The World Water Speed Record — Nigel Macknight — 23 May 2016

For many mem­bers whose form­at­ive years were in the 1940s and 1950s when Britain was still at the fore­front of tech­no­lo­gical devel­op­ments, today’s present­a­tion offered a fas­cin­at­ing cock­tail of pat­ri­otic nos­tal­gia mixed with anti­cip­a­tion of the future.  Our speaker ‘cast off’ by out­lining the 100-year old his­tory of speed on water and set­ting the scene for a pro­ject he is lead­ing which aims to bring the record back to Britain.

Nigel Macknight began by show­ing a short film about the record-breaking exploits of Donald Campbell and his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, with their legendary Bluebird cars and boats.  Nigel explained that, when Donald Campbell was killed in January 1967, he was a school­boy living at Preston in Lancashire, and was so influ­enced by the tragic event that in his late teens he attemp­ted to restart the Bluebird pro­ject with the assist­ance of Campbell’s former chief mech­anic, Leo Villa and Ken Norris, the co-designer of Donald’s Bluebirds.  After 18 months of trying, how­ever, Nigel gave up on the dream, real­ising he was “a boy trying to do a man’s job” –well out of his depth in set­ting him­self such a massive chal­lenge.

Although this was a bitter dis­ap­point­ment, Nigel went on to forge a suc­cess­ful career as a freel­ance author, work­ing in the fields of avi­ation, space explor­a­tion, Formula 1, show busi­ness and sport.  He had over a dozen books pub­lished and had inter­viewed many well-known per­son­al­it­ies, ran­ging from Seb Coe to Tommy Cooper to Buzz Aldrin.  In the early 1980s, the iconic Eagle comic was relaunched and Nigel was one of its reg­u­lar con­trib­ut­ors. In April 1981, Nigel trav­elled to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to wit­ness the first launch of the Space Shuttle, This led to him writ­ing and pub­lish­ing a best- selling book about the Shuttle.  The for­ward for this book was writ­ten by the Leader of the Red Arrows, and Nigel was lucky enough to fly as a pas­sen­ger on two occa­sions from their base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. This famous flight was the sub­ject of another book, selling 50,000 copies.

With suc­cess as a writer and pub­lisher look­ing like his life’s future course, our speaker took a gamble and set about once more to enter the world of speed records.  His pro­ject is called “Quicksilver”.  A futur­istic jet powered boat –using an ex RAF Buccaneer engine provid­ing up to 10,000HP- is now taking shape and she should be cap­able of speeds in excess of 300 mph.  She weighs in at 3.5 tons with a length of 40ft and width of 20ft.  To aid bal­ance and reduce the inclin­a­tion to ‘take off’ there would be two cock­pits allow­ing the engine and its weight to be placed nearer the front. The inten­tion is to wrest the World Water Speed (cur­rently 317.6 mph) record from the hands of its cur­rent holder, Australia.  Nigel showed us a short film sum­mar­ising the his­tory of the record.  Holders and con­tenders have included sev­eral names not tra­di­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with speed records.  For example, a boat designed by the American inventor Alexander Graham Bell set a speed of 70 mph as early as 1919, and “Lawrence of Arabia” was closely involved with a boat called Empire Day which ran on Lake Windermere but suffered engine over­heat­ing prob­lems.

Nigel con­cluded by show­ing us a film about the recov­ery from Coniston Water of Donald Campbell’s famous “Bluebird” in 2001. The boat is now being rebuilt prior to being placed on dis­play at the Ruskin museum in Coniston.  He shared with us some the tech­nical dif­fi­culties of break­ing the World Water Speed record such as the craft’s sta­bil­ity, drag, lift, tensile strength and fuel supply.  Maximum use was being made of the latest elec­tron­ics and carbon fibre mater­i­als as well as more tra­di­tional steel, alu­minium and even balsa wood. The pro­ject had been greatly aided both fin­an­cially and prac­tic­ally by a number of High-Tec firms and the use of University research facil­it­ies in return for stu­dent devel­op­ment oppor­tun­it­ies. There is a club for indi­vidual sup­port­ers. More inform­a­tion can be found at

Quicksilver”, Nigel pre­dicted, would look at a dis­tance like a drop of mer­cury racing over the water- hence her name.  Her com­ple­tion is planned in two years.  May she safely bring back the record to Britain!