It may well be foolhardy but someone’s got to do it writes Steve Canavan

Daring, audacious feats have always captured the imagination of the public.

Thursday, 6th January 2022, 12:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th January 2022, 5:12 pm

Take Nikolas Wallenda’s tightrope-walk across Niagara Falls. He did this on live TV in 2012 after a two-year legal battle with the Canadian authorities to get permission. The NPC – Niagara Parks Commission - were vehemently opposed to the stunt and stated, ‘it’s sensationalism and isn’t what the Falls is about’. Soon after, an economic impact survey estimated the tightrope walk would bring $20m into the city, with up to £122m of ‘legacy effects’ over the following five years, and, weirdly, the NPC changed their mind and voted unanimously to give the plan to go ahead.

Or how about Jack LaLanne, known as the godfather of fitness, who in 1929, at the age of 15, gave up meat and sugar and switched to a diet of raw vegetables, raisins and nuts. Granted meal-times can’t have been much fun (‘what’s for tea mum?’ “what you have every bloody night son – a carrot and a bag of pecans”), but it seemed to do him good. He lived till the age of 96 and among his many achievements he swam the entire length of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco underwater with 140 pounds of air tanks strapped to his back, completed 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes, and – his most famous exploit – towed 70 rowing boats full of passengers a distance of one mile, while shackled, handcuffed and fighting a strong current. He was aged 70 when he did the latter. When I’m 70 I’ll be happy if I can stand unaided, let alone swim while wearing handcuffs.

Then there’s Wim Hof, a Dutch guy known as the Iceman, who says practicing yoga has helped him learned to withstand extreme cold – which he proved in 2008 by immersing himself in a block of ice for one hour and 13 minutes. He has also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in nothing but a small pair of shorts.

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Donald Campbell

Now clearly these people all have one thing in common – they’re bonkers – but you’d be hard-pressed to not be at least a tiny bit impressed at folk who attempt this sort of stuff. I mean I it daring to have a cup of coffee past 8pm, so I kind of love the fact that there are people in the world prepared to go that extra mile just to get their name up in lights.

The reason I’m banging on about daredevils is because this week marks 55 years since Donald Campbell died while attempting to break the world water speed record.

You’ve probably seen the clip of the accident, that grainy black and white footage of the slightly horrifying moment his boat – the Bluebird – flipped over on Coniston and was ripped apart, along with Campbell’s body.

It was perhaps unsurprising that Campbell did what he did for his father – Malcolm – was a racing driver who held 13 world records in the 1920s and 30s, including being the first person to drive a car at more than 300mph.

Donald seemed hell-bent on trying to emulate and surpass his dad’s achievements and spent every waking moment trying to break various records.

It’s a dangerous job, though, going fast, and he had a warning in 1960 when, while travelling at 360mph in a specially designed super car, he lost control and spectacularly crashed. He somehow walked – or more likely limped away - with a fractured skull and burst ear-drum. But instead of thinking ‘well shucks, that was a close shave’ and, as I would have, retired and purchased a small bungalow on the Isle of Wight, Campbell announced he was determined – and I think this neatly encompasses what separates these people from the rest of us – ‘to have another go’.

He went on to break the world land and water speed records in the same year – 1964 – before on Coniston on January 4, 1967, and after months of tinkering about with a boat fitted with a jet aircraft engine, Campbell began an attempt to reach a speed of 300mph.

On his first go, he covered the length of the lake at an average speed of 297.5mph, but instead of refuelling and waiting for the wash of his first run to subside, Campbell decided to make the return run immediately. He reached a peak speed of 328 mph before his vessel started bouncing, the engine failed, and without any power to thrust the nose of the boat back down, it effectively took off and did almost a complete somersault before plunging back into the water. The massive impact broke the compartment where Campbell was sitting. Poignantly, his teddy bear mascot and helmet were found among the floating debris but it wasn’t until 2001 – more than three decades later - that Campbell’s body was recovered, minus the head (it is thought the force of the impact caused him to be decapitated).

Now, it’s easy to say Campbell and others who’ve gone before or after are foolhardy and asking for trouble.

Which maybe is so but at least we’re still talking about him half a century on – unlike, say, my gran, who died a couple of years back from a stroke at her sheltered accommodation in North Manchester while watching Coronation Street and eating digestives. She’s not got so much as even her own Wikipedia page.

So it’s swings and roundabouts really. Either you’re a daredevil or you’re not. But thank goodness we’re all different - it doesn’t half make the planet a more interesting place.

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