Unless you are a follower of sporting achievement statistics, you have probably never heard of Ken Warby. That’s even if you were around in Australia on November 20, 1977, when Warby set the world water speed record, which he then increased in 1978 and still holds, in a home-made boat, at Blowering Dam, NSW.
World’s Fastest Coffin on Water – the first-ever biography of Ken Warby (Bas Publishing, 2009) has all the ingredients of a riveting, multi-faceted read, encompassing an eccentric chapter of Australian sporting history, and author Bill Tuckey, himself a legend of Australian motoring journalism, makes the most it.
The Warby story is told in two strands. One focuses on his personal history: his working-class background, his family life in industrial Newcastle, NSW, in the mid-20th century and the forces that shaped him, socially and psychologically. The other strand tables his phenomenal sporting achievement and what that entails, including the historical, statistical and mechanical background against which Warby’s story played out. The result is a fascinating mix of social history with lashings of Australiana, psychological exposition and everything anyone could ever want to know about water speed records and what it takes, in terms of human and mechanical resources, to break them. It is also a quintessentially Australian story about a battler obsessed by an idea and maniacally fixed on fulfilling his goal. The story is comic and tragic in equal parts: there is the heady joy of Warby and his team of 162 unpaid helpers breaking the world record, not once but twice, and then there is the bitterness that engulfed Warby, subsequently, when his achievement failed to bestow great glory and riches upon him.
Warby didn’t even get the chance to be a tall poppy so that he could be cut down. Failing to get the recognition and the subsequent opportunities that he felt he deserved, Warby moved to the US in the early 1980s, building jet drag cars, monster quarter-mile trucks and small-capacity concrete mixers, which Tuckey points out, are an Australian invention.
It is not hard to work out what went wrong for Warby because Tuckey packs the story with factual information and direct quotes from many primary sources. With so much evidence, readers can draw their own conclusions. Ultimately the ‘why’ of things fascinated me more than the factual details from which the story is built.
When it comes to land and water speed records, a basic knowledge of 20th century popular history inevitably throws up the name Campbell and, indeed, Sir Malcolm Campbell and later, his son Donald, both held both records. Warby was, in fact, obsessed by the Campbells, both their achievement and their glory, but what he tragically failed to see was the huge charisma that the Campbells brought to everything they did and the spectacular theatre they created. They really gave the fans everything; in Donald’s case, even his life. In 1967, on Coniston Water, in the Lake District of England, when Donald Campbell, accompanied by his lucky teddy, Mr Whoppitt, attempted to break his own water speed record, which he had previously set seven times, his boat cartwheeled for a kilometre. “They found Mr Whoppitt but never Campbell,” the author tells us at the beginning of the book (p20). At the end, we learn that the headless body was recovered in 2001 (p157).
Throughout the book we get a big dose of Warby: cocky, confident, realistic, able to recruit helpers to his grand vision despite his personality, which is not endearing. It’s not only that Warby had no sense of PR, which is an understatement. Just going by the quotes from him, you get the impression that while he “can never, ever suffer that essentially Australian curse of being called a bullshit artist,” (p165) he is, what we might call, a bit of a pain, who definitely had tickets on himself.
My interest in reading this book was to see how one Australian legend would write about another and in this, his 22nd book, Bill Tuckey does not disappoint. He was there both times when Warby took his boat, the Spirit of Australia to a place in sporting history. The level of research is exhaustive.
To understand the significance of the thoroughly-detailed technical information, you need a rudimentary grasp of mechanics and the physics of moving a mechanically-powered object from point A to point B. You also need to be bewitched by the love of speed; slow and steady might win the race but only if the fast and furious wipe themselves out before reaching the finish line. In that sense, this is definitely a blokes’ book.
However, this is also a story for general readership, packed with thrills and spills. It even includes a prediction, received by Warby, after his achievement, from the ghost of Donald Campbell, “’It’s OK. Three will die before the record’s broken once.’” So far, two have died and there’s one to go before Warby is dethroned.
Tuckey makes it clear that Warby’s design and build, together with the seemingly endless tweaking, finessing and rejigging of the boat’s parts, plus his unerring sensitivity to handling the craft, is what resulted in the still-unbroken water speed record.
The record breaking runs are reported as witnessed first-hand. The first one is especially colourful, replete with tasty quotes encapsulating the mood of the moment and the patois of the heroes and the villains of the piece. (p.110) On that fateful day, Warby drove angry because an irate speedboat driver had roughed up the water to foil him. But Warby’s quotes are best: “At 600 feet a second, you’re dead, minced…” Warby-speak is in imperial – partly due to his generation and partly because he went on to live and work in America, so there’s quite a bit of metric conversion featured in the text but not always. At times this is confusing but doesn’t detract from the story because if you are not into the statistics, you do get the general idea of slow, faster, fastest and suicidal. Warby was never suicidal, which is why he has lived to tell his story. The first record he set was at 288.60 mph(464 km/h) and the second at 317.60 mph (511km/h). He is the only one ever to survive at over 300 mph. Anyone who has read this book, will now be waiting for that next death before someone else sets a new record. Will the ghost of Donald Campbell be proved correct?
The World’s Fastest Coffin on Water would make a great movie, whether you wanted an intense drama or an action-comedy. It would make a very good electronic game with many key characters. They could include resurrected former record holders and those who died in the quest of it, the swearing, evil speedboat driver and other sabotaging villains, the crack supporting-team headed by Professor Tom Fink and super mechanic Leo Villa, not to mention all the others from cook, John McInerney to ABC film maker, Rob McCauley. And then there’s Warby, himself, an equivocal anti-hero. Come on gamers, where’s your imagination?
The book’s detailed documentation of the engineering, mechanics and physics of the venture is impressive and would no doubt be of value and interest to readers who can understand such things as, presumably, most who would choose to pick up this book, could.
I liked it for the writing and the wildly free-range sentences, from:
He was quite mad, of course.
Just before midday on November 20, 1977, on a long, dark, echoing lake created by man’s desire for a dam to provide irrigation, lined by clay walls and reeds and chick-chucking red-bill swamp hens and a gypsy caravan of tents and trailers and little heaps of dead ashes and crushed beer cans and discarded Kodak packets, the private lunatic sat like a Mogadonned mouse in the jet fighter cockpit as the boat he built under the cotton-easter trees in the backyard of his Sydney home blammed through the corrugations still left on the water from the ski boat on hour before, turning the surface into a cold tin roof.
And that’s just on the first page.
Thanks to the work of Rob McCauley, there is footage of both record runs, complete with cheesy 70s action music.
On the subject of recognition for the achievement of such a feat as Warby’s, it is interesting to note that the above film had 166,700 views at the time this review was posted, while the world violin speed record had 2,666,188 views. It does make the point that the public is essentially after entertainment. While contests have been popular since the ancient times, attempting to break a record by merely competing with a statistic, does not hold the same public appeal as confronting a live lion in an amphitheatre. The latter would get many more views than the fastest fiddler in the universe.