The home-made boat that pushed 511 km/h: a world record since 1978

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Australia. Forty years, 1 month and 8 days ago. Ken Warby,  Australian professional pilot, pushes hard on the 10,000 horsepower of his Spirit of Australia, reaching 511 km/h on the waters of the Blowering Dam, marking that run in history.

Today we want to relive that modern myth, which appears to us as a story from another era, with all the flavour of a “home-made” enterprise. Yes, because the Spirit of Australia, Ken’s boat, had not come from a specialized shipyard or from a laboratory of technicians and engineers, but from the pilot’s garden.

The fastest boat in history is “home-made”

It was 1970 when Ken designed the project on his kitchen table. After some time he found surplus products of the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) at an auction in Sydney, where he found and bought three jet engines for J-34 aircrafts. The amount spent? $ 100 for the first two jet engines, $ 60 for the third. From that day on, Warby took advantage of every free moment and began to build Spirit of Australia in his garden, working only during good weather days, and covering it up with a cloth on rainy days. The materials? No carbon if that’s what you were thinking of, but only wood, fiberglass and elbow grease.

After four years of work, in 1974, the boat was ready for launch. It still was far to be “complete”, as there were no air intakes and aft tail, but it still was good enough to conquer the Australian speed record. Having established this first one, Ken needed more space in order to undermine a new goal: the world record. The “spot” for this purpose was found in Blowering Dam, in New South Wales, Australia. To focus on his dream, Ken then abandoned his daily work and started working 100% on the boat, with Shell supporting him, as his sponsor. To keep the project going, although the sponsor, he still needed more. Thus, the future record-man began to travel across Australia selling oil paintings and showing his project in the service stations.

Spirit of Australia towards the absolute record of speed on water

At that point, Spirit of Australia needed some tests, so it was taken to the wind tunnel of NSW University, where Professor Tom Finks highlighted the critical issues that Ken would have to focus on: engine overhaul, tail plane and air intakes. The professor was not new to projects of the kind, having also collaborated on the Bluebird K7 of the great Donald Campbell who, back in 1967, died in his attempt to the record by crashing his seaplane at more than 320 miles per hour. Nevertheless, Ken’s project impressed Finks enough that he entered the record preparation team. With his support, Ken then managed to conquer the first world record in 1977, with an astonishing speed of 464 km/h.

After this achievement, Ken moved on, focusing on a new big goal: to exceed 300 miles per hour of speed (about 480 km/h). With the help of RAAF technicians and a full-blown J-34 (and a new sponsorship, Speedo), Ken returned to Blowering Dam in 1978. Here the Australian managed to travel at an average of 511 km/h, with peaks of 550 km/h, becoming the first person to design, build and drive a boat with a speed record on water.

Spirit of Australia is now in the National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbor, Sydney, Australia.

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