World’s Fastest Coffin On Water

World’s Fastest Coffin on Water – the first-ever biography of Ken Warby
Bill Tuckey (Bas Publishing, 2009)

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.

Blazenka Brysha


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.

Confessions of a Petrolhead Wannabe

The Batmobile

It’s not that I want to be a petrolhead; it just looks like I do, if you consider my recent vehicular history. Actually, I am far more into history than cars but the reality is that if you want to get around a big city like Melbourne safely and efficiently at all hours, you have to drive. Perhaps a more honest title for this would be: Motoring Mistakes I Have Made – grand errors and regrettable lapses, just trying to get from point A to B.

I learnt the word “petrolhead” at The State Theatre when a fellow dance reviewer called me that as we were milling about before the ballet. I was bemoaning the departure of Bill Tuckey, former motoring editor from his newspaper, a rival broadsheet. “You’re a petrolhead!” my colleague declared without telling me exactly what happened to Bill Tuckey, who had a very funny turn of phrase. I had ample opportunity to familiarise myself with Tuckey terminology because at the time, I was also working, in a most lowly capacity, on a trade publication for the motor industry. Trade publications are the cannibals of the press and live by stewing up information quoted from other published sources. Often quoted, Bill Tuckey was funny and funny is good, always. If I thought there were any jokes in Tuckey’s 1987 classic, “The Rise and Fall of Peter Brock” I would track down a copy and sink my fangs into it.

When Brocky died, I pretended to care, deeply. I was driving my white manual Barina City, 1996, known as the Batmobile. I was on Glenfern Rd, Upwey, with the densely verdant foothills of the Dandenongs on my right and the rolling grazing fields of Lysterfield on my left, when I got a call from Bill Allan, my octagenarian tenant at whose place I had just been ten minutes before. “Peter Brock’s dead!” he announced.

No way!” I exclaimed right back, top of my voice because my hearing is not good and my handsfree mobile phone technique is even worse. The undulating road rose and fell beneath the Batmobile’s small but nimble wheels, as Bill filled in the bare details.

Brocky had wrapped himself around a tree during a rally. As I was in a simulated rally terrain, I drove with even more care. The legendary champion, by then over sixty, was now retired for good. Bill said all drivers on the road were turning on their headlights. I joined the throng. Maybe I had never seen a car race. Maybe I was opposed to having the Grand Prix at Albert Park Lake reserve and had made a protest sign, which I taped to the rear window of my white, manual Suzuki Swift sedan,1992 : “Ducks can’t wear earplugs,” but the death of a legend is serious. Likewise, Bill Allan was a Ford driver while Brock was Holden, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. I was transfixed by the irony of Brock having such an exemplary fit body – and not just for his age – at the time of his death. Also, I couldn’t believe it was an “accident”, especially since the rally passenger escaped, not just alive, but relatively unharmed. I only formed my suicide theory later. I also firmly believe that Princess Diana was definitely murdered.

In fact, it was my inappropriate reaction to the latter’s death that made me treat the deaths of celebrities with sensitivity. Normally, I don’t listen to the car radio but at the time of Diana’s car crash I had just done a live radio ballet review, so, driving home, I listened to the Sunday arts show for which I worked. The news of Diana’s car crash came through. “Wouldn’t it be good if she died!” I said, wide-eyed about the press feeding frenzy this would inspire. Then, Diana died and my daughter accusingly reminded me of my terrible words. She did this more than a few times. It was pretty hard to explain that when I said what I had said, I wasn’t thinking about Diana, the mother of two young children etc, but rather of the soap opera character that she had created in collusion with the press. That was the last time I would fall into such callousness.

Brocky’s death was no joke. Crocodile cuddler Steve Irwin had only died just before, so it was two legends in a rapid row. I immediately rang my sister Marta. Her husband answered the phone. I warned him not to do anything dangerous because we were now two legends down and there was bound to be a third. When my sister took the phone, I told her the news – no, she hadn’t heard and she was almost as hard hit by it as me. Actually, she’s not much into sport. For instance, I might say something about Ricky Ponting captain of the Australian cricket team – in whom I started taking a wary interest after I heard him declared, “the most dangerous man in cricket” which made me ask, why haven’t the police picked him up? – and Marta says, “Who’s Ricky Ponting?” to which I can say, “My point, exactly.”

Marta’s real soft spot is football. Her love of the Collingwood football club goes way back to when she was in her late teens and studying cello at the Victorian College of the Arts, when it was a proper performing arts academy focused on the arts as practice rather than essay topics about arts pracitce. We had gone to The Club in Smith St Collingwood to see a band called INXS because a former English student of mine was going out with the lead singer. As nightclubs were the only places you could get an alcoholic drink after 10 pm, they often attracted a seedy drunken element among the desirably well-heeled, young patrons. If the drunks caused no trouble, they were welcome to spend as much at the bar as their guts and bladders could hold. We were waiting for the band to come on, when a drunk siddled up to Marta. He wore a shabby, brown overcoat, was unshaven and had some grey through his messy hair. Today he would pass for the new, high disposable income inner-bayside residents who are only distinguishable from the homeless by their Audis/BMWs and pricey joggers.

The chat-up went like this:

Collingwood did good today,” he began, balancing himself by the beer glass he was clutching.

I wouldn’t know,” replied Marta coldly, as the rest of her party moved away, laughing politely.

Doncha follow the Vee-eF-L?” he asked, stunned that he had wasted such a gem of a pick-up line on a non-believer. We were in Collingwood territory and the Magpies had won that Saturday!

No. I think football is for morons.”

Was the gentleman admirer an idiot savant who opened Marta’s eyes to the aesthetics of football or it a cosmic irony that nowadays, when the Victorian Football League has stretched itself across the nation as the AFL, most of Marta’s pets are in the Collingwood club colours of black and white?

When I passed on the news of Brocky’s demise, I was driving a Holden. They had come a long way since my first driving lesson when a Mr Dowd from Ronald’s Driving School made me sit on two phone books so that I could work the pedals of his Holden sedan, which fortunately had dual controls. My Batmobile can transport six saddleback timber chairs in one trip but I bought it because it looked nice. So, although I passed for a petrolhead at the ballet, I clearly didn’t think like one. Colour is very important, too, and I can really only drive white cars. And that’s probably why I can’t drive my red Mustang much, if at all. It also partly explains why I have even more difficulty with my Subaru Impreza, which is called “white”, but the metallic, gold underlights make it a very pale pinky cream.

Of all colours, white is the most controversial and colour experts will tell you that it isn’t a “colour” at all, nevertheless, it happens to be my favourite colour and my panacea for all grief. Nothing is more therapeutic for me than an hour spent in my totally white laundry, washing “whites”. So how do I come to own a red Mustang or even a Mustang at all? Aside from the name and my strong identification with horses – unlike most people, in former lives I wasn’t a queen or Julius Caesar or even a human, judging by my incompetence at being one currently, but I do believe I was a horse, perhaps a mustang, but definitely a wild horse – I also think it looks nice. My first mistake, aside from buying the car at all, was being honest about this when sourcing insurance for the car.

I learned quickly that only a specialist insurer would underwrite a fully imported car, so I rang Shannons “Specialist Insurance for Motoring Enthusiasts.” I was asked questions that I can’t remember now and then couldn’t answer. No, I wasn’t in any car club, had no affiliations with any motoring apart from private commuting and when I had a flat tyre, I called the rescue service (or RACV road assist, as it’s known in the trade). My interrogator finally asked, “WHY did you buy the car?” Sensing his exasperation, I attempted to be as pleasant as possible. “Because it looks nice.” This was not enough for Shannons, as I had failed to demonstrate that I was an enthusiast. Lucky for him that I had refrained from demonstrating my no nonsense, “Jeez, you don’t muck about” side, which actually would have ticked all his boxes and gone something like this:

Listen,” I would begin in a tone that implied, “Listen, shitbag, I’m the customer here!”

… if you can’t help me, could you please put me through to your manager or someone of enough seniority to handle my request. Correct me, if I’m wrong, but yours is an insurance company for imported cars, which my car is. It is a Ford Mustang, 1994, 3.8 lt V 6 automatic red coupé righthand drive converted with 61,000 km on the clock. The kilometers are genuine, it has never been in an accident, it came into Australia from Japan in 1997. Obviously you have no idea how hard it is to find a Mustang 3.8 lt V6 auto in Australia. Everyone wants the 5 lt V8 manuals but have you ever tried the clutch on those? I normally don’t drive autos because I use the clutch to work my abdominal muscles and keep my gut flat.

And yes, it’s true, if I could have bought a 2 lt 4cyl manual version of the same Mustang made smaller but retaining the same proportions as the 1994-1998 model, I would have. That model was 4610mm long and 1884 wide and I believe one of the shortest Mustangs ever. The shorter the car, the better for parking, the easier to manoeuvre and I don’t have to tell you about the importance of avoiding damage to your car. You’re in insurance, I am a RATINGS 1 FOR LIFE driver. When I get my insurance renewal notices, I get an “AAMI Award for Excellence in Driving” sticker, which I normally toss but I have now put on my Barina to let everyone (“shitbags like you,” – implied) know that my driving is praised in some quarters.

But it’s not just the length of this Mustang. It’s also the proportions. The model is part of the Fourth Generation design, which took the look back to the classic 60s coupé – don’t start me on the fastbacks (fancy term for a hatch), I think they are really ugly like deformed slugs – and was produced from 1994 to 2004, however by 1999, the car became longer by 42 mm(4653) and narrower by 27mm (1857). That might not sound much different to you, but it is to me because I bought the car “because it looks nice.”

I wouldn’t have even bothered to start on the pony badge on the car’s front – a magical silver silhouette of a stylized horse, all hooves off the ground, tail flying, my idealized self-portrait. After many years of reviewing dance and bonsaiing my intellectual property for the unfiltered readership of the daily press, I’m very careful with whom I discuss aesthetics on an equal footing. So, luckily, I didn’t say any of the above because Shannons are very expensive insurers and ponce about with all sorts of demands, according to a woman I know who likes and has owned big American classic cars from the 1950s.

Then I rang Torque Insurance and found that, indeed, Torque is cheap. The man there was so nice that I let him look at my car via email and he said it looked really nice. There’s too much nasty in the world these days. I loved everything about Torque. When the soothing man asked how many kilometers I intended to drive the Mustang per year, I volunteered “100 a week?” Being innumerate, I had no idea but have since leaned that it’s not even 50 a month. I know this because Torque was taken over by Lumley Special Vehicles and they want an annual odometer reading.

When you buy a car because “it looks nice,” it should be obvious that you mainly want to “look” at it. Is that so wrong, even if it is surprisingly fuel efficient and inexpensive to maintain? But my Mustang isn’t just beautiful on the outside. The horse logo is repeated on the steering wheel. On the rare occasions when I drive the car, and I’m putting lanolin on my hands, I rub a little on the pony and make him shine even more. I love that little pony.

I discovered the cosmetic benefits of lanolin after running my hands through a sheep’s fleece while the sheep was still wearing it. My genuine fondness for sheep has not lured me into buying a Jumbuck ute “the toughest little half-tonner in town,” cute as they are, because they are front wheel drive and, since I even get bogged in rearwheel drives, for a proper workmobile, I need an all-wheel drive. If I was a real petrolhead, I would be able to take off at traffic lights on slippery wet roads without spinning the wheels and freaking out about some hotfooter ramming it right up my exhaust. Nor would I be getting bogged on rough roads that the towtruck driver assures me would be no problem for an all-wheel drive. You only need to be bogged a few times to accept that you genuinely need an all-wheel drive car and that’s why I have one. It’s an Impreza, a word that has become my synonym for anything that gives me a headache, which the Impreza literally does.

This car, the 2007 hatch – not the old sportswagon style that I had gone to buy two months too late – but the new super safe model that has so many air bags stuffed into it, you cannot see out of the car because the front pillars are so wide and the doors and the dashboard are so high. Even when I jack up the seat high enough to see a little better, making my legs bang against the steering column, visibility out of the car is still so poor, it strains my eyes and leads to headaches.

The front seats are designed for slouching and if you have a strong straight spine that will not be distorted to fit the curvature of the seat, the headrest bangs into the pressure points on the back of your head. This also leads to bad headaches. I have addressed this problem by swapping the front headrest for one of the smaller straighter ones from the rear.

Pity I can’t swap the clutch, which is oddly sensitive and does not release until about half way out. Don’t try fiddley reverse parking in busy city streets. Take extreme care at the lights or you’ll get rammed up the exhaust. And speaking of exhausts, the cabin ventillation is abysmal except for the mysterious draught that still blows on your feet from under the driver’s dash even when you have the heater on. The first time I froze like this, I took it well and instead of selling the car, which had been my first impulse, I went straight to a shoe shop and bought three pairs of different types of boots to cover different occasions and different degrees of cold. “Turn a negative into a positive,” is one of my motos. Two winters later, I still love and wear all those boots and I still hate the car because, although I have warm feet, I can’t get enough air for breathing. Unless I open the window at least half way, the slope of the window glass scoops the outside air up over my head while all that comes from the air vents is the stench of plastic and some feeble puffs of warm air. Maybe you are supposed to use the air-conditioning, which I can’t because all air-cond gives me a headache.

The car’s factory-fitted battery was a mega-problem. If you didn’t drive the car for two weeks, it would go flat. Trying to discuss the problem with the Subaru service people was impossible because the service phone number is not linked to any service department, it is merely a service appointment booking line. If you only want to ask a technical question, you have to take the car in for a service because the telephonists know nothing about cars and can’t let you speak to anyone who does. As I had already been through this whole process after a dashboard light played up, I couldn’t bear to be mucked about so painfully again. The light in question is one that shows the car in a wobbling position; according to the manual, if this light comes on, you have to contact the service department immediately, which I did. When I took the car in, they tested it at length, found nothing wrong and sent me off, saying that the next time it happened, they would have to keep the car for a whole day. As the faulty light would eventually switch itself off, I saw no point in having more of my time wasted by the endless number of Subaru employees you had to deal with to organise any kind of assistance, let alone actually get anything done.

(The faulty dashboard light was due to a software problem that Subaru addressed by issuing a warranty recall. A letter, dated 5 February, 2010, informed:

Subaru (Aust) Pty Limited (“Subaru Australia”) has been advised by Fuji Heavy Industries (the manufacturer of Subaru Vehicles) that certain 2008 to 2009 model year Subaru Impreza vehicles without turbocharger can unnecessarily log an engine operation fault code. This is due to a “software bug” within the engine control unit (ECU) that causes illumination of a warning light, indicating incorrectly, that there is a performance concern with the exhaust catalytic converter.”

They fixed it by re-programming the ECU.)

The battery problem was eventually sorted after we strolled into a suburban Subaru dealership, where, unlike at the fancy city one from which I bought the car, employees who know something about cars also do their own reception. They talk the talk, walk the walk and fix the car. A new battery, supplied on warranty solved the problem.

To be fair to the Impreza, it cannot be faulted on wet slippery roads. The ventilation is not a problem then because I am so tense that I barely breathe. The visibility remains a blight but since I smashed the car’s front righthand panel on an obstruction just below my sightline, I have been triply cautions. It’s nerve racking and slower, but much cheaper. The dogs quite like the Impreza and for them it would be much more comfortable than the back of the mighty Toyota Hilux Workmate ute, the only vehicle my husband has ever owned. However, open the Mustang door and our Barry will be right behind you in the hope of getting into the back seat. They say that the back of the Mustang is not really for passngers but they haven’t run that one past Barry Boxer.

How I came to get the Mustang is a rollicking story involving the maxim ‘famous last words/careful what you wish for,’ eccentric car dealers, a sign from Elvis and a belief that I wouldn’t get pushed around on the roads if I had a tough car. But that’s another story.

Blazenka Brysha