The ‘world’s fastest man on water”, Ken Warby (83), died this month four decades after establishing his record-breaking speed of 411km/h. This was achieved by strapping a fighter jet engine onto the back of his speedboat Spirit of Australia. This record, set in 1978, has still not been broken.
What many people don’t know is that this all began in a little street in Concord.
Ken Warby was born in 1939 in Newcastle. While still a very young boy he heard about Donald Campbell setting up a series of 200 mph plus World Water Speed Records and was so impressed he announced to his mother he would someday do the same
As an eight-year-old, he found drawings of Campbell’s boat, the Bluebird, and made a model to which he glued CO2 cartridges and blew it across a neighbour’s pool. “I frightened a lot of frogs down at the park”, he says. Thirty years later he claimed ownership of the record and lived to tell the story.
In 1968 Lee Taylor Jr broke Campbell’s record, setting a mark of 285 mph. Shortly after Warby drew up his first sketches for what eventually became his world-champion jet hydroplane, the Spirit of Australia.
Ken designed Spirit of Australia on the family home’s kitchen table and started construction in the backyard in 1972. It was built out in the open, which meant Ken could only build the boat in good weather and during daylight hours. He would buy as many pieces of plywood and timber as his budget would allow and, incredibly, he did it all with only three power tools – a drill, circular saw and belt sander.
To power the craft he went to a RAAF surplus auction in Sydney and bought three jet engines, which had once powered Lockheed Neptune antisubmarine airplanes. He paid $100 each for two of them and one for $60. His bid may not have been the highest rendered but the surplus dealers were impressed he wanted them for a boat.
He made sporting history when he became the first person in history to design, build and drive his own boat to the world water speed records.
The boat was ready to launch in 1974, but it was far from a finished product. With no engine cowlings, air intakes or tailplane, Ken set out on testing the boat and refining it before taking the Australian National Speed record. With the boat building up speed Ken needed to find a longer stretch of water. After a long search, it was decided that Blowering Dam near Tumut, NSW, was the perfect location. Ken continued to build up speeds, getting towards the 200mph barrier.
Ken took his first world water speed record at 288mph in November 1977. While satisfied with his achievements, Ken felt that he could push the boat even further – he had the 300mph (482km/h) barrier in mind.
He returned to Blowering Dam in 1978, this time to become the first man in history to break the 300mph and 500km/h barriers with an average speed of 317.60mph (511km/h) – not bad for a boat built on a shoestring budget in the backyard.
It is the most dangerous speed record in the world, and many of those who have tried to break it have died. The quest to be the fastest human being on water has inspired generations of speed fanatics.
Are records meant to be broken? Are they meant to stand forever? Ken is the holder of the World Water Speed Record. It’s been his entire life, not just 15 minutes of fame, but an entire lifetime. He’s set the bar so high that stealing it away from him may prove to be an impossible task.
In 1983 the Australian National Maritime Museum purchased the “Spirit of Australia” where it hangs on display today.