World’s fastest boat driver, Ken Warby, turns 81

KEN Warby set the world water speed record in 1978 and in the almost 43 years since that day, no one has been able to better it. Today, the fastest man on water, celebrates his 81st birthday.

Despite numerous attempts in the intervening four decades, no one has been able to break the record Warby set on home soil.

I’ve been fascinated with land and water speed records since listening intently to stories from my parents about Sir Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald, and their land and water record-breaking machines, all christened Bluebird.

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One of our family road trips taken in the last years of the glorious 1970s aboard our Sahara Gold Ford Falcon XA station wagon had a stopover at the Blowering Dam, located on the Tumut River in the Snowy River region of NSW.

It’s the site of one of the most underrated and, sadly, mostly forgotten achievements by an Australian sportsman. On 8 October 1977, Ken Warby’s Spirit of Australia jet boat skimmed across the glass-like water on its way to an official record of 317.58mp/h.

That’s 511.10km/h in our numbers. In 1977.

When we arrived we discovered a sign had been erected to mark the achievement. The sign featured an action shot of the Spirit of Australia in full flight on its way to claiming the world record with Ken Warby at the controls.

Being a wide-eyed 12-year-old that was nuts about anything to do with speed and mechanics, standing at that sign was the highlight of the trip. It’s the only thing I can remember about the whole holiday.

Ken Warby
The man of the moment… Ken Warby turns 81

More recently, I embarked in a multi-day ride to the Blowering Dam to visit the old sign and the location of an important chapter in the history of Australian and world speed records.

The ride across the Snowy Mountains Highway from Cooma is possibly one of the most enjoyable strips of bitumen in the country, and as the highway snakes down towards the vast and picturesque locality of Blowering, you get a great view of the dam.

That 20km stretch of water reaches from Talbingo to the Blowering Dam wall. During the 1978 world record run, Warby’s Spirit of Australia was covering 140 metres of water every second; that’s one kilometre in just seven seconds.

The 160km ride from Cooma to the dam had taken me more than two hours, Warby would have done it in a little over 18 minutes. Warby’s launching ramp at The Pines is still in use, and now features a billboard celebrating his record-breaking runs.

The ramp is just a few kilometres from the dam wall, which still features the original billboard I remember standing next to all those years ago.

Incredibly, Warby’s record remains unbroken, and even more incredible is the fact that his son David will soon have a crack at bettering the mark, at the same location. David Warby’s goal is to keep the family name the fastest on water.

An all-new jet boat has been built, and christened Spirit of Australia II, with preparations well underway. David’s attempt will launch from the very same ramp as his dad did more than 40 years ago.

Standing on the water’s edge, I thought about my fascination with speed. And while I love the idea of going fast, I realised I was more than happy with the speed capabilities of my motorbike, I’ll leave the high-speed stuff like this, to the legends.

Chris Dobie
Chris Dobie
Fascinated by anything with wheels from the moment his mother tucked him into his new pram for the trip home from the hospital, Chris is happiest when writing feature stories recounting the colourful history of the automobile, and the legends who raced them.


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