Clarskon on: risk taking
Spent some of my summer holiday on a small Caribbean island. Created by a volcanic burp at some point in our ever-changing world’s past, it was what most people would consider to be paradise.
Surrounded entirely by the sort of sea you normally find in airbrushed travel brochures, it was ringed by an uninterrupted sliver of perfectly white, perfectly deserted beach and, further out, a tropical reef blah blah Jacques Cousteau blah blah etc.
There were no hotels and the only other house I could see from ours belonged to Bruce Willis.
Hopefully, you have a mental picture of the scene because now we move onto the meat and potatoes. You see, the island in question was only a few miles long and a few miles wide. So how do you get about?
It’s too far to walk from the one shop to the little dock where people keep their boats. But it would be ridiculous to drive. And so, while there is one pick-up truck – used to pull boats out of the water when a hurricane is coming – the residents move around in a collection of communal golf buggies.
It’s all very communist. You help yourself to a cart and then, if you’re the last to use it at night, you have to plug it into the mains and charge it up.
Brilliant. No noise, no fumes, no pollution, no jams, no sense that Bruce’s golf cart is bigger than mine and I must respond. And of course, absolutely no chance of anyone being even slightly killed... You’d think. But that ain’t necessarily so because, you see, sticking its oar into this Liberal Democrat’s idea of heaven comes something called youthful exuberance. Mix that with a T-junction and someone’s going to need the flying doctor.
If the golf buggy had had an engine, the person going the other way would have heard it coming. But it didn’t. So he came round the bush, and bang. Of course, you may argue that a golf buggy can only do 15mph and that no harm can come to a driver at this speed. True enough. But when it has a head-on with another buggy, also travelling at 15mph you have a 30mph impact. Doesn’t sound like much? Really? Well try running face first into a wall and then send me an email explaining how things turned out.
Did the accident bring everyone to their senses? Yes... we thought. But wait, what’s this? Why, it’s a teenager attempting to do a donut in his buggy. And over there, there’s an 11-year-old trying to jump his over an iguana. This is the problem, the concept that our friends in the yellow and green parties just can’t seem to understand. That for some, taking risks is fun.
Of course, they’ll say that the people I’m talking about are yobs. They’ll point to someone called Darren in a Nova, doing handbrake turns in a Tesco car park. But me? Well I’ll point to Steve Fossett.
As I write, the American adventurer is missing in the Nevada desert. There are fears that he’s crashed his plane and that he’s dead. It’ll be a terrible shame if it is true, because Steve to me is what the baby Jesus is to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I met him once many years ago and he didn’t really fit the profile. I knew, from reading his biography, that he’d made a fortune on Wall Street and since retiring had raced at Le Mans, swum the Channel and beaten the world speed record for crossing the Pacific in a sail boat.
So I was expecting him to be a cross between Gordon Gekko, Thomas Crown and the Terminator. I was expecting him to break every bone in my fingers when we shook hands and for him to slap me on the back with such force that my spine was shattered.
“There were no hotels and the only other house I could see from ours belonged to Bruce Willis”
This turned out to be wrong. “Can you tell me where Steve Fossett is?” I said to a man in tatty combat trousers, sweeping the floor in a big aeroplane hanger. “That’s me,” he said quietly.
He was a rubbish interview, stammering and not quite being able to enunciate what drove him. But when the cameras were off and we were just chatting, he was funny, extremely kind and driven by a quest for adventure so powerful that if you took out his soul, it could be used to light the world.
Since our meeting, he’s gone properly berserk, setting 23 world sailing records and nine distance race records. And when he breaks a record, he doesn’t do things by halves: when he crossed the Atlantic in 113 hours, he shattered the previous record by nearly two days.
Most people would have had their work cut out keeping ahead of the game in the world of sailing. But not Steve. Because during this time, he set a new record for crossing America in a non military jet. His average speed was 726mph. And then he turned round, went back to the West coast and set a Transcontinental record for turbo props. Then he broke the record for crossing Australia. And then he broke one for flying round the world. Of seven world records for fixed-wing aircraft, Steve has three.
On top of this, he’s broken 10 of the 21 world records for gliding. He’s gone further than anyone else and he’s been higher. 50,727 feet. And then, just last year, he got back into a powered plane and flew round the world again without refuelling in 76 hours and 45 minutes. The longest flight in history.
I have nowhere near finished. He has competed in several triathlons, is one of only eight men to have done all of the world’s 10 toughest ski races, he has done the 1,165-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska and he has piloted an airship at 71.5mph. Another absolute world record.
And I haven’t even got to the ballooning yet. He was the first to cross the Pacific in a balloon and, after six attempts, the first to go all the way round the world. You get the impression he’s circumnavigated the globe more often than most 747 pilots. Oh, and he’s climbed six of the world’s seven highest mountains.
He disappeared while on a flight looking for somewhere in Nevada where he could break the land-speed record. He had the car, 47-feet long and powered by an afterburning jet engine from a Phantom F4. He just needed somewhere to drive it.
A menace? A one-man carbon snowshoe? I don’t think so. I dislike using the word ‘hero’ because I think it should be mainly reserved for soldiers. Or at the very least, people who risk their lives to help others. But in a way, that’s exactly what Steve Fossett did. He risked his life to show that there’s still some hope in the Liberal Democrat’s stupid vision of a perfect golf-buggy-and-cotton-wool world.
At the very least, that makes him an inspiration.