Last Thursday, the 13th, 46-year-old Lee Taylor, a cheerful, dedicated man devoid of superstition, climbed into his 40-foot rocket-powered boat, U.S. Discovery II, intent on reclaiming the world water-speed record he had once held for 10 years. The site he selected, alpine Lake Tahoe, 6,200 feet up in the Sierras, was ideal for such an extravagant gamble. The thin air at that altitude would not only afford less resistance to Discovery II as it sped along on a limited fuel supply, but would also reduce the risk of the craft's taking off into the air—a common failing of vehicles that attempt water- or land-speed records.
The weather was perfect, the water conditions nearly so. The sky was almost cloudless, the wind so soft it could barely be felt on the cheek. On the lake surface there were slick, silvery patches of untroubled water, but most of the course over which Taylor would travel was darkened by two-inch ripples that would help his sponsoned craft break out of the water and onto a plane. There were random swells a few inches high, but none seemingly as bad as those he had encountered on test runs at record speed a few days earlier.
At 10:58 a.m., with his craft aligned for the first of her two required runs through a one-kilometer timing trap, Taylor reported by radio: "Hydraulics on. Safety valve open. Inner safety valve open. Regulator, 100 p.s.i." He then gave the rocket engine two quick bursts, and 20 seconds later, two more. At 11:01 he reported, "Regulator, 525 p.s.i." At 11:02 he was off. At first Discovery II seemed to be struggling to escape the fury of spray and fuming steam she created. As the boat leaped higher out of the water, moving ever faster, the spray and steam thinned out behind her. On the previous day, in a preliminary run over rougher water, Discovery II had bounced so violently that the paneling on her 40-foot fuselage had buckled. On that run the spray had so blinded Taylor that he had shut down prematurely, thinking he had exited from the far end of the trap.
This time the trim of the boat, laterally as well as fore and aft, was obviously better. As the craft streaked through the trap, Jack Arden, communications director in Taylor's recovery boat, shouted to the radio network strung along the 6¼-mile course, "It's looking good. It's looking good." A brief moment later—two seconds, perhaps three—Discovery II was swallowed in billowing spray. In the next sliver of time, fragments of the boat flew 50 feet high. "Oh God, Lee!" someone cried. "Lee, can you read me? Lee, can you read me?" Arden shouted.
November 24, 1980
In five seconds a helicopter was over the destruction site. Nearly 200 feet of the course was strewn with chunks of flotation foam. There were five identifiable objects afloat. The largest was the forward 22 feet of the fuselage; the smallest, Taylor's red helmet.
A liquid-fueled rocket of the sort used by Taylor is a simple machine of multiple virtues. It doesn't require the many precision parts of a turbojet; it doesn't have the complexities caused by the many moving parts of a gas engine. It produces power by the simple catalytic reaction of hydrogen peroxide. Its only offensive emission is noise. Beyond all that, a rocket's output is very consistent and predictable. Through the kilometer on his final, fatal run, Taylor was clocked at 269.83 mph. well off the 318.60 mph he needed for a record. It is likely, however, that when he crashed he was moving at close to record pace. Some who saw the horror say he seemed to be slacking off in the last seconds, but because the boat was moving rapidly away in the distance, such judgments are suspect. At the speed dialed in for that trip, Discovery II's fuel load of 104 gallons allowed a running time of about 42 seconds. The actual time to the crash was 32 seconds. The fuel tank recovered in the fore section of the fuselage was still about a quarter full. Discovery II's time through the kilometer trap was 8.29 seconds. When these scraps of data are plotted against known performance of the craft, they support the thesis that Taylor had started his run too close to the trap and was still climbing up the steep slope of the acceleration curve when he was killed.
Taylor likened his boat to the Saturn moon rocket, describing it as a "zero defect design." As the Saturns had progressed, so, too, would he, faster and still faster, in cautiously measured steps. He was enthusiastic, yet always low key. In discussing his ambitions or the fine points of rocket power, it was his habit to tiptoe from word to word softly, slowly, almost musically, as if telling a bedtime story to a child. His optimism was well-contained within the boundaries of cold fact, and understandably so.
Taylor grew up in Southern California, the land of speed. In high school and junior college in Compton, a community that has produced quite a few incredible athletic hulks, in his words, he "majored in football." He went to the University of Washington on an athletic scholarship, but being married and already a father of three when a scandal in the old Pacific Coast Conference broke in 1956, he couldn't afford to carry on without the extra pay under the table. So Taylor returned to California and became a precision grinder, making a living sharpening cutlery, surgical instruments, poodle clippers, whatever. He got into fast boating largely because he lived near the noted marine designer, Rich Hallett. In the '60s Taylor set a water-ski record of 92 mph and competed in aquatic drag racing.
In 1964, in his first quest for the world water-speed record, he was almost killed aboard a jet boat called Hustler, in the process subjecting himself to double jeopardy that should have dissuaded him from ever trying again. During a test run on Lake Havasu, he misjudged his speed with relation to the rapidly approaching shoreline. As they say in the trade, he ran out of water. While still going 175 mph, Taylor jumped out of his boat, skipped more than 50 feet across the water, bounced as limp as a Raggedy Ann doll over a rocky spit of land and then landed again in water.
A Coast Guardsman, Nick Galish, jumped from an escorting helicopter and pulled Taylor out. The chopper pilot found a sloping rock face on which to put down. While Galish was strapping the unconscious Taylor into the helicopter, the craft began to slide off the rock. The pilot applied power, lifted off at a dangerous, canted angle and crashed into, the water. Taylor was pulled out by another Coast Guardsman. In the double disaster Taylor sustained a fractured skull, hip and ankle and lasting damage to his left eye. Hustler had come to rest, relatively intact, 25 feet up a 30-degree slope. Taylor was in a coma for 18 days and spent six and a half months in hospitals. Three years later in the same Hustler, he broke the world record on Lake Guntersville in Alabama with a two-way average speed of 285.21 mph.
At Lake Tahoe, a few days before his final run at the water-speed mark, Taylor observed, "If you examine the performances of just about anybody who has tried it, you'll find it is not a tantalizing pursuit." To judge by history, the quest for the record is a strange gambling game: the odds are dead even, and the payoff sometimes handsome, but the stakes are entirely too high. In the past half century, only 10 men have made officially sanctioned runs for the record, and five of them have died in the attempt. It is a gamble as dispassionate and unpredictable as a cold draw of cards, at times seemingly defying percentages.
The late Sir Henry Segrave, who before venturing on water had broken the land-speed record three times, was a man of calculating mind, devoid of superstition. In 1930, on Friday, the 13th of June, on Lake Windermere in England, he smashed the world water-speed record of 93.12 with an average of 98.76 mph for the two requisite runs, although at the time he was unaware of his feat. Because conditions were good and his Miss England II going so well, he said to his teammates, "Let's give her another try." Traveling at better than 100 mph Miss England II struck a tree limb and flipped. Segrave regained consciousness long enough to be told that on his first assault he had set a record. Then he died.
John Cobb, the London fur broker who also set the land record three times, was, like Segrave, a calculating man. His Crusader was the first jet-powered, sponsoned craft designed specifically and exclusively for record-breaking. On his first run on Loch Ness, in 1952, Cobb did 206.8 mph. On her return run Crusader caromed off a rogue swell, jumped twice again and then plunged in an explosion of steam and flying parts. Cobb died before he could be taken to shore.
In 1955, Mario Verga, an Italian accomplished in class competition, tried for the record on Lake Como in Italy. While traveling close to 200 mph, his prop-driven hydroplane, Laura III, took off into the air, then nosed in, killing Verga.
The luckiest and unluckiest of them all was Scotland's Donald Campbell, a man with a compulsion inherited from his father, Sir Malcolm, who held the land-speed record nine times and the water-speed mark three times between 1924 and 1939. Like his father, Donald was a man beset by portents and premonitions. In seven successful attempts between 1955 and 1964 he raised the water record from 202.32 mph to 276.33 mph. On the eve of his final try, while playing solitaire in his cottage on Lake Coniston, England, he turned the ace and queen of spades. He reminded his companions that it was the same combination of cards that had foretold the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.
"Someone in my family is going to get the chop," he observed. On his first run the following day he bettered his previous mark by more than 20 mph. On the return run, a scant 200 yards from the end of the trap, his craft lost the water and did a backward loop before diving almost vertically in. Campbell's body was never found.
Taylor's second quest for a record began 10 years ago under the guidance of assorted technicians. Then in 1977, while Discovery II was still far from ready, an Australian named Ken Warby exceeded Taylor's mark of 285.21 mph by a few mph. A year later, in the same Spirit of Australia, Warby boosted the record, astonishingly, to 317.60 mph. Warby did have some expert help, but, in the main, his Spirit was a homemade machine. To Taylor, in the midst of a long, painstaking effort, such seemingly haphazard success might have been rankling, but it wasn't. Taylor was confident his more thorough effort would get the record back.
What went wrong at Lake Tahoe? There will probably never be a certain answer. Collision with flotsam or untimely impact with a freak swell are very remote possibilities. Before the run the clear waters of Tahoe were carefully scanned by boat and from the air. From the vantage point of most spectators on the steep shore paralleling the course, the rocket boat seemed in good trim fore and aft. But one picture taken as Discovery II entered the trap shows the boat heeling excessively, its left sponson too high. It could have been such lateral instability—difficult to detect from water level or from the air—that did Taylor in.
The water where the boat disintegrated ranges in depth from 93 feet to more than 300. In three days of searching over a 200-foot stretch, divers and men topside using remote cameras spotted many bits and pieces of Discovery II, none large enough to be meaningful, most of them small enough to fit in a wastebasket. Only two pieces could be identified: the tip of the left sponson and a metal strap that held an accessory air tank.
"I hope they don't find him," a friend said as the search went on. "This is harder on people who worked with Lee than it would be on him. He's up there with the other kings of his game."