Attempting the Impossible
Perhaps because of my adventurous past in the great outdoors, people send me links to videos of people doing outrageous, seemingly death defying feats, as if I ever did, or thought of doing, something similar. Mountain bikers jumping over caverns, people climbing frozen waterfalls, skiers outracing avalanches, etc. It’s almost been coined in our social media world with words like “epic”, and tied to products like Red Bull or Mountain Dew, as if someone jacked up on sugar and caffeine do amazing stunts with cameras capturing these people cheating death like never before.
But there was a time before Red Bull, mountain biking, or ice climbing, when GoPro cameras and deft marketing didn’t exaggerate such achievements with virtual illusion, and death defying wasn’t always defying.
Thirty-six years ago today, Lee Taylor climbed aboard what was essentially a rocket attached to a boat hull in Lake Tahoe on the California Nevada border, in a vessel he called Discovery II, in an effort to reclaim the water speed record he had once held, essentially a one-boat drag race, but on water. Taylor was as experienced as anyone alive in such a sport, and a focused, almost deliberate man, but a friendly one as well. I was living in that area during that time, and recall Lee appearing on TV in interviews, talking to fans. He made what he was attempting seem not just possible, but likely, almost common, as he spoke of hopefully achieving 350mph, then incremental advancements up to 500mph on water.
But there’s nothing common about traveling over 300 miles per hour in a boat of any type. If you have ever been on any speedboat in your life and gone a mere 30 miles per hour, you’ll know how bumpy it can get, and how even small waves seem magnified. Despite the refined engineering in Lee’s well-designed hydroplane boat, and how calculating of a man Lee was, any attempt at such high-speed left almost zero margin of error. The water speed record is so dangerous in fact, that as long as the record has been kept, the death rate is nearly 50% per attempt. You read that correctly, per attempt. Furthermore, over 80% of all record holders have ultimately perished in one sort of water speed attempt or another, making this possibly the most dangerous “sporting” record in existence.
Lee had to be well aware of these grim numbers, but forged on with his calculated preparation. He initially aimed to set the record on nearby Walker Lake in Nevada, because of it’s near glass smooth surface. But Walker isn’t well known like Tahoe is, and Lee’s sponsors pressured him to try the attempt there. Lee and his team theorized that at Tahoe’s high altitude, the boat might actually have a better chance, and be less likely to take off into the air like the jet airplane it somewhat resembled.
But Tahoe wasn’t always glass smooth like Walker Lake, and delays were frequent waiting for the wind and water to cooperate. Early test runs showed the boat could handle small waves of 2", and even a wave of 6" was probably acceptable, as if the boat probably not crashing at this extreme speed was acceptable.
An hour before Lee’s scheduled attempt the lake was almost perfectly smooth, but technical glitches delayed his effort to break the record of 317mph. As the glitches were remedied, the waves grew to about 2" but wavering in size. Lee wanted to delay the 350+mph attempt to another day, but decided it was safe enough to make this test run to see if he could get at least close to 300mph anyway, also to appease sponsors and the large gathering of fans and media that showed up.
As Lee’s boat entered the zone where his speed would be tracked at close to 300mph and accelerating, the boat showed a small asymmetrical starboard/port rotation for unknown reasons as it skimmed along the water. Very abruptly Discovery II likely hit a 6" or higher wave at the time, flipped, tumbled, and quickly shattered into thousands of pieces. Despite a helicopter being on scene within seconds, and other boats within minutes, and despite Lee’s cockpit supposedly being built to float, Lee, and most of the cockpit, was not to be found. The only indication that Lee had even been there was his red helmet, floating on the surface. The setting which had been filled with cautious optimism and possibility at such an amazing and exciting achievement, quickly turned horrid. Not too unlike that of a plane crash, Lee’s death would have been violent and instantaneous.
Lake Tahoe is very deep, 1,600′ at it’s deepest point, but the section where Lee crashed was shallow enough that a few days later his body was found in what was left of the cockpit at the frigid lake bottom; splintered and sheered away just in front of his feet, the windshield shattered, his lungs filled with water.
You probably wonder why anyone would attempt something so dangerous, with such a high rate of failure, and half of all attempts ending in tragedy, but the 1970’s into the 1980’s were a different era than today. This was not a time where people did marginally outlandish things and captured them with GoPro cameras, almost instantly posting them to YouTube, and sharing them with the world through social media for everyone to see and awe at in wonder.
Forty years ago times were different; less self-congratulatory, yet even more dangerous. Skilled Formula 1 and LeMans race car driver, David Piper, who lost his leg in an accident shooting a scene for the Steve McQueen film LeMans, noted that his crash wasn’t that surprising. Nearly every race he was in someone crashed, and every year someone died. That's just the way it was. “Life was cheap”, said Piper.
Cheap or not, the mindset was very different, almost unfathomable in today’s safety first, and often exaggerated world of extreme entertainment. There wasn’t the emphasis on sanctity of life, and effort to extend one’s life quite the way there is today. There was a greater focus on living that life in a full and grand way, and leaving your mark. Life not measured on how many years you are on this planet, but what you do in those years.
Lee Taylor lost his life in one of these attempts to make his mark. But he wasn’t alone. The 70’s were filled with daredevils and risk takers like Evil Knievel, and shows like That’s Incredible! It’s not that there were no safety standards, and people would try anything, but a time when people would attempt the impossible, and if it killed them, it was just a part of life.