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Need For Speed

We chat to father and son team, Ken and Dave Warby — one is the current world water speed record holder, the other is attempting to beat his old man and set a new world record, despite there being an 85% mortality rate in doing so…

Australians love a good sporting hero and victory, especially when it involves the perilous pursuit of a global record. Ken Warby, from Warby Motorsports, has not only smashed two international records but retained his title as the fastest man on water for over 41 years. The living legend is the only man in history to design, build and drive a boat to an outright unlimited world water speed record. Many have attempted to break the 41-year-old record, but all have failed or perished attaining greatness in this insane sport — it carries an 85% mortality rate.
Ken’s son Dave, who shares his total dedication and passion for the sport, now plans to set a new world record later in the year by reaching speeds of 550km/h and giving his old man a run for his money. Here, the lovable and larrikin Aussie duo share their incredible story — so far.

G’day, Ken and Dave, tell us a bit about yourselves and your brief life story to date.
KEN: I was born in Newcastle in 1939 and grew up in your typical Aussie backyard suburbia. My fascination with speed and boats came from watching the exploits of men like Malcom Campbell — who set the water speed record in his Bluebird K4 and then after the war experimented with jet engines. His son, Donald took over from his dad in the ’50s and was a true source of inspiration to me. Donald set numerous water speed and land records including the land speed record in his car Bluebird on Lake Eyre in South Australia. He met his untimely death in 1967, after a run, when instead of refuelling and waiting for the wash of the run to subside he made the run immediately. This resulted in his boat experiencing bouncing episodes at 300mph and finally an almost complete somersault. The boat was smashed to pieces and the Donald’s body wasn’t found until 2001… some 34 years later. However, the gruesome reality didn’t deter me. By the tender age of 13, I had built my first boat and raced it at Lake Macquarie. I continued to make improvements to this boat — it was a labour of love. I never did it professionally and it was all self-funded. I made the State Championships, then National, continuing to work towards my goal of being the fastest man on water. In 1970 I designed a new boat ‘Spirit of Australia’ which I built it my backyard in Concord. This was the boat I ultimately drove to my first world record in 1977.
DAVE: I was brought up around water speed racing and it has been the passion of my life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Dad tried to deter me from following this path — he preferred I race on land, but I never got the same satisfaction. There’s something quite hypnotic and trance-like about racing alone on the water. I watched my Dad design and build boats in our backyard with nothing more than three power tools and the mocking judgment from the rest of the world. It only fuelled my ambition more, to follow in his footsteps, and by the time I was 13 I was designing, building and racing my own go-karts. I became a professional boilermaker at age 20 and this funded my boat building dream. To make a million in this sport you have to start with five! Sponsorship tends only to come once the boat is built and there is real evidence a world title is potentially viable. Prior to that, you’re self-funded and Dad and I got really good at sourcing scrap metal to shape dreams. We’ve both struggled financially to build and race our boats. This, coupled with everyone telling us it’s not possible, would deter most. It’s had the opposite effect on my Dad and I. Now I spend my time designing, building and racing my boat — I’m in a unique position where I live my passion every day.

What made you get into this sport?
K: What did it for me was seeing Donald Campbell break the world record when I was 10. My fixation with the sport was cemented at this point and I knew I wanted to win the world title. It was November 20, 1977 when I set my first world water speed record. This was in my wooden jet-powered boat, Spirit of Australia. My home-made wooden hydroplane boat reached 488km/h that day – the second attempt was 511km/h and I was the first man to achieve this. I broke the previous 10-year-old record by American Lee Taylor. I think Taylor’s record set him back about $1 million in 1967 whereas the hydroplane I built in the backyard with a military surplus jet engine cost me a grand total of 65 bucks!
D: For me, as a kid, it was seeing my Dad take on the world. Progress for Dad was sometimes slow. He didn’t have million-dollar sponsorships to fund his efforts, but what we did have was friends, family and comradeship. Being in the backyard with my Dad, tinkering on engines and watching him work gave me a real sense of family, purpose and pride. It didn’t matter that the rest of the world doubted my Dad. I sat and watched him build something out of nothing with his own hands – what greater inspiration is there? I still feel his hands in the boat with me when I’m racing.

Is there any other sport you wanted to do instead of this one?
K: I’ve built and raced dragsters and cars. This was a real passion for me and I stopped boat racing for a period to pursue this. It was Dave who got me back into boat racing. Dave, however, has always been more interested in boats. I tried to deter him because it’s much more dangerous than land racing but it was in his blood, there was nothing I could do — he was determined.

What goes into building a machine that needs to beat the world water speed record?
K: The sketches of the Spirit of Australia ‘Project 300 – alteration expected’ suggest the changes required to make to the vessel for my world speed record attempt. The changes include moving the engine forward by four feet, air scoops to extend right to the transom, parallel and down to three feet, vampire type wind ‘brakes’ (hydraulic), possible exhaust steering and thrust plate angled down to left of stern. These revisions were to be tested in the wind tunnel at 300mph with me in the cockpit where it would also be decided if a plastic cockpit windscreen would be required. The late Professor Tom Fink of the University of New South Wales tested Spirit of Australia for wind tunnel testing. He was the one who suggested a breakthrough change at the 11th hour, involving a blowtorch at a farmer’s shed near Blowering Dam. I cut 65mm off the rudder leaving a rough edge. This gained a vital increase in speed and saw me achieve the record the following day.

Where do you find parts such as an ex-fighter jet engine to put this beast of a boat together?
D: We trawl aircraft bone or scrap yards globally – there’s plenty around. My boat ‘Spirit of Australia II’ has an Italian jet fighter engine in it. Dad and I found this in an Italian scrap yard, shipped it to Australia and stripped it back. The engines need to be overhauled because they are built for air. We don’t need the aircraft generators, we need them to run on the ground so there’s a process in recrafting the engines to achieve this. They also need to be the correct weight, with enough thrust to power the boat. So, finding the right engine can be a fickle and laborious exercise. Our boats are built with parts from all over the world, from other vessels and crafts each with their own stories. Dad and I have such a personal relationship with our boats – every nail, every bolt, even the glue that holds them together, is personal for us. When you race at such speeds you almost become a part of the hardware, there is an intimacy in that. So, to reuse recycled parts feels like we’re paying homage in a way to other vessels and aircraft long forgotten.

How do you prepare for an event/world record attempt like this?
D: I have a gut instinct, a visceral confidence and understanding of the design of my boat, how it’s built, operates, moves, functions. You almost become a part of your machine – there’s a lot of truth in the saying ‘driving by the seat of your pants’. I feel every vibration and I know how hard I can push the boat. This allows me to make adjustments and modifications to the boat before the next run and in turn it gives me confidence to push even harder the next time. I’m registered to build safety capsules by The World Body of Powerboating and The Australian National Body. Having built everything myself in the boat, I feel confident each time I take to the water. Without this level of intimacy with your machine you put yourself at risk.

Is there any special preparation or routine?
D: No, I’m not superstitious, but I do always wear my Ray-Ban sunnies – so if you’re reading this, Ray-Ban?! They’re polarised, so it takes the glare off the water and allows me to look critically at the conditions when I’m racing at speed. The other thing I like to do before I race, is, while the boat is being craned into the water and I’m waiting to get in, I take the time to have a laugh and a yarn with my crew, who are also my family and friends. I liken this to days gone by when we’d sit in the backyard in Newcastle tinkering with the boat, with friends and family around us. If I was with a bunch of people I didn’t know in a boat I hadn’t built, I’d be shitting bricks, but I’m not, so I feel no stress or fear.

What goes through your mind when you’re about to take off?
D: Total focus. I’m reading the water, the conditions, the controls in the boat… I need to be in tune with my vessel, feeling the vibrations – it requires 100% concentration. I don’t want to say meditation – does that sound wanky? – but it is a trance-like state. You need to get your body and mind into the zone. Once you’re over 100km/h you need to block everything else out. Knowing how my boat drives and testing it constantly, making required adjustments, knowing how it should feel – this prepares you to achieve the unachievable. Without this level of dedication and understanding you’d just be forcing your family and friends to come together for a day they’d never want.

Ken, how did it feel breaking the record 41 years ago?
K: I was at Blowering Dam near Tumut, NSW. It’s still one of the best places in the world to attempt a world water speed record – a nice, long, straight stretch of water allowing you to build speed and a row of mountains either side to funnel the winds along that path. With the wind at the nose of the boat, or on its tail, the boat hits the waves at a right angle, which is important to keep it stable and sticking to the water. When I broke the record the first time there was hardly anybody there. The next year, on October 8, 1978, there was a lot of media. Dave wasn’t there, however. I was a bit reluctant to let him watch because it was so damn dangerous.
When I achieved the record, for me, it was a bit like Sir Edmund Hillary who said after climbing Mount Everest, “I’ve beaten the bastard”. Of course, it was a feeling of incomparable achievement and satisfaction, to fulfill my life’s dream.

This sport carries 85% mortality rate — why do it?
D: Because it can be broken and we know how to break it. There is so much to be learnt from Dad and Spirit of Australia and we’re showing the rest of the world that it can be done again. We often see wannabe glory grabbers throw a million dollars at designing a boat, with no regard for the sport, true danger or design. This is where they come unstuck. They see a boat built in a backyard and overlook the technique, engineering, skill and experience. Approaching something with this level of inexperience and arrogance is where fatalities happen and sadly our sport is totally unforgiving.

Do you worry about death or worry more about how you’ll cheat it?
D: Haha… I’m more worried about how I finance it! We don’t get as much time on the water as dad did in the ’70s due to government approvals and so on, so I think about how often I can test or trial the boat before I attempt the record. I’m not fatalistic about death, when it’s your time it’s your time. I do think if you fear death, and this is a constant for you, perhaps this isn’t the right sport to pursue.

Who are your competitors and how do they match up with you in this sport?
D: Since Dad has held the record for 41 years, there’s been about 165 people who have said they can beat it. Sadly, two have been killed. We see many announcements – engines bought, large sums of money invested… they think because you draw a design and buy a jet engine you can win. The sport deserves more respect than that. If only it was that easy! They overlook the absolute dedication and skill it truly takes. There’s a team in Britain called Longbow, they are serious challengers and could be real competition in the future. We are lucky because we’ve had some dedicated friends and now crew members, Gordon Eckel and Ian Woods who have steamrolled sponsorship and investments. Aussie businesses have really got behind Spirit of Australia II and it’s meant we finally have the funding necessary to achieve the world record. A very big thank you to those businesses and people who have dedicated time, money and comradeship to the cause. These include: Gary Johnson from Road Tech Marine and Jcar, Certus APAC, Beastwear and Westpac Little Ripper. We just wouldn’t have reached the speeds we have without them. We are always looking for additional support so please contact us via the website

Ken, how do you feel about your son trying to beat your 41-year-old Outright Unlimited World Water Speed Record?
K: As a father I’m only concerned he does it safely. I don’t want my son killed, but he knows the boat inside and out, understands the design, as we built it together. Plus he knows how to drive it well… this is what’s necessary to achieve a world water speed record.

So, what’s next up for you guys?
K: I just want to support my son in his endeavours and provide any further knowledge and support I can to see him live his dream. Whilst I am based in the U.S. we regularly Skype and talk shop and I will obviously be in Australia to witness the moment he achieves the world record. It will be a proud moment for me as a Father – to see my legacy live on in my boy.
D: I will continue testing and trialling the boat, preparing for the global world record later in the year. The last trial that we did was our fastest yet, so there is no reason to think we can’t maintain this trajectory and success. I feel for my mum, she’s had to live through this angst and stress with my Dad and now with her son. She’s an incredibly supportive and resilient woman, as is my partner Lesa. She’s a psychologist and her insight really helps me focus and stay motivated. Although, it must be difficult for her as she puts up with an awful lot of shit! So, I look to make not only my dad proud but the two women in my life who have supported my dream. Also, a shout out to The Australian Navy 808 squadron – they will be joining us at the next trial run with their MH 90 choppers on safety patrols. Thanks, boys. ■

Each trial run Dave Warby does is broadcast live via Facebook. To watch from Dave’s perspective in the cockpit you can check it out here —


For the full article grab the August 2019 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.

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