Spirit of Australia driving on water

Breaking the official world water speed record, or in other words, building and piloting the world’s fastest boat, is one of the most dangerous challenges in existence.

The current record has stood for over 45 years – it belongs to Australia’s Ken Warby (1939–2023), who reached a speed of 317.58 mph (511.09 km/h) in his jet-powered hydroplane Spirit of Australia in 1978.

Warby survived several record attempts and lived to the old age of 83, however, most of the others who took on this challenge were not so lucky – seven of the 13 people to have attempted it since 1930 were killed in the process.

The first of the fatalities came in June 1930, when famed British driver Sir Henry Seagrave, holder of the land speed record at the time, attempted to take the water speed record from the USA’s Garfield Wood, who had repeatedly broken it throughout the 1920s with his Miss America series of boats.

Model of Miss England II (with model of Miss England III behind) at the Science Museum, London

Piloting Miss England II, which was powered by two Rolls-Royce aircraft engines, Seagrave became the first person to break the 100-mph barrier, doing so on the first of his two runs. After completing the second, he set a new world record with an average speed of 98.8 mph (158.9 km/h).

However, on the third run, at over 100 mph, the boat flipped over, resulting in the deaths of both Seagrave and his chief engineer, Victor Halliwell.

Miss England II was salvaged and repaired, and Irishman Kaye Don was selected as the new driver to continue the rivalry with Gar Wood’s Miss America boats. The record passed back and forth between them several times, culminating with Wood creating Miss America X, powered by four supercharged plane engines, to reach a speed of 124.8 mph (200.9 km/h). Neither Don nor Wood attempted the record again, and both went on to live into their 90s.

In 1937, British motor racer Sir Malcolm Campbell, who’d broken the land speed record nine times and become the first person drive over 300 mph, set his sights on the water. He piloted the Blue Bird K3, which was more compact than Miss America X and had only one engine, to a new record of 126.3 mph (203.3 km/h), and by 1939, he’d increased it to 141.7 mph (228.1 km/h).

Malcolm Campbell and the Blue Bird K3 (1937)

After the conclusion of World War II, Campbell experimented with jet-engine propulsion, but he wasn’t able to attempt the record again before he passed away in 1948 aged 63. 

The third person to die while attempting the record was London stockbroker John Cobb, another land speed record holder. In 1952, on Scotland’s Loch Ness, after reaching an estimated speed of 210 mph (338 km/h) in his jet-powered Crusader, the craft disintegrated and Cobb was killed.

Two years later, an Italian man named Mario Vergra, piloting a piston-engined hydroplane, also died while attempting the record.

By that point, Sir Malcolm Campbell's son, Donald, had been working to take the record, and in 1955 he did it, reaching a speed of 202.3 mph (325.6 km/h) in his Bluebird K7. Campbell broke the record six more times over the next nine years, taking it to 276.3 mph (444.7 km/h) and becoming the most prolific water speed record breaker in history.

However, just like Seagrave and Cobb before him, Campbell was another land-speed racer who met his untimely end on the water. In 1967, while travelling at an estimated speed of 320 mph, Bluebird took off into the air, did a flip, then plunged nose-first into the water, killing Campbell instantly.

Later in the year, an American named Lee Taylor claimed the record by reaching a speed of 285 mph (459 km/h), three years after severely injuring himself trying to do it.

Ken Warby’s record attempt

Following Campbell’s death, public interest in the record seemed to wane until 10 years later, when Australian Ken Warby took on the challenge. Up to that point, every record holder had been from either the USA, UK, or Ireland.

Warby first set the record in 1977 at Blowering Dam, where he had a straight nine-mile stretch of unbroken water to drive on.

Inspired by his hero Donald Campbell, Warby aimed to become the first person to break the 300-mph barrier and live to tell the tale.

Piloting his jet-powered Spirit of Australia, which he built in his backyard, Warby broke Taylor’s record with a speed of 288.6 mph (464.4 km/h).

A year later, Warby returned to Blowering Dam with an upgraded Spirit of Australia, which had been rebuilt with help from the Australian Air Force.

On 8 October 1978, Warby reached just over 305 mph on his first run, and on his second run he pushed it up to 328 mph, setting a new world record with an average speed of 317.58 mph (511.09 km/h).

Over 45 years on, Warby’s record still stands, and both official attempts at breaking it have resulted in the drivers’ deaths.

Ken Warby breaking the record in Spirit of Australia on 8 October 1978

Lee Taylor built a rocket-powered boat to try and take back the record in 1980, but he perished while doing a test run in unfavourable conditions on Lake Tahoe. And almost a decade later, in 1989, an American named Craig Arfons passed away after his hydroplane somersaulted at over 350 mph (560 km/h).

Despite the deadly nature of this record, there are still people who are trying to break it.

Ken Warby was working on Spirit of Australia II before his death, and now his son David is continuing the project.

Richard Noble, project director of the ThrustSSC, which currently holds the land speed record (763 mph; 1,228 km/h), announced in 2022 that his team are also planning to beat Warby’s record.

Additionally, multiple teams from Britain and one from Belgium have ongoing projects aimed at exceeding it.

Whether they’ll be able to do it remains to be seen, but it begs the question: how many more lives will be lost in pursuit of this record?

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