More Than a Mile a Minute : An Introduction [1992]

By Frederick L. Honhart

The water speed record (WSR) over the past 90 years has been one of the most challenging and costly endeavors, in money and lives, in sports history.

At the sixth annual Monaco regatta in 1909, the French-built Duc, a Despujols hull with Brasier 4-cylinder engine, set the first recorded straightaway speed record for a hydroplane. The course was a flying kilometer. The prize was the Prince of Monaco cup, valued at 10,000 francs.

The displacement hull form was on its way out. "Hydroplanes afforded an interesting study," said one writer on the scene, "and it may be taken definitely that, so far as speed is concerned, they have come to stay." Since then, all straightaway water speed records have been set by hydroplanes.

Other early record setters were from the United States. Boats from the prolific shops of Jay and Bernard Smith, John Hacker, and Adolph Apel quickly pushed speeds past the 50- and 60-mph marks. Things got even busier when Gar Wood arrived.

Between 1920 and 1930, Gar Wood raised the WSR four times, from 76.738 in Miss America I to 93.123 mph in Miss America VII. In June 1930, Sir Henry Segrave in Miss England II drove to a new 98.76 mph record. The boat crashed in an attempt to improve the speed, killing Segrave and one of his two riding mechanics.

The record went back and forth the next two years between the English and Gar Wood until Wood's last race boat, Miss America X, established a record of 124.91 that stood for five years.

In the late 1930s, Sir Malcolm Campbell raised the record three times, first to 129.56 and 130.91 in Bluebird, then to 141.74 mph in the second Bluebird on Aug. 19, 1939, a few days before the start of World War II.

With the resumption of boat racing after the war, several attempts were made. None seriously challenged Campbell's mark. But the world was startled in 1950 when the record was broken by almost 20 mph. Owner Stan Sayres and designer Ted Jones rode the revolutionary, prop-riding Slo-Mo-Shun IV to 160.323 mph. Two years later, Sayres raised the record to over 178, with one run timed at 185.

After Mario Verga of Italy was killed in 1955 attempting to break the record in his Laura III, several drivers raised the WSR over the next seven years. On the misty morning of April 17, 1962, Roy Duby drove Miss U.S. I to the 200.419 mph record, which stands today.

Subsequent attempts to break Duby's mark have failed, the last being the spectacular crash of Miss Budweiser in 1979, which put Dean Chenoweth in a Seattle hospital.

Since 1952, the WSR has been divided between propeller and jet-propelled boats. The first jet boat to attempt the record was Crusader, owned and driven by John Cobb who held the land speed record at that time. In 1952, on Loch Ness, the Englishman clocked an initial run of 206.8 mph, then died when the boat crashed at over 200 mph.

Donald Campbell, son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, was determined to regain his father's record. His jet-powered Bluebird set a record of 202.32 in 1955. Campbell eventually raised the record to over 260 mph. Following his land speed record of 404 mph for wheel-driven vehicles, he set out in 1967 to break his mark on water. But Donald Campbell died on Coniston Water when Bluebird flew off the water at over 300 mph.

Attempts to break Campbell's record often resulted in injury or death. Lee Taylor, having survived an almost-fatal accident three years earlier, brought the record back to the U.S. in 1967 at 285.213. Australian Ken Warby set the current record of 317 mph. In 1978, through a very careful campaign to increase his speed in controlled increments. Taylor then died in 1980 trying to wrest the record from Warby. In 1989, Craig Arfons died in an attempt at the jet record.

The world speed record on water is not only difficult to obtain, but often unforgiving of errors.

World Propeller-Driven Hydroplane Straightaway Speed Records
41.089 Duc   Bay of Heracles, Monaco 1909 Apr 11
44.35 Brasier- Despujols   Bay of Heracles, Monaco 1911 Mar
45.21 Dixie IV Fred K. Burnham Huntington Bay, Long Island, New York 1911 Jul 13
53.73 Baby Reliance III Jay Smith Mississippi River, Davenport, Iowa 1912 Jul 6
53.879 Tech Jr. T. Coleman DuPont, Jr. Manhasset Bay, Long Island, New York 1915 Aug 18
65.7 Miss Minneapolis Bernard Smith Put-in-Bay, Lake Erie, Ohio 1916 Jul 20
69.39 Whip-Po'-Will, Jr. Albert N. Judson Lake George, New York 1917 Nov 6
76138 Miss Arnerica George Wood Detroit River, Detroit, Michigan 1920 Sep 15
80.567 Miss America ll Gar Wood Detroit River; Detroit, Michigan 1921 Sep 6
92.838 Miss America VII Gar Wood Detroit River, Detroit, Michigan 1928 Sep 5
93.123 Miss America VII Gar Wood Indian River, Miami, Florida 1929 Mar 3
98.76 Miss England II Henry Segrave Lake Windermere, England 1930 Jun 13
102.256 Miss America IX Gar Wood Indian River, Miami, Florida 1931 Mar 20
103.07 Miss America IX Gar Wood Indian River, Miami, Florida 1931 Mar 4
103.49 Miss England II Kaye Don Parana, Buenos Aires, Argentina 1931 Apr 24
110.223 Miss England II Kaye Don Lake Garda, Italy 1931 Jul 9
111.712 Miss America IX Gar Wood Indian River, Miami, Florida 1932 Feb 5
119.11 Miss England III Kaye Don Loch Lomond, Scotland 1932 JW 18
124.91 Miss America X Gar Wood St. Clair River, Algonac, Michigan 1932 Sep 20
12632 Bluebird Malcolm Campbell Lake Maggiore, Locarno, Switzerland 1937 Sep 1
129.56 Bluebird Malcolm Campbell Lake Maggiore, Locarno, Switzerland 1937 Sep 2
130.91 Bluebird Malcolm Campbell Hallwiler See, Switzerland 1938 Sep 17
141.14 Bluebird Malcolm Campbell Coniston Water, England 1939 Aug 19
160.323 Slo-Mo-Shun IV Stanley Sayres Lake Washington, Seattle, Washington 1950 Jun 26
178.497 Slo-Mo-Shun IV Stanley Sayres Lake Washington, Seattle, Washington 1952 Jul 7
184.499* Miss Supertest II Art Asbury Lake Ontario, Picton, Canada 1957 Nov 1
183.35 Hawaii Ka'i III Jack Regas Lake Washington, Seattle, Washington 1957 Jan 29
187.627 Hawaii Ka'i III Jack Regas Lake Washington, Seattle, Washington 1957 Jan 30
192.001 Miss Thriftway Bill Muncey Lake Washington, Seattle, Washington 1960 Feb 16
200.419 Miss U.S. 1 Roy Duby Guntersville Lake, Alabama 1962 Apr 17

*Kilometer record

(Reprinted with permission from the Unlimited NewsJournal, April 1992)

[Note: Compare this table with that on The World Water Speed Record page]