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January 2010

his coming October it’ll be ten years since I cautiously crawled down 140ft of rope provided by the navy in 1967 (we found it reaching for the surface from an old clump weight and nicked it smart-ish) and crashed into the mortal remains of Donald’s Bluebird. Where did all the time go? It’s frightening.

The team made its annual pilgrimage to Coniston again this year through weather reminiscent of early 2001 when we were diving every weekend. How and why did we tolerate that? We don’t even do the January 4th, freeze our knackers off at the end of the jetty thing these days, preferring instead to imbibe a gallon of beer and stuff our faces in The Sun Inn.

We enjoyed an hilarious evening with the WAGs and a gaggle of kids most of whom weren’t even born while K7 was in the lake so it was a little depressing next morning to acknowledge the end of the Christmas holidays and square up to another year. The tree came down after a treacherous drive home through blizzard conditions, decorations were stowed for another year then I finally wandered down the local to relax with a nightcap.

“I lost two and a half litres of blood, you know…”

That woke me up... The girl beside me, blonde, a bit curvy (if I’m to be polite) and not very old, was telling her story. Two and a half litres – that seemed a lot. About five pints. She didn’t look big enough.

She’d come to whine at her mate, the barmaid, but things got busy so I got it instead.

“You sure it was litres and not pints?” I asked sceptically.

“No, litres, definitely. They said there’d be some blood but it was everywhere…”

I sipped my beer and pictured the mess.

“I was in labour for fifty seven hours before the bairn was born... and then…they wouldn’t let me go outside for a tab!” (Cigarette, in Geordie-speak).

Her resentment was boundless but the horror was lost on me.

“They said I might fall over ’cause of all the blood and stuff and wouldn’t let me out of bed; but I needed a tab and I’d been in hospital for days so I was down to my last one. My last one!”

The pack she slammed on the bar to make her point bore the stark legend, ‘smoking may harm your unborn child’.

For all I was dismayed it wasn’t for her reasons and now I was curious about the ending – so I could write it down here, mostly. So, feigning empathy, I listened…

“And he (I was soon to discover that ‘he’ was the boyfriend and father) was ‘on the drink’ that week (as though entire weeks are normally set aside for such things) so he didn’t get to the hospital until the next day, then he was still rotten with a hangover. I had to send him straight back out for more tabs…”

But this was the best part…

“Did you know,” she said crossly, “that they don’t sell tabs in the hospital?”

I think I was supposed to be outraged.

What? One of life’s staples denied in such a caring environment – how could they?

“It kind of goes against their ethics doesn’t it,” I suggested instead.


“Well they’re in the business of trying to extend your life, not shorten it, aren’t they.”

But I may as well have discussed the Large Hadron Collider’s recent head-on crash between two beams of protons with the combined energy of 540 billion electron volts and how this brought scientists a step closer to proving the existence of the Higgs Boson sub-atomic particle. She abandoned tab availability to whinge about the council instead.

It seemed all her pregnant friends from the homeless list received a roof within two months but her suffering lasted a full eighteen and even then she wasn’t impressed. Unfortunately, the interior décor wasn’t to her liking so, whilst waiting for the new plaster to dry, the six-week deadline to move from homelessness to council cosseting expired and the property was being offered to someone with genuine need. How much misfortune can one individual endure?

Her trials reminded me of poor Donald out there on Lake Eyre with a dejected press, unexpected rain and mile after mile of knackered salt – not!

But the bit about the council buggering about (right or wrong) did hit a nerve.

I remembered a schoolteacher from way back; her husband had been a Japanese POW in WWII leaving him with a pathological loathing of rice… show him so much as a grain and he’d work himself into an awful state. I remember sort of getting it at the time and this was the mid seventies so he’d had thirty-odd years to get over it.

But that’s not how it works. For example, although the Hapless Lottery Failure led us a merry dance for four long years and we’ve been rid of the spineless fools since 2006, any form of bureaucracy gives me a shiver. If the real world ran on bureaucracy we’d be extinct as a species and I pondered this last week as I went cap-in-hand for help from industry, again.

Let me explain…

Just suppose that absolutely fundamental to K7’s return to the water was the removal of a lamp post on her route.

Suppose also that the lamp post came under the jurisdiction of some powerfully resourced, global company used to fiercely defending its position in the market. What would happen is that you’d find the project manager in charge of lamp posts on their contact page with a direct line, e-mail and probably a picture too. You’d read up on all the successful projects he or she had successfully completed then call to say, we’re the Bluebird Project and we’re going to get a tune out of Donald Campbell’s boat except your lamp post is in our way.

It’s like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, you strut before both judges and public hoping you’ve got the steps down.

We’ve done a half-decent job up to now so we’re usually invited to convince potential benefactors that their logo slowly sinking beneath the surface of Coniston Water won’t be beamed to millions worldwide. You get one roll of the dice and fools aren’t suffered so if they buy-in you have to work bloody hard to earn respect until the president steps in and calls whoever runs the lamp post department to explain that budget is available for training so best grab an apprentice and get them up to speed on lamp post removal starting quick-as with the one in our way.

Then there’s the bureaucrat’s way… God help us!

Twenty phone calls may connect you to the Department of Public Erections who’ll tell you they only meet twice a year and you should write via their legal department. What was the collective noun we chose for them back in the day? a ‘dither’, I think, and it still fits perfectly.

However, the chink in bureaucratic armour is to get one of them thinking a colleague might steal an advantage and get their puckered lips a rung closer to that great arse in the sky so it’s usually possible to get someone to hear you out. After some months a committee will gather nervously to inform you that moving a lamp post can’t be considered further until every moaning old tosser in Christendom has been consulted in case one of them uses it as a lighthouse when walking the dog and might break an eyelash tripping over the kerb the one night it’s missing.

Incidentally – don’t dog owners do some strange things? ( I have two dogs, by the way) I wrote a piece awhile back about ‘Mrs Dog-Coat’, a crazy old biddy who bollocked me rigid for being environmentally unfriendly with this Bluebird thing while her unfortunate dog roasted alive in a quilted coat under the August sun – the point being that she was too misguided to even take care of her pet never mind bleat about burning a spoonful of kerosene. (Diary Archive 6th August 2008)

Well I met Mr Dog-Coat the other day. This bloke had at least chosen the correct meteorological conditions to apply a quilt to his mutt – approximately ten inches of frozen snow – and was enthused by the Bluebird Project too but concerned that getting the boat wet constituted an ‘unnecessary risk’ whilst in the same breath telling me how he’d recently flown to an avalanche zone to slither down a mountain on two strips of wood… Nor had he noticed that, despite its quilt with sleeves, his dog was running about in its bare feet.

Odd, isn’t it, that we suggest getting an old boat wet and we’re instantly rugby tackled by a bevy of health and safety maniacs but say you’re going skiing, mountaineering, scuba diving or free-fall parachuting and no one cares two hoots who you crash into, run over, fall on or drown.

I digress as ever...

The commercial world would uproot your lamp post in five minutes flat then plant it again before nightfall. The bureaucrats, on the other hand, wouldn’t get close to moving the offending street furniture until they’d drudged their way through the next phase.

Canvassing moaners achieves nothing except proving that moaners have been canvassed unless there’s enough of them to cause an underwear malfunction in Whitehall. Next you have to chase about raising money to pay for a report by a ‘consultant’ who once saw a lamp post before being horizontally promoted into bureaucratic retirement for not being very good at it. If you’re lucky they’ll next squander public money without you having to lift a finger but now and again you get to fill in the million forms of many and various funding organisations then stick six months onto the timetable until their committees meet. Your fifty-page options appraisal finally arrives about a year after you first asked and covers the whole gamut from leaving well alone in case a rare species of bat chooses to nest on the warm bulb that summer – assuming it’s not been swapped for one of those dingy, do-gooder jobs that don’t actually produce any light and therefore any heat – to pulling the thing out of the soil forthwith and the inevitable effect this will have on some office-bound twit’s carbon footprint. Consultants, the bureaucratic variety at least, never commit in any way just in case they end up down a rung on that ladder.

Eventually, about two years later, the committee finally sits to consider your request and passes a motion to move three litter bins on the high street whilst leaving your lamp post exactly where it is!

But did you notice recently… rather a lot of water tried to wash big bits of Cumbria into the Irish Sea yet new bridges shot back up overnight and a whole railway station sprouted in only seven days. I bet the desk-jockey in charge of risk assessments was in the huff that week. The chance to bugger about for months on end, to puff up into a self-important, little tin-god for the foreseeable future and create an ocean of paperwork was swept away in one necessity-driven swoop. Just shows what can be done when the bureaucratic control loop is short circuited. Not that I have anything against health and safety awareness per se… It’s just that to quote Chuck Yeager, “The best way to fly safe is to know what the hell you are doing.” And as we soldier bravely into the fourth – and hopefully penultimate – year of our build we’re hoping that we just about know what the hell we’redoing.

The year began with a couple of pieces of good news too. Our approach to the aerospace community for help with valves, widgets, gizmos and pipes was met enthusiastically – as you’d expect from industry where someone is in charge and empowered to decide stuff. But, surprisingly, the bureaucratic machine munching away at our request to ‘sensitively display K7 in a controlled environment following her conservation-led rebuild in order to properly interpret not only record breaking generally and the Campbell dynasty in particular but also the entire social fabric of the fifties and sixties’ (try quoting that pile of museological manure on a single breath) was given a boost with a particularly accommodating draft proposal that will now go forward for all those dog owners to bicker over. I own two dogs, by the way. Border Collies, which, I was informed tonight, are the cleverest dogs in Britain according to a recent study.

The irony of all this paper pushing is that the process may prove so slow that we’re well beyond our target completion date before the shouting is over but this may prove a godsend in the grand scheme of things.

We always saw rebuilding what we pulled from the lake as a three-year effort – one year to strip and clean what we had, another to dry-build it and the third to assemble for real. This means we’re behind schedule because we ought to have a centre hull by now. But factor in the unmendable floors and the missing chunk of frame and we’re quite justifiably eight months adrift. We’d then allowed for however long it was going to take to build the sponsons and systems, which is this year, for launch in 2011. We’ll just have to see how we get on.

The floors are in the final stages with the rivet twins often perched back there spewing unending commentary drowned occasionally by the blatting noise of the rivet gun or the occasional high, whizz of an air-drill as an awkward rivet comes out again to be upsized or replaced.

Mick is the ‘block-man’, pressing a polished, metal block against the stem of the rivet to first swell it into the hole then swage the end into a mushroom that firmly clamps the aluminium skins together. It’s a very skilful job that disproves the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Rob, meanwhile, mans the rivet gun on the other side. He has to drill the hoes in the first place and make the call regarding whatever rivet is to go in it. I think that’s why they mutter endlessly at one another. Worse still, Rob still makes us suffer ball-chasing on a Saturday afternoon but his team suffered a proper drubbing last week at the hands of some high-falutin team with, it seemed, not a single Englishman kicking a ball for them so maybe he’ll not put it on next week in case the same thing happens.

Next job for the rivet-twins once those floors are properly buttoned up is clearing out dead rivets from inside frame tubes so we can inhibit them before the outer skins start going back. It’s easier with the skins off but still a proper, fiddly job made excruciatingly difficult because the largest hole we’ll allow in the frame tubes is 10mm and some of the bigger chunks of rivet debris will only just pass through with a bit of jiggling.

As an aside, here’s an example of mindless bureaucracy working in our favour, for a change… See that elegant, little forcep-like gizmo being used to manually extract rivet fragments. Its proper use is the removal of beads, peas, bits of paper and anything else small children pop into their noses or ears with frustrating regularity. On the end of that long proboscis is a delicate set of jaws to grapple very tiny items a very long way up your baby’s schnoz. Now here’s the point. Our local hospital put this instrument to good use the moment it came available but, presumably because bureaucracy moves with all the urgency of tectonic plates, they had no facility in their paperwork to book the used instruments into the hospital dishwasher or whatever they employ to make their surgical knives and spoons good to go again. So what did they do with these beautiful pieces of engineering smeared with little more than a fine gloss of earwax or baby snot? Yes – they threw them in the bin. They only needed a rinse under the tap, for goodness sake! We’ve extracted dozens of metal splinters from an assortment of fingers as well hundreds of rivets with ours yet no one has died of blood poisoning yet. They’d not be so stupid in an African or Russian hospital.

Meanwhile, Mike has been exercising his prodigious talent for being (by his own admission) anal and anoracky by working minor miracles at the pointy end. In his own words, here’s a good example.


Sticky Business

By Mike Bull

We’re all very aware on the project that pride in a weld well done or rivets well set doesn’t impress our average viewing public anything like as much as shiny blue paint or a proudly displayed Union Flag would, and as many workshop visitors are as impressed by Bill’s design for the rollover jig as they are by the splendidly reconstructed structure of the boat suspended within it. Likewise, drop the new seat into the reconstructed original cockpit and even some of the team go into a hush for a minute, as if it’s Donald’s own upholstery they are gazing at rather than a latter-day reproduction. It’s the human element- seeing something that can be related to the person that once sat inside and operated this proud craft.

Well, there’s perhaps no more human an element to Bluebird the craft than her cockpit, Donald’s place of work and ultimately of course, where he died. Endlessly altered between 1955 and 1967 it’s the human focal-point, a place that everyone will want to see; like the rest of the boat it must be absolutely spot-on in every detail, but unfortunately for us it’s totally packed with odd little fixtures, fittings, widgets and tiny details!

Take for example the dashboard- as I write the original remains to be recovered, and the full story of the researching and creation of the replacement item is a tale for another time. But just the complicated series of brackets that held it in place along with the steering column have taken no end of working out, with virtually nothing to work on but the original cockpit photos (of which we have exceptionally good copies, and also some pics that have never been seen outside of the project) and the evidence left in the recovered remains- in the case of the dash, three holes in the one remaining cockpit rail and a couple of original scribe marks. For all the hours I spend in the workshop, I spend as many at home endlessly researching this stuff, and it’ll be good and it’ll be right, but boy have I worked for it!

But sometimes you just get it so easy, it’s spooky. Sometimes, someone comes along to help you, as was the case when I recreated one small detail of the new dashboard- the labelling. Nice chap he was by all accounts too- his name was Donald.

At some point, Donald Campbell returned from a trip to the USA with a ‘Dymo-Mite Tapewriter’. You know the things- sticky-backed plastic strips of various colours are fed through a hand-held device, and there’s a rotating wheel to select the letter you want. Choose your letter, squeeze the handle, and the required figure is embossed into the plastic tape. They were all the rage in the 60s and 70s, and I’m sure many of us can remember printing out rude words on one as children. (Or maybe that was just me?)

Apparently, Donald was pleased as punch with his new purchase and showed it to all and sundry, and it was by this method that he made the labels for his final dashboard in 1966 in black, red and blue Dymo tapes, along with labels also for the Bloctube fuel control box that was down at his right hand side.

As luck would have it for the budding cockpit re-creator, Donald’s Dymo machine fell into the possession of his daughter, Gina following his death and she’s had it ever since, tucked away and doing nothing until she came to visit us in the workshop recently. Gina had no recollection of the machine having ever been used since, and it certainly still had her father’s reel of half inch blue Dymo tape in it.

Gorgeous bit of kit, isn’t it? So while everyone else that day was oohing-and ahhing over the boat, and various children and grandchildren were being hoisted in and out of the cockpit with Mr Whoppit, I hunkered down in my corner and set about printing out a new set of labels on the same machine that had made them in 1966, and in the case of the blue ones, with the same tape!

The machine was a delight to use, much easier and better than my own modern-day plastic version. Now have a look at this-

That’s one of the many original labels recovered from the Bloctube box, and a new one made on the same machine. Look closely at the letters, or at the slight misalignment between the ‘E’ and the ‘L’ of ‘FUEL’; they are EXACTLY the same!

Okay so it’s anal in the extreme but as I always say, ‘anal’ is the first four letters of ‘analyse’ and it brings an authenticity to our new panel that is absolutely second to none; so when people look into our recreated cockpit, and their eye is naturally drawn to the wording, they’ll be reading something made on Donald’s machine, and with Donald’s blue tape. How priceless is that?

(I made two full sets of all the labels in the end- and you’d be surprised how many there actually are- much to the increasing amusement of my colleagues who, whilst I stood there going click-click-click, made every comment going from remarking on my excellent wrist action, to asking if I wanted to be alone with the Dymo-Mite or take it home for the night! I very nearly made a label that said ‘GIT’ to apply to a certain baldy head…)

I guess it was a no-brainer that Gina would let us use the machine for the rebuild, but I sincerely thank her anyway for trusting me with it. So there we go, that’s one tiny detail easily sorted to the ultimate in authenticity; now for the other few thousand…


And was Mike a pain with that machine… just a little. We considered pouring water over the pair of them at one point to cool everything down but the finished result was spectacular as will be the rest of the cockpit but it’s not much use if the water gets in so we recently embarked on something of a brave (or stupid) experiment.

You see, we’re yet to start on the engine cover or tail fairing, both of which have crash damage and corrosion but, perhaps more significantly, will be seen and critically appraised by the viewing public. Even today someone looked at our meticulously rebuilt hull structure, waved dismissively and asked, “But when are you going to put the outsides on?” I usually say they’ll not be going on until the last possible second because the boat is much easier to work on with them off leaving our visitors invariably crestfallen but, truth be told, they’re going on soon and when it comes to sorting the upper fairings we’re going to have to be good at mending everything the old girl can throw at us if she’s going to look good as new without having to replace great tracts of tin.

Enter… our guinea pig panel.

Here it is in context – sort of. It’s the outer skin from the left-hand side of the cockpit, the first piece we ever lifted from the lake.

That was a trial in itself. Lifting things out of deep water is easy – sort of. You go to the bottom and tie a lift bag to the thing you want. Think of the bag like a small, hot-air balloon. As I say, you simply tie it on then blow it up with air or whatever gas you can spare until its buoyancy overcomes the weight and, whoosh, off it goes surfacewards in a storm of bubbles. This process can be a little violent so with experience you learn to fill the bag gently and get a feel for when it’s about to leave. That way you can hold it at arms length and start its journey with a gentle, upward push. The moment it rises the gas inside expands, increasing its buoyancy and therefore its ability to lift but holding on too long is a dangerous practice because the human body is also full of gas in places, which can also expand, and will most certainly do so if the bag takes you with it.

Apart from your drysuit, counterlungs (if you’re on a ’breather) and whatever buoyancy compensating device you’re diving with there’s the small matter of gas-filled body cavities to consider. The, ‘full-to-bursting’ reflex is woefully weak in human lungs so you have to be damn sure you remember to breathe out should you find yourself ascending uncommandedly or there’s a danger your lungs will pop admitting compressed gas into the space between the outside of the lungs and the inside of the chest cavity (pulmonary barotrauma) resulting in anything from a collapsed lung to the contents of your chest extruding through your mouth like so much bloodied sponge cake and gristle. For this reason I should have realised how ill-advised slowly sinking into the muddy lakebed whilst blowing a bag knowing nothing about how big the partially buried piece of scrap in front of me really was. The bag took more and more gas, its lanyard creaking with tension until, without warning, a great chunk of mud and clay erupted beneath my knees as Bluebird’s left-hand cockpit wall, complete with its frame section and several outriggers, tore free and shot past my faceplate with the urgency of an express train. How it failed to snag anything on the way I will never know and, suffice to say, my underpants were discreetly retired after that dive and our salvage procedure modified thereafter to preclude this ever happening again.

The offending piece didn’t look half as dangerous washed and dried with a chunk of the main spar fairing still clinging on and in the middle an oval blister hastily applied Elastoplast-like to make the steering work after the hull was thought complete. Look also bottom right and you’ll notice a hole right through the panel. This is where the hardened steel steering rod snapped and punched through as the cockpit was wiped off from left to right.

Museological wisdom was sought and said we ought to conserve this panel as a good example of what not to do with your hydroplane but it was the only representative piece we could play with in place of a skin from the upperworks, albeit somewhat thicker, so we compromised.

Stripped of the blister, spar fairing and everything else removable it didn’t look pretty when dangled where once it was riveted but like meeting an ugly girl with a great personality we could see beyond the unsightly bulges, badly applied makeup and poor complexion. (I’ll be in trouble for that simile). Then a discovery… See where the blister used to be? That roughly cut hole in the cockpit wall… It seems the hull was completed then the systems guys were invited to come and get their steering working. Certainly, none of the steering appears on the drawings. So they did, but in the process they fell foul of the cockpit skin when trying to get the control run offset outside of the frame. Not to be beaten they cut the hole they needed then slapped a blister over the top to keep the water out thus perfectly preserving a small area of original 1954 blue paint one coat thick and applied at the factory before Bluebird even got her bottom wet.

Look from the one o’clock position around to 3 o’clock and you’ll see proper 1954 blue. We chopped it out and kept it. Yes, yes, yes… we know, it’s museological heresy but live with it because we chopped out another interesting piece too.

It’s the bottom, right-hand corner of the skin where the fractured steering rod punched a hole in it. The boat landed almost flat on her left-hand side; if you don’t believe me slow the crash footage from ‘Across the Lake’ taken from behind and you’ll get the idea. This caused the whole cockpit to deflect to the right and the steering rod, an inch thick, made of tough stuff and firmly fixed in a spherical bearing in a steel bulkhead at F-15, wasn’t going to give so having taken all it would tolerate it failed just ahead of F-15 and snapped back blasting a hole in the skin as effectively as any bullet. Quite extraordinary, so we preserved the evidence.

Now that we had a crumpled slab of mildly corroded tin with a few clinging, blue flakes and all the juicy bits cut off and bagged for the museum it was time to bash some sense into it…