Water speed record

A model of Spirit of Australia in which Ken Warby set the world water speed record in 1978 on Blowering Dam, New South Wales, Australia
The most prolific Water Speed Record breakers in history. Donald Campbell and Bluebird K7 at high speed on Coniston Water in 1967

The World Unlimited water speed record is the officially recognised fastest speed achieved by a water-borne vehicle. The current record of 511 km/h (318 mph) was achieved in 1978.

With an approximate fatality rate of 85% since 1940,[1][2] the record is one of the sporting world's most hazardous competitions.

Before 1910

William Cogswell's steam yacht Feiseen, which set a new world speed record on 25 August 1893 of 50.8 km/h (31.6 mph).

Until 1911 the world water speed records were held by steam-powered, propeller-driven vehicles,[3]


In 1911 a 12 m (40 ft) stepped planing hull, Dixie IV, designed by Clinton Crane, became the first gasoline powered vessel to break the water speed record. Beginning in 1908 Alexander Graham Bell and engineer Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin began experimenting with powered watercraft. In 1919, with Baldwin piloting their HD-4 hydrofoil, a new world water speed record of 114.0 km/h (70.86 mph) was set on Bras d'Or Lake at Baddeck, Nova Scotia.


During the 1920s powerboat racing was dominated by American businessman and racer Gar Wood, whose Miss America boats were capable of speeds approaching 160 km/h (99 mph). Increased public interest generated by the speeds achieved by Wood and others led to an official speed record being ratified in 1928. The first person to try a record attempt was Gar Wood's brother George. On 4 September 1928 he drove Miss America VII to 149.40 km/h (92.8 mph) on the Detroit River. The next year Gar Wood took the same boat up a waterway Indian Creek, Miami and reached 149.86 km/h (93.12 mph).


Like the land speed record, the water record was destined to become a scrap for national honour between Britain and the USA. American success in setting records spurred Castrol Oil chairman Lord Wakefield to sponsor a project to bring the water record to Britain. Famed land speed racer and racing driver Sir Henry Segrave was hired to pilot a new boat, Miss England. Although the boat wasn’t capable of beating Wood's Miss America,[5] the British team did gain experience, which was put into an improved boat. Miss England II was powered by two Rolls-Royce aircraft engines and seemed capable of beating Wood's record.

On 13 June 1930 Segrave piloted Miss England II to a new record of 158.94 km/h (98.8 mph) average speed during two runs on Windermere, in Britain's Lake District. Having set the record, Segrave set off on a third run to try to improve the record further. Unfortunately during the run, the boat struck an object in the water and capsized, with both Segrave and his co-driver receiving fatal injuries.

Following Segrave's death, Miss England II was salvaged and repaired. Another racing driver, Kaye Don, was chosen as the new driver for 1931. However, during this time Gar Wood recaptured the record for the US at 164.41 km/h (102.16 mph) . A month later on Lake Garda, Don got the record back with 177.387 km/h (110.2 mph). In February 1932 Wood responded, nudging the mark up by 1.6 km/h (0.99 mph).

In response to the continued American challenge, the British team built a new boat, Miss England III. The design was an evolution of the predecessor, with a squared-off stern and twin propellers being the main improvements. Don took the new boat to Loch Lomond, Scotland, on 18 July 1932, improved the record first to 188.985 km/h (117.430 mph), and then to 192.816 km/h (119.810 mph) on a second run.

Determined to have the last word over his great rival, Gar Wood built another new Miss America. Miss America X was 12 metres long, powered by four supercharged Packard aeroplane engines. On 20 September 1932 Wood broke the 200 km/h barrier, driving his new boat to 200.943 km/h (124.860 mph). It would prove the end of an era. Don declined to attempt any further records, and Miss England III went to the National Maritime Museum in London, where it remains on display. Wood also opted to scale down his involvement in racing and returned to running his businesses. Somewhat ironically, both record-breakers lived into their 90s. Wood died in 1971, Don in 1985.

Boat design changes

Wood's last record would be one of the final records for a conventional, single-keel boat. In June 1937 Malcolm Campbell, the world-famous land speed record breaker, drove Blue Bird K3 to a new record of 203.31 km/h (126.33 mph) at Lake Maggiore. Compared to the massive Miss America X, K3 was a much more compact craft. It was 5 metres shorter and had one engine to X's four. Despite his success, Campbell was unsatisfied by the relatively small increase in speed. He commissioned a new Blue Bird to be built. Blue Bird K4 was a ‘three pointer’ hydroplane. Unlike conventional powerboats, which have a single keel, with an indent, or ‘step’, cut from the bottom to reduce drag, a hydroplane has a concave base with two floats fitted to the front, and a third point at the rear of the hull. When the boat increases in speed, most of the hull lifts out of the water and runs on the three contact points. The positive effect is a reduction in drag and an increase in power-to-weight ratio - the boat is lighter as it doesn't need many engines to push it along. The downside is that the three-pointer is much less stable than the single keel boat. If the hydroplane's angle of attack is upset at speed, the craft can somersault into the air, or nose-dive into the water.


Campbell's new boat was a success. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, he took it to Coniston Water and increased his record by 18 km/h (11 mph), to 228.11 km/h (141.74 mph). The return of peace in 1945 brought with it a new form of power for the record breaker – the jet engine. Campbell immediately renovated Blue Bird K4 with a De Havilland Goblin jet engine. The result was a curious-looking craft, whose shoe-like profile led to it being nicknamed ‘The Coniston Slipper’. The experiment with jet-power was not a success and Campbell retired from record-attempts. He died in 1948.

1950s. Slo-Mo-Shun and Bluebird: Propriders to Turbojets

Slo-Mo-Shun IV on display at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.
The Allison V-1710 aircraft engine that powered Slo-Mo-Shun IV.

On the 26th of June 1950, Slo-Mo-Shun IV improved on Campbell's record by 29 km/h (18 mph). The boat was built by Seattle Chrysler dealer Stanley Sayres. The piston-engined boat was able to run at 260 km/h (160 mph) because its hull was designed to lift the top of the propellers out of water when running at high speed. This phenomenon, called ‘prop riding’, further reduced drag.

In 1952 Sayres drove Slo-Mo-Shun to 287.25 km/h (178.49 mph) – a further 29 km/h (18 mph) increase on his previous record. The renewed American success persuaded Malcolm Campbell's son Donald, who had already driven Blue Bird K4 to within sight of his father's record, to make a further push for the record. However, the K4 was by now 12 years old, with a 20-year-old engine and Campbell struggled to run at the speeds of the Seattle-built boat. In late 1951 K4 was written-off when it suffered a structural failure at 270 km/h (170 mph) on Coniston Water.

At this time, yet another land speed driver entered the fray. Englishman John Cobb, was hoping to reach 320 km/h (200 mph) in his jet-powered Crusader. A radical design, the Crusader reversed the ‘three-pointer’ design, placing the floats at the rear of the hull. On 29 September 1952 Cobb tried to beat the world record on Loch Ness but, while travelling at an estimated speed of 338 km/h (210 mph), Crusader's front plane collapsed and the craft instantly disintegrated. Cobb was retrieved from the water but had already died of shock.

Two years later, on 8 October 1954, another man would die trying for the record. Italian textile magnates Mario Verga and Francesco Vitetta, responding to a prize offer of 5 million lire from the Italian Motorboat Federation to any Italian who broke the world record, built a sleek piston-engined hydroplane to claim the record. Named Laura III, after Verga's daughter, the boat was fast but unstable. Travelling across Lake Iseo, in Northern Italy, at close to 306 km/h (190 mph), Verga lost control of Laura III, and was thrown out into the water when the boat somersaulted. Like Cobb, he died of shock.

Following Cobb's death, Donald Campbell started working on a new Bluebird - K7, a jet-powered hydroplane. Learning the many lessons from Cobb's ill-starred Crusader, K7 was designed as a classic 3 pointer with sponsons forward alongside the cockpit.

The 7.9 m (26 ft) long, 3 m (10 ft) wide, 2 m (5 ft) high, 2.5 long tons; 2.8 short tons (2.5 t) craft was designed by Ken and Lewis Norris in 1953-54 and was completed in early 1955. It was powered by a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl turbojet of 16 kN (3,500 lbf) thrust. K7 was of all-metal construction and proved to have extremely high rigidity.

Campbell and K7 set a new record of 325.60 km/h (202.32 mph) on Ullswater in July 1955. Campbell and K7 went on to break the record a further six times over the next nine years in the USA and England (Coniston Water), finally increasing it to 444.71 km/h (276.33 mph) at Lake Dumbleyung in Western Australia in 1964. Donald Campbell thus became the most prolific water speed record breaker of all time.

At this time the world speed record (200.42 mph) for piston-powered propeller-driven boats was held by the George Simons' Miss U.S. I [6] at 322.54 km/h (200.42 mph). This record was set at Guntersville, Alabama in 1962 by Roy Duby and stood for 38 years.


Donald Campbell arrived back at Coniston Water in November 1966. Bluebird K7 had been re-engined with a Bristol Siddeley Orpheus jet rated at 4,500 lbf (20 kN) of thrust. His stated aim was to bump the record out of reach of the Americans, and push it beyond 300 mph (483 km/h). The new attempt suffered many setbacks, both mechanical and weather-related, and by the end of 1966, Campbell's existing 444 km/h (276 mph) record was still not broken. By the morning of 4 January 1967 mechanical problems with Bluebird had been solved and the still conditions seemed perfect.

Bluebird K7 was over a decade old, and an American called Lee Taylor was threatening the record with a new boat, Hustler. The patriotic Campbell wanted a Briton to be the first to break 300 mph (480 km/h). His first run across the lake gave the appearance of being untroubled and was fast. K7 averaged 475.2 km/h (295.3 mph) and a new record seemed in sight. Campbell applied K7's water brake to slow the craft down from her peak speed of 507 km/h (315 mph) clear of the measured kilometre to a speed around 350 km/h (220 mph). The wake caused by the water brake at such high speeds was very large. Campbell had a choice to refuel and wait for the lake to settle again before starting the mandatory return leg, or return quickly knowing that although the area where the water brake had been applied would be rough, the area immediately south of the measured kilometre as well as the measured strip itself would be undisturbed. Campbell immediately turned around at the end of the lake and began his return run. Bluebird came back on her return even faster. At around 512 km/h (318 mph), just as she entered the measured kilometre, Bluebird began to lose stability due to her unprecedented speed. Finally, 400 m before the end of the kilometre, Bluebird's nose lifted beyond its critical pitch angle and she started to rise out of the water at a 45 degree angle. The boat took off, somersaulted and then plunged nose-first into the lake, breaking up as she cartwheeled across the surface. Campbell was killed instantly. Prolonged searches over the next two weeks located the wreck, but it was not until May 2001 that Campbell's body was finally located and recovered. Campbell was laid to rest in the churchyard at Coniston on 12 September 2001.

Lee Taylor, a Californian boat racer, had first tried for the record in April 1964. His boat Hustler was similar in design to Bluebird K7, being a jet hydroplane. During a test run on Lake Havasu, Taylor was unable to shut down the jet and crashed into the lakeside at over 200 km/h (100 mph). Hustler was wrecked and Taylor was severely injured. He spent the following years recuperating, and rebuilding his boat. On 30 June 1967, on Lake Guntersville, Taylor and Hustler tried for the record, but the wake of some spectators' boats disturbed the water, forcing Taylor to slow down his second run, and he came up 3.2 km/h (2 mph) short. He tried again later the same day and succeeded in setting a new record of 459 km/h (285 mph).

1970s to the present

Until 20 November 1977 every official water speed record had been set by an American, Canadian, Irishman or Briton. That day Australian Ken Warby broke the Anglo-American domination when he piloted his Spirit of Australia to 464.46 km/h (288.60 mph)[7] to beat Lee Taylor's record. Warby, who had built the craft in his back yard, used the publicity to find sponsorship to pay for improvements to the Spirit. On 8 October 1978 Warby travelled to Blowering Dam, Australia, and broke both the 480 km/h (300 mph) and 500 km/h barriers with an average speed of 511.12 km/h (317.6 mph). As he exited the course his peak speed as measured on a radar gun was approximately 552 km/h (345 mph).[8][9]

Warby's record still stands as of 14 February 2015. There have only been two official attempts to break it, both resulting in the death of the driver.[10]

Lee Taylor tried to get the record back in 1980. Inspired by the land speed record cars Blue Flame and Budweiser Rocket, Taylor built a rocket-powered boat, Discovery II. The 40-foot (12 m) long craft was a reverse three-point design, similar to John Cobb's Crusader, albeit of much greater length.

Originally Taylor tested the boat on Walker Lake in Nevada but his backers demanded a more accessible location, so Taylor switched to Lake Tahoe. An attempt was set for 13 November 1980, but when conditions on the lake proved unfavourable, Taylor decided against trying for the record. Not wanting to disappoint the assembled spectators and media, he decided to do a test run instead. At 432 km/h (270 mph) Discovery II started to become unstable. It has been speculated that it may have hit a swell. Whatever the cause, the boat's unstable lateral oscillations caused the left float to collapse, sending the boat plunging into the water. The cockpit section with Taylor's body was recovered three days later. The cockpit had not floated as intended and Taylor drowned as a result.

In 1989 Craig Arfons, nephew of famed record breaker Art Arfons, tried for the record in his all-composite fiberglass/Kevlar Rain X Challenger, but died when the hydroplane somersaulted at 483 km/h (301.875 mph).

Current projects

Despite the high fatality rate, the record is still coveted by boat enthusiasts and racers. Currently there are four major projects aiming for the record.


The British Quicksilver[11] project is managed by Nigel Macknight. The design was initially based on concepts for a rear-sponsoned configuration by Ken Norris, who had worked with the Campbells on their 'Bluebird' designs. As the project progressed it became clear that a different concept would be required. Ken Norris left the Quicksilver project and the design of the boat changed to the final front-sponsoned configuration in order to assure proper static and low-speed buoyancy and high-speed stability. Nigel Macknight has emphasised that though the design was changed significantly much of Ken Norris's design remains.

The design is of modular construction with the main body consisting of a front section with a steel spaceframe incorporating the engine, a Rolls-Royce Spey Mk.101, and the rear section a monocoque extending to the tail. The front sponsons are also modules, one of which contains the driver.

Current work includes sample testing of bonded structures to aid design of the horizontal struts that attach the sponsons to the main hull. This includes conducting test cycles with the samples fully submerged underwater.

The current plan is to fit the rear hull section (stern module) followed by both sponsons in preparation for the first trials on water. In this initial waterborne form, the craft will be known as Quicksilver Dash 1 and speeds will be limited to 200 mph.

American Challenge

The American Challenge project[12] has been spurred into action by the new challengers. The American Challenge project is a consortium of businessmen, engineers, and motor-sport professionals focused on returning the World Water Speed Record to the United States. The pilot, Russ Wicks, is currently known as the "Fastest American on Water" and holds the world record for the fastest propellor driven boat.

Aussie Spirit

Ken Warby has built a successor to the Spirit of Australia.[13] The new boat, Aussie Spirit, is of similar dimensions to Spirit of Australia and is powered by a Westinghouse J34 jet engine.

K777 Team for Great Britain

The K777 Team are a combination of engineers, boat racers, boat builders, gas turbine specialists and Members of Windermere Boat Racing Club.[14] They built a controversial visual copy of Donald Campbell's Bluebird K7, though during its sole public appearance on Coniston Water in 2011 it failed to plane, partially sank, and ultimately collapsed its air intake trunking. A test on Loch Ken, in south-west Scotland, in October 2014 was also unsuccessful; although the boat did not sink, it was again unable to plane.[15]

Restoration of Bluebird K7

In 2001, Bluebird K7 was raised from Coniston Water by members of the Bluebird Project.[16]

Rush WSR

Towards the end of 2011 Colin Johns of Windsor, New South Wales, Australia started his WSR project known as Rush WSR. The boat is nearing completion and is expecting to be in the water and undergoing testing at the end of 2012. The latest photos on Johns' Facebook page suggest the hull is nearing completion with engine and break away capsule still to be fitted. The design is a single point Sanger similar to Lee Taylor's Hustler, built by Rich Hallett. She is also similar in appearance to Warby's Spirit of Australia; it is unclear at this stage whether she will have a T-tail like Spirit. It is of fiberglass construction with Laminated Veneer Lumber bearers and plywood bulkheads. She is to be powered by a single Westinghouse J34-48 jet engine from a North American T-2 Buckeye rated at 3400 lbf of dry thrust and with the addition of a custom built afterburner. This is a similar class of engine to the J34 as used by Warby in Spirit of Australia.

Black Bird WSR

New Zealand's challenger for the world water speed record. Piloted by Tony Millett, is 12.8m long and is powered by a General Electric J47-25 turbojet engine with 7,200 lbs thrust. Black Bird's attempt will be in 2016.

Dartagnan SP600

Daniel Dehaemers is the Belgian challenger for the absolute water speed record. The SP600 is of full carbon composite construction and is powered by a Rolls-Royce Adour 104 turbojet engine. The boat will be under testing during the first semester of 2016.

Record holders

Speed Craft Captain(s) Location Date
70.86 mph (114.04 km/h) HD-4 Canada Casey Baldwin Bras d'Or Lake 19 September 1919
74.87 mph (120.49 km/h) Miss America United States Gar Wood Detroit River 15 September 1920
80.567 mph (129.660 km/h) Miss America II United States Gar Wood Detroit River 6 September 1921
87.392 mph (140.644 km/h) Farman Hydroglider United States Jules Fisher River Seine 10 November 1924
92.838 mph (149.408 km/h) Miss America II United States George Wood Detroit River 4 September 1928
93.123 mph (149.867 km/h) Miss America VII United States Gar Wood Indian Creek 23 March 1929
98.760 mph (158.939 km/h) Miss England II United Kingdom Henry Segrave Windermere 13 June 1930
102.256 mph (164.565 km/h) Miss America IX United States Gar Wood Indian Creek 20 March 1931
103.49 mph (166.55 km/h) Miss England II Republic of Ireland Kaye Don Paraná River 15 April 1931
110.223 mph (177.387 km/h) Miss England II Republic of Ireland Kaye Don Lake Garda 31 July 1931
111.712 mph (179.783 km/h) Miss America IX United States Gar Wood Indian Creek 5 February 1932
117 mph (188 km/h) Miss England III Republic of Ireland Kaye Don Loch Lomond 18 July 1932
119.81 mph (192.82 km/h) Miss England III Republic of Ireland Kaye Don Loch Lomond 18 July 1932
124.86 mph (200.94 km/h) Miss America X United States Gar Wood St. Clair River 20 September 1932
126.32 mph (203.29 km/h) Bluebird K3 United Kingdom Malcolm Campbell Lake Maggiore 1 September 1937
129.50 mph (208.41 km/h) Bluebird K3 United Kingdom Malcolm Campbell Lake Maggiore 2 September 1937
130.91 mph (210.68 km/h) Bluebird K3 United Kingdom Malcolm Campbell Hallwilersee 17 September 1938
141.74 mph (228.11 km/h) Bluebird K4 United Kingdom Malcolm Campbell Coniston Water 19 August 1939
160.323 mph (258.015 km/h) Slo-Mo-Shun IV United States Stanley Sayres, Ted O. Jones Lake Washington 26 June 1950
178.497 mph (287.263 km/h) Slo-Mo-Shun IV United States Stanley Sayres, Elmer Leninschmidt Lake Washington 7 July 1952
202.32 mph (325.60 km/h) Bluebird K7 United Kingdom Donald Campbell Ullswater 23 July 1955
216.20 mph (347.94 km/h) Bluebird K7 United Kingdom Donald Campbell Lake Mead 16 November 1955
225.63 mph (363.12 km/h) Bluebird K7 United Kingdom Donald Campbell Coniston Water 19 September 1956
239.07 mph (384.75 km/h) Bluebird K7 United Kingdom Donald Campbell Coniston Water 7 November 1957
248.62 mph (400.12 km/h) Bluebird K7 United Kingdom Donald Campbell Coniston Water 10 November 1958
260.35 mph (418.99 km/h) Bluebird K7 United Kingdom Donald Campbell Coniston Water 14 May 1959
276.33 mph (444.71 km/h) Bluebird K7 United Kingdom Donald Campbell Lake Dumbleyung 31 December 1964
285.22 mph (459.02 km/h) Hustler United States Lee Taylor Lake Guntersville 30 June 1967
288.60 mph (464.46 km/h) Spirit of Australia Australia Ken Warby Blowering Dam 20 November 1977
317.596 mph (511.121 km/h) Spirit of Australia Australia Ken Warby Blowering Dam 8 October 1978


  1. "Warby aims to break his own record". Retrieved 14 June 2015.
  2. "The world's fastest boat & the race for the water speed record". Retrieved 14 June 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Field, Leslie (15 August 2008). "The World Water Speed Record". Hydroplane History. Retrieved 2008-11-13.
  4. "Yachts Built by Wood" (PDF). International Yacht Restoration School. 2006. Retrieved 2008-09-01.
  5. Martin, Robert E. (June 1929). The Speediest Craft Afloat. Popular Science Monthly. pp. 20–21, 146. Retrieved 2012-06-25 via Books.google.com.
  6. http://missus1.com
  7. http://www.kenwarby.com/wwsr.htm
  8. "Water speed record (fastest boat)". guinnessworldrecords.com. Guinness World Records. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezl8Yb8idyY youtube.com
  10. Huxley, John (13 February 2015). "Water speed record to be put to the test 40 years on as Spirit of Australia II takes shape". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  11. http://www.quicksilver-wsr.com
  12. http://www.americanchallengewsr.com
  13. Introduction kenwarby.com
  14. "K777 Team". K777club.com. Retrieved 2012-06-25.
  15. "1967 Bluebird replica takes to the water at Loch Ken". ITN. ITN. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  16. "The Bluebird Project". The Bluebird Project. Retrieved 2012-06-25.

See also


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