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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Most Dangerous Sport in the World

Football? For wimps.

Rugby? Sissy city.

Ice Hockey? Well, maybe...I don't want to offend any Canadians.

Seriously, the most dangerous sport - ever - is the pursuit of the world speed record on water. It's been said to be 85% fatal.

Probably the best-documented death was that of Donald Campbell, son of the land-and-water record holder Sir Malcolm Campbell (whose high-speed car Bluebird brought fame, and eventually a really big race track, to Daytona, Florida). Malcolm tried to steer his son away from record-seeking, saying that Donald would be killed in the process.

Donald agreed - for awhile. But when his father died, the American millionaire Henry Kaiser decided to finance a run on the record, and take it from Britain.

Donald wasn't going to have it, and he enlisted the aid of his father's faithful mechanic, Leo Villa, to ensure that this wouldn't happen.

Villa advised Donald to think about what he was doing, and then not do it. It'll consume you, Villa said.

Before his death, Donald admitted it had. Life became speed, and today's record was never enough.

In 1967, the quest claim to its inevitable end, on Conniston Water, in the sleek jet-powered Bluebird K7. Click here.

Why is all this so terrible dangerous? Basically, it's because water is unpredictable. Small wavelets, or floating debris, can impart huge forces on a vehicle traveling on the surface at 300 mph. If a wave bounces the nose a bit higher than expected, air gets under the hull, and the boat will pitch up, completely out of control, often doing a complete loop. Very rarely, the loop will be perfect, and boat will be floating, carrying a stunned and prayerful driver. But usually the thing just comes apart, gears and body parts going everywhere.

The same problem afflicts racing hydroplanes today, but their cockpits are designed like that of an F-16. The driver is strapped in tightly, and his 'capsule' is sealed, along with carrying an oxygen supply. But a racing hydroplane doesn't approach record speeds. In comparison, they're like the Mike Fink Keelboat Ride at Disneyland.

But in any event Bluebird K7 had no such safety features, and Campbell was doomed when the nose lifted. The wreck was raised in 2001, and is being rebuilt to run again - but never at record speeds.

The question remains, what kind of person would do this? What kind of personality's needed? Is it psychosis, or a sort of Pollyannish faith that one simply can't be killed? Is it a faith that's so sublime that death is irrelevant, or is it a nihilism so vast that life is irrelevant?

I don't know, but when I broached this subject to my wife, she said that's something she could see be doing, if I had the opportunity. Of that, she had no doubt.

And she was not smiling when she said it.

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