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!

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Voyage Log: Sydney-Brisbane Aug 2008: Day 4

Noon Position: Lat 31 04.5 S, Long 153 19.9 E
Day’s Run: 120 nautical miles

After lunch, the main course, main topmast and mizzen topsails are furled, preparing us for an unpredictable storm we could see to the far east of the ship, which may approach later in the evening. Later that evening, under a full moon, Endeavour hit record speeds for this voyage – nine knots, twice the speed Captain Cook traveled in the same waters all those years ago.

As the night goes by, far in the distance thunder echoes across the Tasman Sea pricking our ears, strikes of lightning soon follow, bursts so bright blinding one’s eyes like a camera flash and then the rain sets in. The 500 tonne ship experiences wind gusts up to 30 knots, while surfing the heavy swell right into the morning.

Asleep in the hammocks

Asleep in the hammocks

Sailors wake to the morning with someone shaking their leg. “Get up – it’s breakfast time”. By now the crew are used to the routine and the weary, hard working sailors slide out of the comfortable hammocks and make their way down below to the 20th-century mess deck where there is a wonderful smell coming from the galley. Our catering officer, Abi, and cook’s mate, Darbey, have prepared a delicious surprise, everyone’s favourite – bacon and eggs.

Up on deck we are welcomed with dark grey skies; southwest winds 15-20 knots and dark choppy seas; with wave heights of 2-2.5 metres. The crew find it difficult to furl sails, clenching their bodies to yard with all their strength, while mastering the right knots they need to use to keep the sail in its rightfully stowed position. Eventually the sail is tied to the yard; the adrenalin rush is overwhelming and crew hang about soaking up the surrealism of what they actually just accomplished as a team.

Captain Ross discusses longitude, latitude and fixed positioning

Captain Ross discusses longitude, latitude and fixed positioning

Just before lunch the voyage crew are invited to the 18th-century deck by the captain to discuss longitude, latitude and fixed positioning. Ross, our captain, also explains where Captain Cook himself actually sailed in these waters and how close we are to the route of his voyage. It appears to be very close indeed, which has captivated the whole crew of our very own replica into recognising the importance of the journey that happened nearly 240 years ago.

All is well.

Contributed by ship’s steward, Melanie Snow