Vale Ken Warby, the fastest man on water for over 40 years

We pay tribute to Ken Warby, world record-holding Aussie motorboat and drag racer


Ken Warby, the legendary Australian speedboat racer, has passed away at the age of 84. Warby held the unlimited world water speed record undefeated for over four decades.

Born on 9 May 1939 in Newcastle, NSW, Warby’s passion for speed and racing began at a young age. He graduated from building model boats to creating his first race boat at the age of just 14 in the family backyard.

He continued to build and race boats in the 1960s and early 70s while undertaking a degree in mechanical engineering.

In 1972, Ken bought three military surplus Westinghouse jet engines to begin his journey to build the fastest boat on earth, Spirit of Australia. Built in the family backyard with only three power tools, it was said to have cost less than $10,000 to construct.

Warby started testing the incomplete boat in in 1974, settling on Blowering Dam, near Tumut, NSW, as the place to make his attempts. He quit his day job around this time to focus on raising money for the project. With initial support from Shell, Ken later attracted retailer Fosseys and eventually swimwear brand Speedo as major sponsors.

Other support came from University of NSW academic Tom Fink, who had done wind tunnel testing on Donald Campbell’s Bluebird K7 and joined Warby’s team as well.

RAAF personnel had volunteered their assistance with the engines in their spare time, but later the RAAF offically came on board and the engine was overhauled by apprentices at the Wagga Wagga training base.

In 1977, Warby claimed his first world record, to the tune of 288.60mph (464.46km/h), breaking Lee Taylor’s old record by just over 3mph.

He then reset his own record in October 1978, clocking a speed of 317.6mph (511km/h). This achievement made him an instant hero and a household name in his home country and around the world.

Warby’s record has stood for over 40 years, and he is the only person to have designed, built and raced a boat to an unlimited water speed record.

The Spirt of Australia was acquired by the National Maritime Museum in 1983, where it remains to this day.

Warby retired from racing in 2007 but had been working with his son David on a new boat, dubbed Spirit of Australia II, to claim the Outright Unlimited World Water Speed Record.

Aside from boat racing, Warby drag-raced a variety of jet-powered vehicles in both Australia and the US, including dragsters, funny cars and trucks.

For more, check out Brian Lohnes’s excellent interview with Ken here.