John Cobb and the Crusader
In 1948, after successfully crowning his Brooklands-Utah chain of four-wheeled victories with a new land speed record of 394mph (during which he became the first man to hit 400 plus), the quiet, kind-hearted Cobb realized that he was perhaps the only man experienced enough to take up Campbell's torch in the waterspeed race and patriotically decided privately to sponsor Railton and du Cane in their revolutionary concept.
It was fortunate that the income which Cobb earned from some very astute fur-broking in the City was a substantial one, because the programme which was initiated at Vospers of Portsmouth in the spring of 1949 was to cost him £15,000 before the craft would even be put in the water.
Railton's concept was of 'a very small seaplane hull with a couple of small floats or skis mounted on outriggers, where the tail normally is: i.e. a tricycle with one wheel in front'.
After several months of tank-testing down at the Haslar experimental tank, during which the news came that Stanley Sayres had taken the record back to the States, they decided to build a 5 ft gyro-controlled scale model, powering it with a cordite rocket, and send it up and down a disused torpedo range near Horsea Island at speeds approaching l00 mph.
With this promising performance, Major Halford was able to persuade the Ministry of Supply to 'loan' the venture one of the de Haviland Ghost engines which he had developed from the Goblin II. By January 1952 construction had begun on the marine projectile which Cobb aptly named the Crusader (registered K6) because '. . . in the old days a Crusader was a man who liked to get away from his office and go out and have some fun'.
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John Cobb and Reid Railton scouted around for a test lake long enough to let the Crusader safely hit 200 mph with room to move. They ultimately decided on an eerie inland sea, 23 miles long and over 1000 ft deep, whose main claim to fame was the enigma of a legendary sea monster - Loch Ness.
After seven months of skilled construction the 31ft three-pointer was ready for flotation tests. Built of birch plywood, reinforced by DTD 610B, a high tensile alloy produced by the British Aluminium Company, she had already personally cost John Cobb over £15,000 before even touching the water.
In July 1952 Commander du Cane gave the K6 her first 55 mph run in a choppy Portsmouth Harbour and had little trouble in getting her 'over the hump' and onto her sponsons. A few weeks later her sponsons were removed for the journey up to Temple Pier, the steamboat terminal at the side of Loch Ness which the Castrol team under the direction of Captain George Eyston, their competitions manager, had converted and fully equipped as a launch-pad for the attempt.
In 1939, George Eyston had fought a day-to-day land speed record battle with Cobb on the Utah Salt Flats, so it was perhaps appropriate that he should join forces with his old rival to tackle the more complex problems of the water.
The composite team of experts had arrived to find a very well-equipped base, complete with mobile crane and tractor. After the customary flotation tests and land test of the Ghost engine, Cobb started to work his Crusader up through speeds of 50, 100, then 150 mph. He had never driven a speedboat before in his life and described the sensation as 'like driving a London omnibus without tyres on'.
But with September, the Highland weather started to play havoc with their plans: cross-winds lashed the surface of the loch into two foot waves and rainstorms swelled the rivers, bringing down the usual debris and driftwood into the centre of Crusader's runway. Added to this there were of course the teething troubles: to make her ride at a better planing angle they had to make some structural alterations to her sponson ribs; they then altered her bronze rudder to make her go straighter, and sealed up a small unforeseen leak around her tailpipe.
But the major structural problem was one which no amount of calculation, tank-testing or model-testing could have suggested: the front planing shoe showed signs of weakness at speeds approaching 200 mph. Commander du Cane had asked Cobb to let him take the boat back to Portsmouth and strengthen the planing shoe at Vosper's own expense. But such were Cobb's commitments that he had to decline the offer, telling du Cane that he would only reach 190 mph - just enough for the record. So long as she had a flat calm loch to plane across Crusader would be in no danger.
On the misty autumnal dawn of September 29th, the team was woken at about 4 o'clock with a report that conditions looked favourable. Before long the Crusader had been fuelled with kerosene and prepared for launching. As the sun rose, the mist lifted and there was a barely perceptible ripple on the water. While the two support boats went out to their positions down the loch, Crusader was towed out to the eastern shore. Then around 8.30am, it was reported that a southeaster was whipping up a two-inch 'corrugated-iron' ripple. Until this subsided Crusader could not be run. After an hour of waiting for it to die down, Cobb decided to postpone his attempt until after breakfast, but he gave strict orders to the Maureen, the 40ft support boat carrying the timekeepers, to stay beside the measured mile. This was because a boat of her size could create a wash, which in calm conditions, might continue to rebound in and out, concertina-fashion, with a dangerously solid force that was only fractionally diminished by the steep sides of the loch - a force that could be a direct threat to Crusader's stability.
Almost two hours had passed when the wind suddenly dropped and the loch became as calm as a millpond. They would have to act fast, or conditions might deteriorate again. So rather than wait for the long journey to the east shore, Cobb had the Crusader towed out to only 300 yards from the jetty. On the way out, they met the Maureen, which for some unknown reason had disobeyed orders and was returning to base. Very angry Cobb told them to get back to their post at once, which they did.
They then had to risk waiting a further ten minutes for the various wakes and washes to die down. Then a green Verey light went up, the Ghost engine whined into action and the attempt began.
She accelerated beautifully, rock steady, but to a speed well over 200 mph. She would probably have completed a very fast north-south run if she hadn't met a series of three 'swells' rolling out broadside from the shore of the loch. Their impact must have smashed in her planing prow, because from then on she went into an increasingly violent porpoise. Every time she bucked, water rushed into her jet intakes, flooding and eventually bursting the hull right open and into pieces. When her mushroom cloud had subsided, hundreds of little pieces of silver and goldfish red were left bobbing up and down across the loch; the largest piece they found was only 3 ft long. The engine, of course, plunged to the depths below.
Even though he had received some terrible injuries, they were not enough to kill a man as powerfully built as John Cobb. He had, in fact, died from shock.
In a letter, Reid Railton commented: 'We'll never know exactly what happened, since the evidence lies in 1000ft of water, where it is likely to remain'. He had left for his California home only two days before, intending to return for the attempt later in the week. Railton was so shocked by the loss of his friend that - like Clinton Crane in 1911 - he completely pulled out of a design field in which, aged 57, he stood unmatched in experience.
(Reprinted from The World Water Speed Record by Leo Villa and Kevin Desmond, 1976)
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