An interview I did with Ken Warby a few year ago. Enjoy.
When I arrived Wednesday afternoon, everyone was sitting around and swapping racing stories over a beer. The guy next to me had a heavy Australian accent that sounded somewhat familiar. Under the dark glasses and black hat was none other than the most Extreme Boater of all time, Ken Warby the Water Speed Record Holder. God I love having a tape recorder on me when I need it.
Setting the World Water Speed Record has been Ken’s life passion. His mind was made up from the time he was eight years old and glued a CO2 cartridge to a model boat and blew it across a neighbor’s pool. Thirty years later he claimed ownership of the record and lived to tell the story.
EBM – Ken, I guess I should introduce you as the most extreme boater of all time. What is your record, 317?
KW – 317.6 to be exact. And we set that record 27 years ago.
EBM – I’m sure that type of effort cost a small fortune. Where were you living and what were you doing to make money back then?
KW - I was living in Australia and doing oil paintings in shopping centers.
EBM – You made enough money painting murals to take on a World Speed Record project?
KW – How much do you think the first boat cost to build and run?
EBM – I can only guess, three or four hundred thousand dollars?
KW – Not even close.
EBM – More than that?
KW – Far less, we built that boat under a tree in the backyard of a rented house. We had a tarp to throw over it at night, that was about it. It was made of plywood and then wrapped in fiberglass. We bought three jet engines at a government auction. I got two J34 engines for $200 and a third for $65. We put together the entire boat for less than $10,000.
EBM – So you set the record of 317.6 using a $100 jet engine?
KW – Not exactly. We set the Australian Speed Record of 288 using one of those engines but it was flat out. A year later, after the Air Force mechanic’s academy rebuilt the $65 engine for me, we set the World Record at 317.6 and she had more to go.
EBM – I understand you have a new boat built and your looking to better your existing record.
KW – Yes it’s over in Australia, the problem is the water level is too low at the dam that we use for the record attempts and there’s just no room to run.
EBM – I bet the new boat cost more than $10,000 to build.
KW – Hell, I paid that much for the rudder on the new boat.
EBM – Have you tested the new boat?
KW – Yes we have a river that we run on but speeds are held to around 200mph because it’s a narrow river and there’s no room for error.
EBM – Are you ready to go faster?
KW – Yes we just made some changes to the shape of the sponsons and we are ready to go faster.
EBM – What are you using for power this time.
KW – Same motor as last time, a Westinghouse J34 that makes about 3500lbs of thrust.
EBM – Any safety equipment this time?
KW – Last time I didn’t even have a seat belt. The new boat has a F16 canopy, safety cell, 5-point harness, onboard air, fire extinguishers, and a radio so I can talk to my team, we really went all out on the new boat.
EBM – Now for the $64,000 question: You’ve held the record for 27 years, two guys have died trying to better your speed, there’s some talk of a challenger but no boat has been built as of yet. So why would you risk your life again to better your own record?
KW – I get a real kick out of the designing and building of the craft, you could put a trained monkey in to drive it. We have until October of this year to set the record or we have to get the boat out of Australia. If we don’t have time I’ll bring it back to my home in Cincinnati. Maybe I’ll put it on a pole in front of my house as a monument to stupidity. I’m going to be 66 years old next month and I have a deal worked out with Howard Arneson, I’m not going to retire until he does, and he’s in his mid 80s. In fact he and I have spent a lot of time talking about building a boat using his surface drive to set the propeller driven speed record.
Since the time Ken set the record back in October of 1978 two other challengers have tried to better his mark, both ending in tragic failure.
In 1980, the previous water speed record holder, Lee Taylor, tried to reclaim his title in a 2.5 million dollar boat called "Discovery II." The missile-shaped craft was constructed of aluminum, titanium and stainless steel and was powered by a rocket engine that burned hydrogen peroxide fuel. The power plant was said to generate 8,000 pounds of thrust.
The trial took place November 13, 1980 on Nevada's Lake Tahoe. Discovery II roared through its first pass at 269.85 mph and was decelerating when it appeared to hit a swell. Witnesses reported that the boat veered to the left and suddenly disintegrated, vanishing under the surface of the lake in a matter of a few seconds. Taylor’s body was found a day later still strapped into the cockpit.
Craig Arfons, a former automotive drag racing champion and a close friend of Ken Warby was the next to take up the challenge. In July 9, 1989, he put the finishing touches on a jet hydroplane called "Rain-X Record Challenger," which boasted a lightweight composite hull and a jet engine that could deliver 5,500 pounds of thrust with the afterburner lit. Arfons calculated that the boat's favorable thrust-to-weight ratio would give it a 200 percent power advantage over Warby's record-setting boat.
The record attempt took place on Jackson Lake near Sebring, Florida. Members of Arfons' crew say his boat reached a speed of 263 mph before it became airborne and began to cartwheel across the mirror-smooth lake. Arfons tried to deploy a safety parachute, but the angle at which his boat was traveling prevented the parachute from opening. Arfons was killed as his boat shattered around him. He was 39.