Niagara under threat

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If conservationists have their way, all powerboating on Windermere will cease. With it will go that historic legacy of the Lake District’s 20th century heroes, Record Week…

Another part of my education fell into place at Monza, just after second qualifying for the Italian GP. I heard an Alfa 159 for the first time.

The previous morning I’d been to Alfa Romeo’s beautiful museum in nearby Arese, and had drooled over the gorgeous 159s they have there, noting the gap where another should have been. And now here it was, being driven in the Grand Prix demonstration staged by Maria Teresa de Fillipis as a prelude to the Anciens Pilotes gathering in Venice the following Monday and Tuesday.

It isn’t only the latest jungle juice F1 fuels that make you cry; whatever that Alfa was running – a mixture of Castrol R perhaps? – it sent my tear ducts into overtime. After a few chugs and coughs the supercharged straight eight burst into life, and as the sound obliterated everything else, you could feel the blood pulsing in your veins. Jenks wrote once about the difference between noise and sound, and this was indeed sound. Sound of the highest quality. A long time ago I first read about tearing calico being used to describe the aural delight of a Bugatti engine. After a bit it came to seem a hackneyed expression, yet when I heard that Alfa it struck me anew and was given fresh meaning. It seemed so utterly apposite. Colombo’s masterpiece emitted a ripping, rasping, splitting sound to which words themselves can barely do justice. I shall never forget it.

I had gone to Arese to chase the trail of the long departed Mario Verga, the bold Italian racer who had perished in October 1954 when trying to break the water speed record on Lake Iseo. His three-point craft Laura 3a was a creature of great elegance powered by not one, but two of those throaty straight eights. After the first trial he had remarked to his mechanic: “She is like a wild stallion! This boat will take some breaking in!” And small wonder she did, for 760 Alfa Romeo horses in a 22ft boat must have taken a lot of handling, even for a man to whom the 800kg World Championship had already surrendered on two occasions. I thought about Verga when that Alfa started up in Monza, a hero lost in time’s mist.

A week later I was in the English Lake District, which possesses a beauty that has never been captured by any other place on earth. To sit beside Coniston, as I did that Saturday in September when the summer crowds had receded and the endless quibbles of Formula One had temporarily been left far behind, is to enjoy one of life’s truly momentous experiences, to relax and to drink in the splendour of a region whose rich autumnal reds, yellows and greens shroud the stillness of the blue-black water in a quiet explosion of colour. That day the lake was smoother than I have ever seen it, its surface rippled merely into a slight popple by the tiniest breath of wind.

It is a wonderful place. Coniston, as is Windermere, or Ullswater, or Wast Water, or any of the myriad relics of the Ice Age. It is easy to understand — and share — the love those who seek to preserve the area proclaim.

That afternoon I thought a lot more about Verga, and how his flame-red craft had left the water at 190mph and crashed back so fatally, because to some of us the Lake District casts another spell over and above its terrific beauty. It bathes us in memories of a recent heritage that would have made Mario smile, that followed those bequeathed by the talents of Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter. We know and revere such names, but those of our own speedkings Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell, Sir Henry Segrave and Norman Buckley fire a different part of our imagination, draw us on.

For within some of us also stirs the desire to be out on that flat water, exhilarated, sensually assaulted, consumed by the narcotic of speed, charging down what has become a tree-lined silver strip towards a distant horizon with the wind ripping away the roar of an engine behind our heads, and our ears attuned instead to the gentle pitter-patter of a pair of sponsons as our boat merely kisses the surface. Literally, those little planing points can sometimes be a life support system. This, to some of us, is what life really is. This is what makes us think of Blondin and his tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. Of the way he said, “Up there on the wire is living; everything else is just in between.”

We are not monsters, throwing caution to the wind. Nor hotheads and tearaways brutally despoiling the tranquillity of such a haven. For just as there is beauty in the countryside of Lakeland, so it is there in the achievements of these pioneers of speed. We appreciate it in their courageous determination to push man’s know ledge beyond accepted limits. It is such refusal to accept the status quo that led man to conquer Everest, to split the atom, to stop polio being the fearsome affliction it once was. By nature man pushes forward, for how else does he learn? He pushes forward even when, sometimes, all he learns about is himself. When that spirit dies, mankind dies.

At present, anybody can put a boat on the water, so long as they have registered it with the Lake District Special Planning Board, and display their registration number. More than 12,000 applications are made annually. Now, however, the Board is determined to introduce a 10mph speed limit, even though it means changing local bye-laws and stopping Windermere being the only lake within a National Park upon which powerboating and water skiing is permitted.

The key issue is one of ‘quiet enjoyment’, according to John Nash, the team leader for strategic planning and the man who will attempt to impose the ban. At best he and his like only tolerate boaters, even though Bowness in particular thrives on the industry and has for a century. To him it matters little that water skiing, or ‘planking’ as it was then known, originated on Windermere back in the Twenties. That the area is awash with the historical efforts of Britain’s record breakers.

Windermere stages its Record Week but once a year, every October, which is when we want to run. Sometimes the hydroplane and sportsboat fraternity don’t even get on to the water when the weather conspires to prevent all but the offshore craft running. There are no guarantees. Record Week has become an established pageant since 1972, yet now its very existence is threatened by the blanket speed limit. There are no current plans to make the event an exception, even though it is finely organised and controlled with full safety conditions.

The problem is that the anti-boaters do not seek merely to impose acceptable limits. There appears to be no spirit of live and let live. There are no suggestions of strong policing, which most would deem acceptable. There is no plan to establish a specific recreational area for boaters and skiers. At 10 miles, Windermere is surely long enough to accommodate such a scheme, and the northern end would seem the logical site since that is where the Low Wood Hotel lies and where the course for Record Week has so long been established.

None of us is in favour of the irresponsible behaviour of the minority cited so often by the anti-lobby. However, we believe that social outrages can be avoided by a suitable police presence and by being seen to treat the boaters and skiers as responsible individuals. A total ban, especially when it would take away the only lake on which such recreation may be pursued, is not the answer. The so-called conservationists wish to see powerboating stopped altogether, even at the expense of an entire local boating industry, and even to see Record Week dead and buried. Thus they would attempt to stamp out even the spirit of the Campbells and Segrave. This, to us, is not acceptable.

Let one thing be clear. All of the powerboaters who patronise Record Week hold licences issued by the Royal Yachting Association, and none condone the sort of half-cut louts who beat up the lakes in their ski boats. But what we want to see is an even-handed approach.

In Utah the Bonneville Speed Weeks are run with grace and understanding by the Bureau of Land Management. There is no reason why the same thing should not work in Britain. The Salt Flats, and deserts such as Black Rock in Nevada, all come under BLM jurisdiction. They are perfect for the purposes of chasing ultimate speed, among the few such suitable sites in the world. Yet they are also havens for all manner of wildife, and both the speedmen and the BLM recognise this. Where they co-exist so successfully is in their acknowledgement of their mutual requirements and desires, and in respecting them. They talk, and they compromise. The situation at Windermere at present appears markedly more serious, much less enlightened. Such is the impasse that the Lake District Special Planning Board is to turn to the Home Office for a ruling on the validity of its proposals. A public inquiry will be held.

Mercifully, the cause has a champion in the form of Kendal solicitor Michael Winkley, who has formed the Keep Windermere Alive Association. “The recent Working Party proposals for an alternative management plan were swept aside by the Board in favour of a new bye-law for an overall speed limit of 10mph, which will result in no waterskiing, no powerboating or racing, no international or national speed record attempts,” he summarises. “Local employment and livelihoods will also be greatly affected.” He then asks the key question. “Is this fair?”

Economic surveys on the effects of the proposed ban on the local economy are belatedly now being conducted, but the timescale is loose. The matter is now grinding slowly through the innards of the governmental machine, waiting for the Secretary of State to vote for or against or to put it up for public inquiry. And all because one individual took a dislike to powerboating on Windermere, found his views accepted by the sub-committee on which he sat, and then by the local council .

Robin Brown of the Windermere Motor Boat Racing Club, a local magistrate, acts regularly as Officer of the Day during Record Week and is Chairman of the K7 Club named after Donald Campbell’s ultimate racing number. Not surprisingly, he holds strong views.

“What they should be considering is restricting the size of boats on Windermere. It’s the washes from the really large craft that do damage, and nobody wants to see that. Thirty-five foot boats should be at sea, not on the lake. There’s no rhyme or reason for that.

“There is no evidence to support those who want to impose the ban. No support at all for what they are saying. It’s all anecdotal. It’s an absolute vendetta by a few people in a position of power. They are ignorant of a lot of the facts. They’ve tried everything else to stop things, and now they’ve fallen back on this ‘quiet enjoyment’ aspect. Well, one time we had complaints about noise in Record Week, and we hadn’t had a single boat out because of the conditions! Somebody was cutting wood with a chainsaw somewhere. That’s the sort of fact things have been based on.

“The matter has got to go to public inquiry. Hopefully whoever is appointed to conduct it will listen to evidence before he forms an opinion.”

He also stresses that the Keep Windermere Alive Association seeks not only to protect powerboating, skiing and record breaking, but also to preserve other forms of lake usage such as pleasure steamers, rowing, sailing, fishing, wild life, canoeing, windsurfing and scuba diving. “Together with the associated lake shore facilities and communities, we can all exist side by side with more positive lake management,” he says. “We should not forget that the lake and town are dependent upon each other. It is a matter of conservation in conjunction with recreation. A balanced approach is needed.”

In 1939 when Sir Malcolm Campbell first came to Coniston Water to attempt the water speed record with Bluebird K4, he met with strong opposition from the forerunners of today’s conservationists who styled themselves the Friends of Ruskin. The locals, who appreciated the boost such an endeavour would give the region yet who even to this day have steadfastly refused to exploit it commercially, set themselves up as the Friends of Campbell. They won the day and Campbell followed in Segrave’s wake. Later still his son Donald would carry a similar torch, and succumb to his calling. Now the situation calls for the Friends of Record Week to come forward and make their voices heard. We do not seek anything more than natural justice, to protect a local industry and pastime. And the right, once a year, for one week, to seek our own ultimates. To pit our own budgets, equipment and courage against the elements and fate, to have our brief moments in the sun. To cross our own Niagara. None of us thinks that is unreasonable.

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