ICE MARINE

BREAKING THE BLIND WORLD WATER SPEED RECORD

January 5, 2004

You think doing 100mph in a powerboat is scary enough? Now imagine what it’s like when you’re blind, and you’re at the helm! Mark Threadgold is that man.

There’s barely a ripple on the surface of Windermere in the early morning still. But there’s a wave of concern spreading slowly around its banks.

Clusters of people stop talking and turn to watch. Mechanics in their overalls cease turning engines and down their tools. Team bosses halt their day’s activities and fall silent. Even the loudspeaker, normally a steady patter of the latest news during Records Week, is mute.

All watch in trepidation as a team of medics gather around the wreckage of a hydroplane on the launching ramp, trying to manoeuvre its driver onto a stretcher.

A group of relatives and friends huddle together as they wait for news. One of them, a young boy, has tears streaming down his face, the demolished windscreen of his father’s boat staring cruelly from the water’s edge.

A few hours later, news comes through that the driver is fine. He has a couple fo cracked ribs, nothing worse.

The relief is almost palpable but the incident serves as a timely reminder of how easily things can go wrong in the attempt to set new speed records on water.

Not that the man sitting calmly atop the awesome Bladerunner powerboat moored on the adjacent pontoon looks unduly concerned. Then again, this is no ordinary man.

His name is Mark Threadgold and he’s about to attempt a world speed record. He’s also blind.

COURAGE IN ADVERSITY

Threadgold is the son of a Doncaster crane driver. He joined the junior army aged 16, and rose to the rank of sergeant in the Royal Signal Corps. He was a telecommunications and electronics engineer, and became an army diving instructor.

Four years ago, in an accident he won’t discuss even today, he suffered a massive head injury and lost his sight completely.

“I wasn’t the most pleasant of people in the first few months after the accident,” he recalls. “I was in a very, very poor state of mind. It was a very slow realisation, what the consequences were for my way of living, everything.”

As he struggled to come to terms with his disability, he was referred to St Dunstan’s, a charity that cares for blind ex-servicemen and women. He says that this was the luckiest thing that ever happened to him.

Fast-forward to the 2002 Southampton Boat Show, and a rehabilitated Threadgold was to be found helping publicise a round-Britain challenge, led by the army, fundraising for St Dunstan’s.

He himself took part in the final leg of the voyage, driving a RIB round the Isle of Wight, with steering directions given by a team-mate, in the process setting a new endurance speed record in the blind unlimited class.

“It was a huge thing,” he says. “I love boats, and before the accident spent a lot of time driving RIBs. The Isle of Wight thing reaffirmed to me that life goes on. There’s nothing to stop you except prejudice.”

ASK & YOU SHALL RECEIVE

And as if to prove the point, at that very boat show he wandered over to the Ice Marine stand, where former powerboat champion Jeremy Watts was showing off the leisure version of the Bladerunner, and casually asked whether he could use the craft for an attempt on the blind water speed record.

“There was a pregnant pause.” Threadgold recalls, “and then he said: ‘I don’t see why not. But we’ll lend you the race boat because it’s more stable at those speeds. ‘My chin hit the floor.”

A plan was soon hatched.

Threadgold would try not only to break the existing blind world water speed record of 63.06mph (about 63 knots), but to hit 100mph (about 87 knots). Watts would act as navigator, giving Threadgold directional commands and ensuring his safety. The project would aim to raise awareness and funds for St Dunstan’s. The boat would be entered for Windermere’s Record week in 2003.

Who is braver? Mark Threadgold, who can’t see, or Jeremy Watts, who lets him drive?

Threadgold describes Watts, aged 36, as “a fantastic fella”. Watts in turn says, “My only reservation was his ability to control the boat at very high speeds. You can’t mislead people into thinking 100mph on water isn’t dangerous.”

THE ‘S’ WORD

Threadgold is as down-to-earth a Yorkshireman as you get. There are “mustn’t grumble”s a plenty, and he’s never one to hold back a loud belch.

Well aware of the awkwardness some have with his condition, he has a seemingly unending stock of one-liners to put people at their ease. “What are they going to do, poke my eyes out?” he will joke while committing some minor misdemeanour. “Wow, you’re looking good,” he’ll tell a female interviewer.

“It means people stop wondering if they should use the word ‘see’ in front of me,” he says.

He can barely contain his excitement about the challenge ahead. “I’ve done about 600 hours in RIBs,” he says, “but the Bladerunner is like nothing I’ve driven before. It’s got a pair of bloomin’ 280hp race engines on the back of the thing. The raw power is fabulous.”

Practice runs in the Solent have gone well. Threadgold hit 83mph (about 72 knots) on one outing, unofficially smashing the record he’s after by 10mph.

To gain official recognition though, he will have to do it under timed conditions on Windermere: twice down a 1km course, in opposite directions, with the average of the two runs taken as the recorded speed.

COME ALL YE FAITHFUL

Windermere records week is a fantastic affair. Powerboats of all shapes and sizes, from race-spec hydroplanes, converge from across Europe, battling to break their class records. If you like big engines roaring amidst fantastic scenery, this is the place to be.

The Bladerunner normally comes in two leisure guises: GT and Sport. The boat being used by Threadgold is none of these. It’s a noisy, stripped-down race machine, purpose designed to face the rigours of offshore competition.

In its first run of the day, we have just watched with alarm as the boat’s huge rooster-tail disappeared and Threadgold appeared to back off sharply.

“That was a bit of a wake-up call,” he admits, back on dry land. “We had to back off very hard because we had some wash coming in from the side. It was getting quite bumpy, and it put the frighteners on me.”

Clearly, this powerboating game isn’t just a case of hitting the throttle and hanging on. But how difficult is? What are the dangers?

In the interests of journalistic research, I feel it only right and proper to accept an invitation to test the beast out. And in an attempt to recreate some of the difficulty experienced by Threadgold, I’ll do it blindfolded.

Threadgold’s tongue-in-cheek reaction is typical: “Just one thing, Rob. I’m navigating.”

THE BLACKOUT

Driving in to the town of Windermere to look for a blindfold, I remember a slightly chilling description Threadgold has given me of his condition: “There’s no sense of light or dark at all. It’s blacker than the blackest black hole.”

My blindfold has to be suitably opaque, and I find

Just the ticket in a fabric shop off the high street: a thick black felt that blocks out the bright autumn sun entirely.

Back at the lakeside, I make a point of tying it tightly over my eyes before I walk along the pontoons towards the boat. Laugh if you will, but being led along the narrow wooden slats above the water is almost the thing I am dreading most.

Watts leads me to the boat, and then helps me onto the deck and into the cockpit. He even needs to place my right foot on the throttle. No temporary measure of this sort could ever properly recreate what the experience is like for Threadgold, but I am certainly disorientated.

Breaking the Blind World Water Speed Record

A SOUND FOR SORE EARS

The Bladerunner is renowned for its smooth ride, and with a crash helmet tight round my ears, the cabin roof closed and only blackness before me, I have almost no sensation of movement at all. I am absolutely staggered when Watts’ voice comes over the intercom: “Okay. Bring her up on the plane.”

I could have sworn we were about two yards off the pontoon. In fact, we’ve motored out in to the middle of the lake without me even realising.

Threadgold told me to expect this. “You’re planning at about 20mph, but you don’t notice it because you can’t feel the wind and there’s no bow-wave. From there to 60mph, you can’t tell much difference.”

But it’s the noise from the two Mercury High Performance 2.5 SS offshore racing outboards that eventually tells the story, as they begin to stretch their legs. What started as a distant rumble from the stern quickly swells to a kidney-trembling roar that fills my blacked-out world. It is all I can do not to let out a whoop of fear and delight.

The only thing I can hear is Watts’ calming voice over the intercom: “Half turn right,” “Gentle left,” then “Careful, you doing 70mph.”

You’ve got to be kidding? 70mph? That’s faster than I’ve ever driven a boat before and that was with my eyes out on stalks scanning for the slightest danger. The loud thumping of my heart temporarily drowns out the noise of the engines, and the precise position of the steering wheel becomes a matter of intense concern to me.

SEEING IS BELIEVEING

How many times in life do you drive a race-spec powerboat at these speeds across one of the most beautiful lakes in the world? Not many, so I hope you’ll forgive me when I admit to sneaking a quick peak under the blindfold.

When I own up to Threadgold afterwards, his only retort is a good-natured scoff, which is probably all I deserve.

I’m fully blindfolded again as we back off the speed and head towards land. Here, there is one final indication of how totally reliant on others I am. When we left the pontoons, we were port-side on. So, naturally, I assume we’ll be port-side on when we tie up again. Wrong! Fortunately, Watts corrects me before I get wet.

Exercise completed, my respect for Threadgold’s record attempt goes in to overdrive. And he’s planning to go 50% faster again.

A FLASH OF BLUE

A few hours later, his second record attempt of the day is getting underway. “Mark Threadgold cleared to the marshal’s,” says the voice over the loudspeakers.

Amid shouts of “good luck” from supporters, Threadgold and Watts strap on their helmets and ease off the pontoon. A final thumbs-up from Watts, and he slams shut the hatch.

Most of the course is hidden by trees along the shore, so as the boat makes its approach to the timed course we have a few minutes to wait. I take the chance to talk with Threadgold’s father Joe and mother Jan.

“It’s been a terrible four years,” admits Joe. “But it’s unbelievable how he’s come to terms with it, and the things he does. He just gets on with it. It’s all looking forward now.”

“He’s always been interested in boats, and this is fantastic. We’re very proud. I just hope it gives other people a chance to do something like it.”

Suddenly there’s a flash of blue across the lake, and we turn to see the Bladerunner streaking over the water at a frankly terrifying pace.

As the boat approaches the pontoon again, the news comes over the speakers: 91.66mph (79.60 knots). It’s not the 100mph Mark was hoping for but the record has been smashed and there’s still time for one more attempt tomorrow.

The expressions on the faces of Threadgold’s support team say it all. The man himself is delighted, if not entirely lucid. “Good potter that”, he says, slapping his hands with a dirty laugh. “Buzzin’. Foot to the floor. Fantastic. Beauty.”

OUT OF SIGHT

The next morning, in glassy conditions, there is huge excitement as the first of Mark’s two way runs tops the magic tonne. Sadly the return leg is fractionally slower and leaves Mark with a new world record of 99.19mph. It’s not quite the 100mph he wanted, but it’s enough to leave his supporters with tears in their eyes.

“Absolutely fabulous!” exclaims Threadgold as soon as he’s within earshot. “I could feel we were doing that speed. The noise, the roar of the engines, that little skip as she was storming along. You just can’t describe it, man. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

To crown the day’s celebrations, Watts himself takes the boat out later and manages to up the overall record for the Bladerunner’s class to 101.7mph (88.3 knots).

How long he’ll keep that record, though, is a matter of some doubt. “Next year, I’d like to come back and get that 101 off Jeremy,” says Threadgold.

“Eh, the world’s the limit, isn’t it? You just have to bother your backside to get out there and have a go.”

Writer: Rob Peake

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