Ken Warby and SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA: Still the world record holder, 40 years later

<em>Spirit of Australia</em> driven by Ken Warby on Blowering Dam, 1977. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[291], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Spirit of Australia driven by Ken Warby on Blowering Dam, 1977. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[291], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

On 20 November 1977, Ken Warby set the world water speed record, piloting his wooden jet-powered boat, Spirit of Australia, into the history books. Warby’s home-made wooden hydroplane reached speeds of 464.44 km/h, breaking the previous ten-year-old record of 458.98 km/h held by American Lee Taylor. The current record of 511.11 km/h (317.68 mi/h) was recorded by Warby on the 8th of October 1978, but, Warby first claimed the water speed record 40 years ago today.

But where Lee Taylor’s record attempt had cost close to $1 million in 1967, Warby had built his hydroplane in a suburban backyard…with a military-surplus jet engine that cost $65!

Driving himself to success

Initially, Warby set out on to beat the established speed record of 464 km/h, and then he set his sights higher to capture another milestone, the mythical 300 mi/h or 500 km/h. At the beginning, both goals were way off in the distance, as the fastest speed he had gone in a powerboat before building Spirit of Australia was around 140 km/h, a third of the existing record.

But Ken was determined to reach his goal. In 1972 he began designing and building a craft for himself at his home in Sydney NSW, testing and improving it in a series of gradual steps.

His support staff were friends and volunteers, Warby’s devised a training programme for himself and each step to breaking the world speed record was based on a day-by-day, learn-from-experience approach. No one ever checked his diet or fitness level, and his neighbours thought he was mad as they watched Warby build the Spirit of Australia in a suburban backyard. His budget, or lack thereof, dictated the rate of progress and it was only when Warby had established his credentials with his first world record in November 1977 did the first major sponsor come on board with significant support for the project – swimwear and accessories company Speedo.

Ken Warby celebrating with a bottle of champagne. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[288], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Ken Warby celebrating with a bottle of champagne. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[288], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Technical support

The three air force surplus jet engines used by Warby cost him just $265. When the first one was damaged, he fitted the $65 one he had put aside for spares. This second engine would go on to be the world speed record setting component. His final record was set with a fourth engine, procured by swapping one of his dud engines with a working model used by the trainees at the Wagga Wagga RAAF base, after they had joined the project as enthusiastic support crew down at the dam in November 1977.

Earlier, when it finally became necessary, Warby had sought technical advice from professional colleagues Professor Tom Fink and Dr Laurie Doctors from the University of NSW. After testing a model of Spirit of Australia in their wind-tunnel, Fink and Doctors were astonished at how much Warby instinctively knew and designed by.

These pen drawings of <em>Spirit of Australia</em> are titled 'Project 300 - alterations expected' and very simply outline the proposed changes to the vessel for Ken Warby's world speed record attempt. The changes illustrated and mentioned include moving the engine forward by four feet, air scoops to extend right to transom, parallel and down to three feet, vampire type wind 'brakes' (hydraulic), boat to plane on two feet aft of sponsons, possible exhaust steering and thrust plate angled down to left of stern etc. These revisions were to be tested in the wind tunnel at 300 mph with Warby in the cockpit where it would also be decided if a cockpit plastic windscreen would be needed. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[255], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

These pen drawings of Spirit of Australia are titled ‘Project 300 – alterations expected’ and very simply outline the proposed changes to the vessel for Ken Warby’s world speed record attempt. The changes illustrated and mentioned include moving the engine forward by four feet, air scoops to extend right to transom, parallel and down to three feet, vampire type wind ‘brakes’ (hydraulic), boat to plane on two feet aft of sponsons, possible exhaust steering and thrust plate angled down to left of stern etc. These revisions were to be tested in the wind tunnel at 300 mph with Warby in the cockpit where it would also be decided if a cockpit plastic windscreen would be needed. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[255], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

At one point, to gain the last few units of speed needed, during an evening phone conversation Fink suggested the breakthrough, after hand scribbling a final set of calculations. Overnight, using a blowtorch at a farmer’s shed near the dam, Warby cut 65mm off the cast steel rudder, leaving a rough finish, but that gained a vital increase that finally gave him the record the next day.

There was nothing hi-tech about Spirit of Australia, which was after all wooden boat, but the previous record was left well behind as Spirit of Australia powered past the course markers, on a dam which remained open to the public for boating and fishing during the world record attempt.

Ken Warby standing on Spirit of Australia. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[267], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Learning to build for speed

The cliché says ‘winning at sport is not a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that’, which may be so for many sportsmen, but in Warby’s case the water speed record attempt had every chance of ending in disaster: The road that had already been travelled by many and was marked with a series of fatal accidents. Warby was cautious. He did not know the answers for many of the problems he expected to meet along the way, so he followed a path on which he could learn as he progressed.

Promotional material from a 1977 Boat Show, with Ken Warby's safety advice. ANMM Collection 1163[281], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Promotional material from a 1977 Boat Show, with Ken Warby’s safety advice. ANMM Collection 1163[281], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Promotional material from a 1977 Boat Show, with Ken Warby's safety advice. ANMM Collection 1163[281], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Promotional material from a 1977 Boat Show, with Ken Warby’s safety advice. ANMM Collection 1163[281], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

He started designing Spirit of Australia with a shape based on his knowledge of hull design, built the basic hull in the wooden materials that he understood, tested it at partially complete stages, modified as necessary and then went on to gradually explore the problem areas and search for the solutions.

Spirit of Australia is a three-point hydroplane, well established as the type for high-speed racing and records. The hull took shape first around two main longitudinal solid timber girders, surrounded by transverse bulkheads that included a floor, side frames and deck beams. On the centreline at the bottom is a flat keel. Chine logs, stringers and a solid wood transom complete the framework of oregon and spruce, which was covered with marine-grade plywood and finally laminated with Dynel cloth. The sponsons were built onto the hull and their structure is similar. Just forward of the cockpit are the airspeed fitting and a cleat — even the world’s fastest boat needs to be towed or tied up.

<em>Spirit of Australia</em> is a hydroplane designed and built by Ken Warby in Australia between 1972 - 1974. This vessel holds the current world record of 317.596m/h (511.11km/h) averaged over 2 runs on Blowering Dam, near Tumut, New South Wales in 1978. ANMM Collection 00000003.

Spirit of Australia is a hydroplane designed and built by Ken Warby in Australia between 1972 – 1974. This vessel holds the current world record of 317.596m/h (511.11km/h) averaged over 2 runs on Blowering Dam, near Tumut, New South Wales in 1978. ANMM Collection 00000003.

The twin girders became engine beds supporting the framework of welded mild steel pipe in which the engine was slung. For steering, a mild steel rudder blade and quadrant were securely bolted to the transom, linked by heavy cables to a wheel in the cockpit. Behind the sponsons were stainless steel fins, acting like skegs, to give the rudder something to push against.

It was a simple but effective structure, built of materials anyone could source and priced to suit Warby’s self-financed resources. By contrast, the two groups currently planning separate assaults on the record are promoting designs built of the latest available lightweight composite construction materials, requiring sponsors to support a significant budget.

In a flash

How fast was he? At 500 km/h Warby was doing one kilometre every seven seconds, and every 100m took him only 0.7 seconds. Spirit of Australia was in straight line all the way along, skimming the surface of the dam with barely a deviation, all the time delicately balanced on the tips of its sponsons, fins, rudder and planning shoe, casually rocking from side to side. ‘Sponson walking’ it’s called, and it is unnerving to watch but absolutely vital for success according to Warby: The ‘gentle’ rolling motion releases air pressure which builds up under the hull and would have threatened to flip the boat.

Ken Warby standing in the Spirit of Australia. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[313], reproduced courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Strapped into the aircraft style cockpit by his assistants each time he set off, Warby used a classic phrase to describe his instinctive piloting of Spirit of Australia: ‘You don’t drive the boat, you wear it.’

Holding on to the record

There are, of course, challengers for Warby’s speed record, including from Ken himself and his own family.

Spirit of Australia II is a new jet-powered boat built by Ken and his son David Warby to take on the record. Spirit of Australia II is designed by Ken Warby and looks remarkably like its predecessor. It is also built of wood and fibreglass but the craft is, in fact, a very much improved version of the original Spirit of Australia. Spirit of Australia II slightly longer, the sponsons have been altered, it has a new powerplant, rudder modifications and safety improvements. Spirit of Australia II has close to 50% more power than the original boat, powered by a Rolls Royce Orpheus 803 Ex Italian Air Force engines, removed from a Fiat Gina G-91 jet fighter.

Spirit of Australia II ‘s first outing Taree. July 2017

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Gone are the days of solo backyard building by Ken, with no regulations or safety requirements to contend with. It’s still early days in so far as testing the boat goes, but the construction of Spirit of Australia II is being led by Dave Warby, who is an experienced powerboat builder with recognised powerboat accreditations for building regulated aspects of these high powered crafts.

Warby Motorsport conducted the first tests of Spirit of Australia II at Taree before moving to Blowering Dam in September 2017. They note that ‘on the 22nd of September a sign was unveiled at The Pines (the base camp area for Ken’s World Records) at Blowering Dam to recognise Ken Warby’s World Water Speed Records on the Dam’, an initiative by the Tumut Rotary Club and Snowy Valleys Council.

Spirit of Australia II is planning to return to Blowering Dam for more testing and they will be able to celebrate Ken Warby holding the world water speed record for 40 years right on the spot. Meanwhile, the original boat and current record holder Spirit of Australia remains on display at the museum, a proud reminder of Australian ingenuity and daring.

— David Payne, Curator of Historic Vessels

Spirit of Australia is on display in the museum and seen with our FREE galleries ticket.

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