Coniston revisted

Jon Excell reports on Quicksilver – a British attempt to return the outright world water speed record to the UK.

The struggle to be the fastest man on water has a history that is both colourful and macabre.

The earliest reference I could find to the record was in 1874, when Felix Thackeray Haig drove his boat The ‘Sir Arthur Cotton’ at a blistering 24.61mph. Other challengers have included the inventor Alexander Graham Bell and Lawrence of Arabia.

Donald Campbell, the last Briton to hold the record (276mph) died attempting to take his boat Bluebird through the 300mph mark, and two more men died attempting to push it further. The record is held by an Australian, Ken Warby, who, in 1978, took his boat, ‘spirit of Australia’ up to 317.6 mph.

Warby’s record has stood for almost 24 years, surprising when you consider the pace of change in other motor sports over that period. But now, after a lull of nearly three decades, the challenge has been reinvigorated by news that three teams are going for it.

One team is led by the current holder, Ken Warby. A US project is led by Russ Wicks, the holder of the propellor driven water speed record. Then there’s the British effort – Quicksilver – which will be attempting the record on the Lake District’s Coniston Water – the very place where Campbell lost his life and previously gained three world records.


Over a decade in the making, Quicksilver is a project with pedigree. Its driver and leader Nigel Macknight has been working on the boat for the last decade and its chief designer Ken Norris was responsible for the Bluebird boat and car with which Donald Campbell set both the world land and water speed records in the 1950s and 1960s. The shape and geometry of Quicksilver has been finalised, half of the £3 million sponsorship required has been secured, the boat is under construction, and the race is on to get it ready for a record attempt sometime between January and March 2003. Macknight estimates that the project is about a quarter of the way the way through, but anticipates what he calls an ‘acceleration of progress’ as the various sponsors come on board and the team gathers momentum.

Obviously, Winter is not really the ideal time for a record attempt that demands extremely calm water conditions, but the tight window has been dictated by both the tourist industry and more esoteric factors like the breeding seasons of particular fish. ‘We can’t just take over a major tourist venue with a 300mph jet-boat anytime of the year.’ observes Macknight. While waiting around in the cold might not be much fun, Macknight claims that the cold winter weather will have the one advantage of improving the engine power of the boat. This is because cold air is more dense than warm air and would therefore enable the engine to burn more fuel.

So why Coniston? In some ways it’s far from ideal. Apart from the weather, the lake is only five miles long, which doesn’t give Quicksilver a lot of distance to get up to a record breaking speed.

But, if there’s a sense of unfinished business on Coniston Water, Macknight is keen to play down any sentimental motivation. ‘You couldn’t jinx a whole project and have it go to an unsuitable location just because you felt a bit dewy-eyed about going somewhere that has some history,’ he says. On the whole, claims Macknight, there is much about Coniston water that is suitable. It’s straight, easy to get on to, there are no islands in the way and it is, he reckons, just about long enough. Coniston is also unique in the British isles in having a bylaw that allows record attempts to take place.

How safe is it?

It would be wrong to say that Macknight is unfazed about the danger he faces but, while the statistics indicate that as speed goes up so does the likelihood of death, Quicksilver’s pilot is quietly confident that correct use of technology and modern design techniques have made this a safer activity than in the past. He holds up the Thrust SSC project as an example of how things should be done, ‘to go at nearly 800mph on land, to add 130mph to the existing record, to go through the sound barrier, and to do it all with absolute safety. That shows what can be achieved when you use proper predictive methods with wind tunnel testing, computer simulation, and data acquisition.’

A crucial safety feature of Quicksilver too, will be the data acquisition carried out during every run. This will be used to measure up to 87 different parameters of performance, safety and stability.

The most fundamental parameter measured is something called weight on water (WOW). If that weight gets below a certain value, the boat would take off, which is how Campbell’s accident occurred.

Load cells located on each of Quicksilver’s four planing shoes – the points of contact with the water when the boat is planing – will be used to measure how much of the weight of the boat is on the water.

The data acquired by these load cells is then fed to a central processor which drives a hydraulic system that slightly alters the angles of the planing surfaces to maintain the optimum weight on water. This, hopes Macknight, will help make Quicksilver far safer than Bluebird.

Greater speed will be achieved, he says, through a combination of sophisticated electronics, improved thrust and aerodynamics, and choice of materials.The boat will be powered by a Rolls Royce Spey 101 turbofan engine which will provide it with 11,030 lbs of thrust.

The Spey is quite a heavy engine, and this means that the boat has to be bigger and heavier in order to carry it. Quicksilver is thus 50% bigger and heavier than Bluebird but has well over twice the thrust.

This is where Coniston Water’s length becomes an issue. To make use of the extra thrust, Quicksilver must get from the displacement condition to the planing condition as quickly as possible.

‘If you spend too much of the lake ploughing along trying to get onto the planes you’re going to waste half the lake before you get up to speed,’ explains Macknight.The trouble is that a design optimised for very high speeds isn’t going to perform in the best possible way at low speeds.

Thus, the shape of the boat is a compromise shape that Macknight believes will be good throughout the speed range – from 0 to 350mph. He is confident that this will enable him to make best use of the extra power in the Spey engine. ‘If you look at how technology has evolved in 35 years then surely its possible to do it,’ he enthuses, ‘we have three miles of accelerating and 2 miles of decelerating and we’ve just got to make a boat that can get up to the right speed within 3 miles.’

The boat’s skeleton – or space-frame – is made from steel tubes specially made by British Steel. Bonded and bolted to the skeleton will be stress-bearing skin – a composite sandwich of carbon fibrer and alumiuim honeycomb manufactured by Hexcel Composites. This, says Macknight, provides a relatively light, extremely strong structure.

So what will happen if the record attempt is a success? Will the Quicksilver team gear up for another attempt?

‘Donald Campbell pushed it higher and higher until in 1967 he was killed trying to push it up for the eighth time – maybe there’s a lesson there that you’ve got to know when to quit,’ says Macknight.

Asked if he thinks he’ll know when to quit he says, ’ I think I do, but I also think there’s more than one record in this boat. If we went abroad to a bigger lake we could probably take it a little bit nearer to its design potential.’

With so much of his own life and ambition invested in Quicksilver, it’s hard to imagine Macknight staying out of the water for long.

Perhaps the final question is why. Why devote so much time and energy to an endeavour which is potentially dangerous and which in the pilot’s own words ‘has very little applicability to the real world?’

Well, Quicksilver will hopefully be a profile raiser for British engineering, and maybe fire the imagination of some of tomorrow’s young engineers, but the true answer is far simpler: records are there to be broken.