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SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA  as depicted in a poster image 1991.

Spirit of Australia

Ken Warby grew up in Newcastle, New South Wales, and started speed boat racing in his early teens in a boat called HELLCAT reaching speeds of 40 km/h. He went on to win numerous titles in a Lewis skiff powered by a 266 cubic inch Ford Cobra engine.

Inspired by Donald Campbell's seven world water speed and two land speed records, and shocked by his death in 1967, Warby decided to attempt the world water speed record and break the 300 mph barrier.

It would take him nine years to fulfil his dream. He named his quest 'Project 300' in honour of the elusive barrier. 'Project 300' began in 1969 on Warby's kitchen table where he draughted his first designs for SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA (HV000018). His suburban backyard soon became a workshop of hydro and aerodynamics. He bought two surplus J34 WE34 Westinghouse jet engines from an air force disposal sale at Dubbo, NSW, by tender. The engines were originally installed as booster engines in Neptune anti-submarine aircraft. Warby bought a third engine for spare parts from the Department of Supply depot at regent's park, Sydney, at a cost of $65. It was this engine that was used in the first world record attempt in 1977.

Warby's world record achievements are all the more remarkable because he did not have the backing of the big corporations like Donald and Malcolm Campbell, Lee Taylor and other speed drivers. Neither did Warby receive government financial assistance. For the greater part of the project - the first world record attempt in November 1977 - Warby had no major sponsor. He did however receive some assistance from the Shell Oil Company, Fossey's, Nile and Channel 10. Shell Oil supplied the fuel (kerosene) and the local Fossey's store sponsored modifications to the hull. The RAAF School of technical Training, Wagga Wagga and Canberra, overhauled the engine and provided hangar space.

Warby studied mechanical engineering and worked as a salesman, yet retired once he had built his boat to concentrate on the record attempt. As Warby said “the project reached a point where something had to go and the choice was clear." He earned money touring SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA to regional boat shows and also by selling small oil paintings of the Australian outback on balsa and Masonite for $2.50- $10.00 each.

Warby was to achieve water speeds that claimed the lives of many other drivers.

Donald Campbell died on lake Coniston, England in 1967, when his jet-engined BLUEBIRD somersaulted backwards at an estimated speed of 514 km/h (320mph) when he was trying to break the 300 mph barrier. In that era drivers were advised to wait for the water to settle before making their return run. Campbell immediately turned around after his first run and ran into his own wash, flipping his hydroplane.

In 1929 the three times land speed record champion Englishman Sir Henry Segrave was killed when his stepped hydroplane MISS ENGLAND II hit a submerged log at a speed of 157 km/h (98 mph) while he was trying to break the 100 mph barrier.

In 1952 John Cobb, then holder of the land speed record was killed when his jet-engined boat CRUSADER flipped while he was trying to capture the water speed record - what was then known as the water barrier - the 200 mph mark. In 1955, Italian Mario Verga was killed trying to do the same thing when his propeller driven boat LAURA III flipped on Lake Como.

Since Warby's successes in 1977 and 1978 there have been two further fatalities. Lee Taylor died in 1980 trying to reclaim the record when his rocket-powered hydroplane US DISCOVERY II disintegrated on Lake Tahoe, Nevada while travelling at 434.23 km/h - well below the record. In 1989 another American driver Craig Aarfons died when his boat looped-the loop after hitting rough water at an estimated speed of 560 km/h.

Warby built SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA specifically for the record attempt. His idea for the boat was a conventional three-point hydroplane design developed in the United States of America by the Apel brothers and patented in 1937. It had been the basis of the design for every challenger since American Stanley Sayres took the record in 1950 in a hydroplane called SLO MO SHUN.

Warby started building the hull on 1972 under an awning in his backyard in the suburbs of Sydney. It was 8.22 metres long, with a beam of 2.50 metres, with oregan stringers, spruce frames, ply sheathing and fibreglass coating. It took Warby two years to build. He poured every cent he earned into the project, often being able to buy only one sheet of plywood at a time.

Trials began in 1974 and in September that year Warby took the NSW and Australian records at a speed of 267.26 km/h, at Lake Munmorah, near Newcastle. Campbell set the world record of 444.69 km/h on Lake Dumbleyung, WA in 1964, but did not claim the Australian record, leaving it for an Australian.

During the trials SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA had no engine cowlings, air intakes or tail plane. Warby described it as "a box with an engine in it and a couple of skis put in front to plane it." However he was encouraged with its performance, believing the boat capable of 560 km/h and felt he needed further technical advice if he was to double the boat's speed.

In 1975 Warby approached Professor Tom Fink, the Dean of Engineering at the University of NSW and his colleague Dr Lawrence Doctors. Fink, an aeronautical engineer, had worked at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, wind tunnel testing BLUEBIRD in the 1950s and 60s.

Although Warby described SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA as a crude craft, Professor Fink found it well developed. The main issues were the boat was not streamlined and did not have a tail plane. The challenge was to ensure the boat was statically stable and would not loop-the-loop at high speeds.

Fink said the tail plane was essential to stabilise the boat, to throw the nose down if it started to lift. SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA was the first world record boat with a tail plane. The controlling authority for speed boat racing, the Union Internationale Motonautique, had not allowed tails planes at the time of Donald Campbell's campaign. BLUEBIRD has no tail plane and no stability in rough water - it looped-the-loop. Professor Fink felt Warby would suffer the same fate without a tail plane.

Fink advised wind tunnel testing to determine the size and configuration of the tail plane, given Warby's one restriction - that the span be no wider than 2.44 metres since that was the maximum width of trailers allowed on New South Wales roads.

There were no formal drawings for the project, except Warby's pencil drawings and there was no wind tunnel model. Warby built the 1:12 scale balsa wood model of SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA and Dr Lawrence Doctors carried out the wind tunnel analysis at the University of New South Wales. Because of the span restriction, the tail plane had to be greater in chord than ideal, potentially reducing performance. Professor Fink also suggested streamlined cowlings and air scoops to control the air intake past the cockpit and driver's head.

In 1976 Ken Warby took his boat to Blowering Dam, Tumut, NSW and lifted his Australian record to 288.06 km/h. It was not until late 1976 that 'Project 300' had enough money to add the aluminium cowlings and tail plane. The two air intakes were designed by Professor Fink and added when more money became available in 1977.

Warby gradually increased his speed record to 310.59 km/h in April 1977, to 345.99 km/h in September 1977, to 394.27 km/h in October - working up to attempt the world record. Professor Fink and Dr Laurie Doctors felt that Warby would be successful in his bid.

The engine was the next major challenge - to increase speed. With technical advice from Professor Fink, Project Manager Major Robert Apathy and Bankstown Airbase, Ken Warby next installed and trialled an after-burner. It malfunctioned and despite repeated attempts Warby never got to use it. The team tried to increase power by redesigning the exhaust system - extending the tailpipe and reducing its diameter. One of Warby's last modifications to the boat in preparation for the world record attempt was the addition of a widescreen to improve airflow around the cockpit. During trials he found that he couldn't hold his head into the air blast. Removing his hand from the wheel it was flung back over his shoulders and he had to struggle to get it back on the wheel. Accordingly, he fitted a head-rest and windscreen and moved the instrument panel higher. Warby, however, lamented the fact that he now could not get out of the cockpit if he crashed.

The World Water Speed record is calculated as the average speed over two runs of one kilometre which have to be completed within an hour. The boats go so fast they need a 7-12 km straight course to fire up, reach optimum speed to run the one kilometre distance and then slow down. At speeds in the high 400 km/h it takes only two minutes to complete the course.

During October and November 1977 Warby and his team waited at Blowering Dam, trialling the hydroplane, waiting for smooth conditions to attempt the world record. He succeeded but it was not without mishap. During trials a screwdriver was accidently sucked into the jet engine shattering the blades. In a midnight dash the engine was replaced with the $65 engine driven down from Warby's home in Sydney. He also hit a duck, damaging the rudder. A replacement section was welded overnight.

Knowing that Warby was to run for the record the following day, Fink did some last minute calculations to try to increase speed without sacrificing stability. At 11pm that night Warby and several assistants took his advice and cut approximately 6.5 cm off the rudder to reduce drag.

On Sunday 20 November 1977, Warby broke the record when he took SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA to a speed of 464.44 km/h. At the age of 38 Warby had become the first speed boat driver to design, build and pilot his boat to a new world water speed record. According to UIM regulations he had to break the record by 0.75% to reach 462.43 km/h in order to claim the record. It took him two attempts but he did it. On the first run of the second attempt he reached 486 km/h yet had to slow down on the return run after a ski-boat crossed his path.

It was not until 1978 that warby attracted a major sponsor, when Speedo announced that it would help with the attempt to break the 300 mph barrier. For each record attempt SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA carried a new brand name or logo on its paintwork.

Confident of increasing hid speed further with an engine rebuilt by the RAAF, Warby returned to Blowering Dam in October 1978 to street banners and a civic reception. A goodwill dinner was held by Tumut Chamber of Commerce, and the local school children presented him with several scrolls to wish him good luck for the 300mph and 500 km/h barriers.

On Sunday 8 October 1978 on an ideal water surface, in front of thousands of spectators, Warby pushed SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA to a new record with a speed of 511.11 km/h (317.68 mph). He clocked 492.813 km/h (306.225 mph) on his outward first run and a faster 529.412 km/h (328.96 mph) on the return run - without using the afterburner.

He returned to shore to a hero's welcome. Content to leave his record secure at the 511 km/h mark, Warby moved on to race jet engined drag cars. He left Australia for the USA in 1983. After retiring from racing he established a business selling Ready-mix trucks. His world record remains unbroken. Warby is still the fastest man on water and SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA remains the fastest boat in the world.