing that big grin of his.

John topped off the start bottles…



Rich prepared the safety boat and rounded up the crew…



Then we rolled out ready for action.



Malcolm called the safety brief.

It was an especially thorough affair this time considering yesterday’s mishap, the resulting repairs and necessary changes to our procedures not to mention the fact that we were putting a new pilot in the cockpit this time. We religiously observed that there was no time pressure at these gatherings and it would take just as long as it took and not until Malcom gave the go ahead would anyone do anything.



Stew kitted into his smart black flight suit and looked on a little nervously.



But with everyone happy and the machinery and team good to go the smile soon returned and we got on with launching him.



We were by now confident to launch with the pilot already installed. It made no difference to the launch whilst conferring several advantages to the pilot, not least being the unlikelihood of him falling into the loch when transferring from the safety boat. We got our precious cargo afloat and fussed (yes, that is supposed to say ‘fussed’) about in the usual way making sure that everything was just-so before attempting a light.

We’d double checked the igniter circuitry during the earlier maintenance visit and it would have been a cruel blow to have another failure as all had been working right up until the point of launch.



The drill was becoming well practiced by now and the engine lit exactly as expected. It whistled up to the usual, annoying 45% and Stew was underway rather more quickly than we would have liked but he seemed perfectly composed and in control in there.



The brief was no planing and only go as far as the narrows where Jordan, Rich and Sal were stationed. We knew the speed fell off very quickly on a closed throttle when the boat remained mostly in her displacement condition but it was still a very impressive sight. Stew followed his mission profile to the letter, performed a smooth turn at the narrows then came back a little faster but still quite deep in the water.



In Stew’s own words…

*

With K7 float tested and having completed engine runs on the edge of Loch Fad there was nothing else for it, the time had come to start her on the water and see how she handled at slow speed. With his vast experience on water, the decision was made that Ted would always be a run or two ahead throughout the trials which would minimise the chances of an unexpected surprise for me. However, even with this comfort blanket, I still felt a significant amount of trepidation every time I climbed into Bluebird’s cramped cockpit and strapped in.

I will never forget that first run.

The sun shone and the beauty of Loch Fad with the mountains of Arran so clearly visible at the south western end perfectly framed what were to be some of the most memorable minutes of my life. Initially, in near silence, K7 was carefully towed from the shallows to a suitable start point. The experience inside the cockpit was intense. There was no getting away from what a privileged position I was in. Looking around the perfectly restored cockpit it was impossible to not think of Donald Campbell sat there over 50 years prior and contemplating what he was feeling as he prepared to push the craft to world record breaking speeds. Those speeds were not on the agenda for me, thankfully. Yet, before I even turned the Orpheus engine, she felt so capable of incredible speed. Her blue sponsons seemed to naturally narrow the focus from the cockpit and indicate exactly where she wanted to go - straight and fast!

My moment of reflection was broken when I caught a glimpse of Bill’s huge smile coming from Jimmy’s launch boat. We were in position and ready to go, everything was set. I closed the canopy which made the cockpit even more cramped; at 6’1” I was significantly taller than Campbell. It felt just like starting a jet aircraft. I followed a check list I had prepared which was based on the drills used to operate RAF aircraft. I gave the hand signal to the launch boat and the silence was shattered. High pressure air from tanks on the launch boat turned K7s engine over, she kicked into life with the flick of a few cockpit switches and within seconds we were underway. I had prepared myself to have very little directional control at slow speed due to her small single rudder but was presently surprised when she responded almost instantly to my directional inputs. That was the first big relief, I was underway and had directional control. The thought of grounding her or hitting an obstacle had been at the forefront of my thoughts and concerns.

With control assured and the start boat safely disconnected, my nerves quickly faded and I couldn’t help but marvel at what I was doing. K7 was under her own steam in near perfect conditions and watching were hundreds of enthusiasts from the shore. It was a special moment and I couldn’t help but smile as I took her approximately a third down the loch and back again. Apart from the occasional splash lapping up around the cockpit, it was hard to not feel like I was taxiing a jet aircraft. The noise was of course the same, the response of the engine similar and the gentle manoeuvres I made were akin to the turns made heading out to a runway. Several times I advanced the [pedal] throttle to assess the response and control. After the usual delay of a jet engine spool up, the thrust was evident and significant. As the power came on, K7 tracked straight and slowly lifted as she made her way towards the ‘plane’. Retarding the throttle she gently lowered.

K7 felt incredibly stable and controllable. The slow speed run was a resounding success during which the temptation was there to keep the throttle planted and see what she could do. However, this was not the purpose of the run nor any of the trials on Bute. We were there to test that she had been restored to working order and if I could safely get her to ‘plane, that would be mission success. With the slow speed runs now complete, it was time to up the pace and see if she would.

*

It was a perfect run and everything worked and we all agreed that Stew had been more than a bit brave to accept his mission and see it through. Needless to say, he was a happy (and probably a little relieved) camper as we towed him in and we welcomed everyone ashore.



We had elected not to recover with the pilot on board this time despite having done it the night before with Ted but that was because we were losing daylight and didn’t want to delay things so we dropped Stew on the pontoon from the safety boat – he seemed most pleased.



There was much congratulation and hand shaking and, as ever, our fighter pilot was a hit with the ladies but we still had business to attend to.



We had our safety debrief with Malcolm – no getting out of that one no matter how smoothly things went – and Stew had to be thoroughly debriefed individually so we could record things like maximum jetpipe temperature and make notes on handling, wind effects and many other parameters. The recovery crew soon had the boat back ashore and immediately the maintenance team set-to topping up the fuel and other fluids and getting the water out. It was still getting in at a rate that really concerned us because we couldn’t work out how. It wasn’t getting any worse but it wasn’t getting any better either.

We had a meeting and decided we had just about enough daylight remaining to run the next part of our plan and get Ted out again to try out the new canopy at speed.

We had time for a cup of tea and a natter then Malcolm called the register and we attended his safety brief for the second time that day. This was to be a re-run of yesterday but hopefully without the canopy issue followed by a slow turn at the top of the loch and a return run on the plane so we could all get a look at the boat coming towards us under power because only the safety boat crew and a handful of keen hikers had actually seen that up to now. We loaded Ted up.



Notice the vent holes in the lower corners of the new canopy. Designed to let the cabin pressure blow out to the outside when the engine spooled down, we later wondered if they were ineffective by being trapped right down in the corner with the spray baffle on the other side whilst trying to vent into an area of high pressure air immediately ahead of the inlets. They certainly didn’t cure the problem in the way we’d envisaged but at least the canopy stayed down – mostly.

Ted was rolled into the water aboard his steed and we prepared for our second run of the day.



We ran the launch, start and release procedure like a well-oiled machine this time and Ted was underway in no time. He takes up the tale from within his office.

*

Let’s go with the Air start and general procedure... I’m not a complete stranger to high-pressure air so I know that its bad when it gets out of hand but filling up the original HP spheres to 230 bar must of required a matching pair from the operator along with some confidence in the clobber. Knowing that all that energy is held back by a tiny little valve the size of a matchbox doesn't half focus the mind on what’s going to happen when you press the button and what all that ai