Ken Warby

This Daredevil Has Water on the Brain [1997]

By Jim Murray

Ken Warby, 2001
Ken Warby, 2001

What would you have to say is the most dangerous sport in the whole spectrum of competition?

Auto racing? Not a bad guess. But even its capacity for human destruction pales beside that of the real No. 1.

Boxing? Well, it produces enough human debris and its share of fatalities, but enough of its practitioners at least live.

Football? Harmful enough but nowhere near a leader in this melancholy abstraction.

No, far and away the leader in the clubhouse on this macabre list is water speed-record chasing.

Man always has viewed the sea and its tributary rivers and lakes as a natural adversary. He yearns to set records on its surfaces. The most spectacular attempt in this regard had to be the S.S. Titanic, which was trying to set a Southampton, England-to-New York ocean speed record by taking a shortcut through an iceberg field.

Man has raced on water since the invention of the birchbark canoe. Presumably, some Hiawatha held a tribal record. The Romans staged record runs with slave galleys. Man obviously envied the whales' and sharks' swift forays through the seven seas and built implements to challenge them like hydroplanes, submarines, surfboards and, before engines, sent out ships under forests of sails.

But the urge to be fastest over the water was a 20th-century refinement that came with a high price tag in lives and money. Its history should be accompanied by a soundtrack of Chopin's "Funeral March."

In 1930, Sir Henry Segrave set the standard when he tried to be the first boatman to go across the water at 100 mph in his Miss England II. He went 100 mph but didn't live to know it, never mind tell about it. The American, Gar Wood, actually beat him to the record.

Eleven years later, another Englishman, John Cobb, broke the 200-mph mark in a first run over Scotland's Loch Ness but crashed and died in the return run.

In 1955, the Brit Donald Campbell, whose father, Sir Malcolm, had set the auto land-speed record, pushed the water-speed record up to 276 mph but his boat blew up on Lake Coniston in England in 1967 and his body was never found.

The American, Lee Taylor, set a record on a lake in Alabama (285.2 mph) in 1968 but Lee was to die in the icy waters of Lake Tahoe in another record attempt 12 years later.

Craig Arfons, son of a land-speed record holder, Art, lost his life in a water-speed record attempt when his boat flew backward and disintegrated.

So, when the Aussie, Ken Warby, showed up for the annual Boat Show at the Long Beach Convention Center this weekend to announce he was going for a new water-speed record, many of us wondered if there weren't easier ways to commit suicide. I mean, what did he have against slashing his wrists? Taking pills?

The beauty of water-speed racing is, you have a choice of deaths: you can blow up or you can drown.

The funny thing is, Warby is not some patriot trying to bring the record back to his country, to overcome some competitor. It's his own record he's going after.

Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Roger Maris' 61- homer record are among the longest-lasting records. But a few hundred athletes are after them annually. Maris' record very nearly fell this season.

Warby set his water-speed record of 317.596 mph on a lake in Australia nearly 20 years ago. It has been challenged by only two daring young men since. With predictable results. "Two tried, two died," reports Warby laconically.

What makes him think he will be the one to eclipse his own mark? He's 58 now. The record will surely last longer than he will. Why risk his life to outdo himself? At his advanced age?

Age is not so important as it once was, he tells you, back when a man reached 60 and he used to go looking for a place to lie down. "I've got a lot of sinning I plan to do yet," he grins.

But he does admit, "It's the most dangerous sport on earth." It kills its brightest and its best. Foyts, Unsers and Andrettis may survive the auto wars, but jet engine speedboats kill its champions, allow only one accident per driver. You not only don't walk away, you don't even swim away.

So why give it another shot at you? Well, first of all, Warby thinks 20 years is long enough for a record to last, even if it's your own. Now a resident of Cincinnati, Warby plans to use a mock-up of his proposed new record assaulter at the Long Beach Boat Show together with slides from the history of record runs to raise money for his attempt to beat himself. His edge, he feels, is he designs and builds his own jet boat. The trick is to build one that will stay on the water. They tend to think they're aircraft and tend to want to take off into the wild blue yonder.

The other trick to keeping the boat in the water is to keep yourself out of it. Warby doesn't want to be one of those one-way record-setters they have to drag the lake later to give him his medal.

He wants the 58-year-old Warby to beat that 38-year-old whippersnapper, whose record has stood too long for his tastes.

(Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1997)