Fast And Furious
When Richard Jenkins is strappedinto the pilot seat of his space age Windjet landcraft, accelerating from 50mph to 100mph in three or four seconds, it is, he says, "a bit like driving a Ferrari with someone else's foot on the accelerator". The craft relies on gusts of wind to propel it along; Jenkins' expertise enables him to maximise the power from the wind while minimising the drag. It's a delicate skill relying not only on human judgement but also on the often temperamental elements.
Jenkins has to concentrate so hard on controlling the craft that although he admits he feels exhilarated after a run, he can never really enjoy the moment. Nor does he entertain the notion that trying to become the fastest man in the world to travel in a wind-powered vehicle over land might be a dangerous pursuit. There is a record to be broken and nothing, it seems, can distract Jenkins from his ambition.
In fact, there is more than one record: 27-year-old Jenkins, who is based in England but spends a considerable amount of time in the Nevada desert, is trying to break a trio of records. He is attempting to become the fastest man in a wind-powered vehicle not only on land, but also on water and ice. Jenkins is absolutely convinced that the existing records - Bob Schumacher set the land record of 116.7mph in the Nevada desert in 1999; Simon McKeown set the water record of 46.52 knots in 1993; while John D Buckstaff set the ice record of 143mph back in 1938 - are within his grasp.
While he acknowledges that these records stand for a reason, Jenkins is probably the perfect man for the job. "Those records are very, very difficult to break. They all present a seriously technical challenge. Something that would be a genuine engineering feat if it was achieved. However, at least two of the three will happen because I won't stop trying until I succeed." It is not just his dedication and ambition that impress - this is not a hobby but a way of life - but also his background.
Jenkins grew up immersed in the worlds of sailing, flying and driving cars before studying mechanical engineering. While he was still at college, he used to hang out at a friend's boatyard, where one of the clients commissioned a high-speed land yacht but lost interest after realising how complicated it was. By the end of 1998, Jenkins had developed and then completed the land yacht, giving him a solid grounding for creating the current Windjet craft as well as those for racing on ice and water.
For now, the main focus is on breaking the land record. Based on Formula One, aircraft and sailing technology, the aesthetically-pleasing Windjet cost £100,000 to build and has unofficially reached speeds of 120mph. Which is where one of the main problems of breaking Schumacher's record lies. "We tried for almost two years to break the record on an airfield outside Lincoln," explains Jenkins. "We actually did break it a couple of times, but it proved virtually impossible to ratify because we didn't have witnesses. We were also limited by the length of the runway, so we moved the operation to the Nevada desert. The dust in the photos gives you an idea of the speed at which I'm travelling; they're really amazing images."
The ideal condition for record-setting is a consistent, steady wind but as this has been the wettest year on record in the USA, Jenkins and his team have had to improvise. "We have been relying on thunderstorms. On a still day, you can actually see a storm approaching. You can see a wall of dust coming towards you which is the leading edge of the wind. When the dust clears, there's about five minutes before the rainstorm hits. I have to take advantage of the high-speed winds between the dust and the rain clouds. I know I have the experience to break this record; now I'm relying on luck."
After another attempt at breaking the land record in Nevada last September, Jenkins travelled north to Canada to take on the ice record. At 143mph, ice is obviously significantly faster than land. Again, experience and skill is one thing and the elements are another thing altogether. "We need a perfect bit of ice which happens maybe once every couple of years. Basically we shall be driving between lakes, chasing the ideal conditions."
Although ice sounds most treacherous, Jenkins insists that it is in fact water which presents the greatest test of all. "It's a serious technical challenge which will probably evolve over six to 12 months. In fact, we will really be pushing the boundaries of current technology. There's a speed of just below 50 knots where the characteristics of water actually change: it's called the 50-knot barrier. It's pretty difficult to break but not impossible. Water is also the most expensive to test; with land and ice we can do it with just a few of us, but the water craft needs a support boat and a team of five to eight people. Paying these people reduces your water time."
Money has been an issue for Jenkins since he started the Windjet projects. He thought companies might be seduced by the trio of record attempts, but they largely failed to respond. Although technical partners have provided equipment, hard cash has been difficult to raise. In the end, the team has relied on people who are excited by the project and who are in a position to donate a few thousand pounds. It's not ideal, but such support has allowed Jenkins to dedicate the last five years of his life to getting his name in the record books.
Ask if his motivation has anything to do with fame or immortality and he shrugs. "It's really about achieving a genuine engineering feat. I am pretty patriotic, hence the Union Jack painted onto the Windjet. I do believe Britain should lead the world in technology. So it would be nice to break a few records that would stand the test of time." He laughs. "They are so hard to break that they should stand for a significant length of time... until some other young guy is foolish enough to try again."
Words Amy Raphael