RICHARD Jenkins waited ten years for the perfect wind to blow him into the record books. When it finally arrived just over two weeks ago – after a decade of globetrotting, sacrifice and failed attempts – it all seemed almost too easy. Racing over a dry lake south of Las Vegas, the 32-year-old reached speeds of 126.1mph in a space-age craft that looks like a cross between a canoe, go-kart and yacht.
It was all over in little more than a minute, but the one-and-a-half-mile drag race reclaimed a prized world record for British engineering.
Mr Jenkins and his sail-car – nicknamed Greenbird – had finally smashed the previous wind-powered land speed mark of 116.7mph, set by an American team in 1999.
As far as the Hampshire adventurer was concerned the moment was a formality, albeit an exhilarating one. For he always knew that if he got the right gust of wind, at the right time, he would be the fastest naturally powered human on the planet.
Back in Britain, the Daily Echo this week met up with Mr Jenkins at a boatyard in Lymington Harbour where the dream first began aged ten when his parents relocated to the New Forest from Western Australia.
Like many Lymington children, he fell in love with the water and when not at school, he would be sailing, designing or building some radical contraption.
After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree, at 21 he took on a challenge that would shape his life more than he could have ever imagined.
He set himself the task of breaking the land, ice and water wind-powered speed records in just a year. But world records are not easily set.
“We very naively thought we could do it pretty quickly. It just seemed like an easy, fun thing to do,” he said.
Unlike other speed records, bigger engines and more money do not result in faster speeds. Mr Jenkins had to develop a purely technical solution to deliver the ultimate performance from a free and available resource – the wind.
“The quest for me has always been for the ultimate speed, not to just break the record. Technically the craft has got to be superior to previous crafts and you need to be in the right place, at the right time for the perfect weather, which will probably only happen once every five or ten years.”
Jenkins chased his dream on land and ice in Britain, America, Canada and Australia, never quite matching technical readiness with local conditions. Funded mostly by material donations from individuals, his quest went unsponsored for the best part of a decade as the corporate world wasn’t interested in being associated with a project that could fail or, worse, result in his death. That was until he secured the support of Ecotricity, a green British energy firm that saw his record bid as an opportunity to promote its vision for a low carbon revolution.
But the life of a would-be record-breaker was far from glamorous. Camping out of an old £500 van in some of the most barren parts of the world, he lived a lonely existence for months at a time as he waited, and waited, for the perfect gust.
“I was either camping in the back of a van or in a tent in the middle of nowhere. The amount of times it rained in a drought area was unbelievable. It meant I was pretty much on standby for eight years. It got to the point where I wondered whether it was impossible,” he said.
Richard Jenkins at a boatyard in Lymington
It’s estimated the record bid cost an “insanely cheap” £150,000, as well as another £250,000 in donated materials, but of course there were other costs that can’t be measured.
While he has seen his university classmates go on to make fortunes in highly paid city jobs, Mr Jenkins works odd jobs as an expert consultant and doesn’t even own a car. So was it worth it? “All of my friends from university went to work in the city and they’d often ask me if I was still working on that ‘stupid project’. There were times when I thought that maybe I had done the wrong thing and that I should have also been earning tons of money.
“But I’ve spent ten years cruising around the world doing cool stuff and meeting great people, so I know I definitely made the right choice and I’ve got no intention of getting a desk job any time soon.”
In fact, it seems his only regret is not pushing Greenbird harder last month in an attempt to set an even higher speed.
He believes the limit is somewhere around 135mph – a mark he hopes to get close to at his next record attempt, this time on ice, at Canyon Ferry Lake, in Montana, in just seven months.