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Flash Steam Gallery IV
Ian Berne

 In pursuit of the record

The appearance on eBay in January 2014 of two of Ian Berne’s flash steamers was a timely reminder of the most intense period of competition and development in the modern era of flash steam tethered hydroplane racing. From 1981 until 2012, the AS Class record was shared by just two competitors, but during this period and through huge amounts of hard work and constant effort they increased the record from 69mph to 121mph.

The first of these was Bob Kirtley who started running the steamers around 1975 and the other was Ian Berne. Bob’s career has already been charted in a ‘Who’s Who’ session, so the sale of the boats presented an ideal opportunity to examine Ian’s incredible contribution and achievements. Ian does however hold something of a unique record amongst hydroplane competitors having held the outright British hydroplane record with an IC boat as well as the AS record.

Ian actually started racing tethered hydroplanes before Bob, running 10cc C Class boats from the early 1970s. From the very beginning Ian would spare little expense or effort in order to be the fastest on the water being one of the first in the country to run the new OPS motor.

In 1975, all his hard work paid off when he won the bronze medal at the Welwyn World Championships setting three new outright British records in the process. For the rest of the decade he continued to run the C Class boats as well as venturing into the B Class with a twin cylinder motor based on two HB crankcases. With this impressive outfit he won the B Class at the 79 International before reigning in his hydro activities for a while to indulge in his other passion, which was steam vehicles, both full sized and model.

Early steam carriage Traction Engine model at St Albans

He had become fascinated by Bob Kirtley’s Pisces I, which was the first of the ‘modern’ flash steamers, so it was no surprise when Ian turned his attention to flash steam hydroplanes, which by his own admission turned out to be all consuming.

St Albans 1979 OPS A3  Monster B twin Bradwell 1980 with Stuart Robinson

Bob Kirtley started with flash steam hydros around 1975, primarily competing against the then class record holder, Frank Jutton. Frank had set a new record for steamers in 1972 at 69.58mph, finally broken by Bob in 1981 at St Albans and again in 1982 at his home club South Shields, although with the larger A Class boat. It was this speed of 75mph that Ian Berne set his sights on, although it was not until 1988 that he appeared at Bradwell with a competitive flash steamer christened ‘Steam Machine’. This was in the style of Keith Norfor’s early boat with integral sponsons and very wide, almost vintage by then. The plant though was very much modelled on Bob Kirtley’s using the same type of steam generator, burners and motor. The magazine reports often referred to the boat as the ‘Kirtley Clone’, and Ian freely acknowledges Bob’s design influence and help in getting the first motor built, as it was copied directly from parts sent down to him.

Frank Jutton St Albans Ian with Steam Machine 1

Flash steamers provide disappointment and frustration in equal measures with the occasional glimpse of what might be, and so it was for Ian who experienced numerous breakdowns and failures early on before a run of 74.5mph brought him within a smidgeon of Bob’s record. A new hull with outrigger sponsons soon followed although this was somewhat unstable to start with, somersaulting twice at Birkenhead and again at Bradwell, where it self destructed. Ian was not one to let these setbacks deter him and just four months after his first outing with a steamer he broke the AS record at Bradwell, with a run of 79.01mph.

Steam machine II newly built Launching at Old Ford Bradwell, Steve Poyser commiserating

With Steam Machine II sorted Ian added another 5mph to his record, again at Bradwell with the first ever run of a steamer at over 80mph, leaving the record at the end of the season standing at 84.54mph. Much woodwork and engineering took place over the winter of 88/89 as both Ian and Bob appeared for the 1989 season with new and much more streamlined hulls. After building two engines entirely based on Bob’s layout, the motor for the new boat showed a great deal more of Ian’s thinking and engineering skills, especially in the area of the pump drives. Instead of running a single reduction gear off the crankshaft and then down the side of the motor, Ian came up with a compound gearbox at the rear of the motor running off a crank follower. He also used a scotch crank mechanism that kept the pump rams running parallel rather than a crankshaft and connecting rod that puts side loads on the rams.

First record breaking motor Later motor with gearbox & 'scotch crank' Yet to be run B motor

Ian ran both ‘Steam Machine II’ and a boat that was referred to as ‘Flash Too’ during the season, often at the same meeting, so it is difficult to know which boat to credit a particular run to. Certainly he was soon back on the record trail, raising it by another 5mph at Milton Keynes to 89.87mph, this speed being credited to Steam Machine II. Ian and Bob were now both getting more consistency with their plants and numerous runs were recorded within fractions of the record.

Bob’s Pisces II has had something of a reputation over the years for flipping, being badly damaged in its first season at Birkenhead. In what was to become an all too familiar routine, Bob repaired the boat for the meeting at Hull where he became the first to run a steamer at over 90mph and on the same day the first at over 100mph raising the record by a total of 14mph to 103.61mph.

The lure of the 100mph steamer proved to be the catalyst that brought Stan Poyser back into the sport, again with a plant owing much to Bob’s design. Stan also acknowledged the help that Bob and Ian had given him, and although he never broke the record in the A class, Stan would provide stiff competition for the next three seasons, with class, trophy and regatta wins being shared between the three of them on a regular basis.

Despite huge amounts of work and beating his own personal best by 10mph Ian could not get over the magic 100mph missing out by just 0.71mph at Bradwell in August. Alterations were made to Steam Machine II to no avail as it somersaulted at Cerney in September with considerable damage. Bob then effectively put the record out of reach for this boat, with a new best of 107.9 at the final Cerney meeting of the year.

To be continued next month