Fastest Man On Water Ready To Slow Down During Visit to Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta

Photo by Scott McCloskey Australia native Ken Warby, known as the “fastest man on water,” prepares for this weekend’s Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta.

WHEELING — Boating legend Ken Warby is accustomed to exclusive honors. When it comes to setting the world speed record on water, he’s one of few men alive to tell the tale.

Known for over three decades as the fastest man on water, Warby announced his retirement from the sport during the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta’s kickoff dinner Friday at WesBanco Arena. Warby has been a part of the event every year since its creation, and he was honored during the dinner with the regatta’s Henry Lauterbach Excellence in Powerboat Racing Award.

Warby set the world speed record — which he still holds — in 1978 at a blazing 317.58 mph at Blowering Dam in New South Wales, Australia. Now, almost 40 years later, Warby’s son David wants to be the first one to eclipse his father’s mark.

Ken Warby found his passion for boating during his teen years in his native Newcastle, in New South Wales, Australia, when a kitchen sketch turned into reality. He designed the hull of his famed boat, “The Spirit of Australia,” in his backyard at age 15.

“I was boat racing at the age of 15 and I just got quicker and quicker. I saw a speedboat once at the side of the lake and decided that would be a good thing,” Warby said. “Everyone at home thought I was a nutcase, and I probably was. The good thing about it is the dream came true.”

His ingenuity led “The Spirit of Australia” to shatter Lee Taylor’s previous world speed record of 288.6 mph in 1978.

“I had wanted to break that record from a very early age, to be the best and the fastest,” Warby said. “On that day, I didn’t feel threatened or worried. I knew the boat ran well and I just had to get in and push my foot down.”

Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta Co-Director Debbie Joseph, said Warby, who now lives in Cincinnati, has been a very important part of the annual event.

“At one of the very early regattas I had a very interesting man come up to me and invite me on the most thrilling boat ride I’ve ever taken. I held on, scared out of my wits, as we traveled over 100 mph. I’m not sure why that worried me, when Ken had gone over 317 mph before,” Joseph said. “To be in his presence is such an honor.”

Despite Warby’s confidence in his and his son’s new boat, “The Spirit of Australia 2,” the attempt will be risky and require months of practice, as more than four out of every five people who have attempted to break the record died doing so.

One of Warby’s childhood heroes, Donald Campbell, died attempting to break Taylor’s initial record in 1967. When Taylor attempted to reclaim his record from Warby in 1980, he lost his own life in the process.

“We’re sort of worried but we think he will be OK,” Ken Warby said. “He’s been boat crazy for 10-15 years and has driven some very fast boats. The hydroplane we’ve got has a jet airplane engine in it.”

Regatta committee members also honored the late Fred Wickens as the American Powerboat Association Boat Builder of the Year.

The event officially gets underway with 9:45 a.m. opening ceremonies today, with heats running from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a break for lunch. Sunday will follow the same schedule.

The regatta benefits the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Wheeling. Throughout the regatta’s history, $64,000 has been raised for the organization, which works to improve the lives of children and adults with disabilities.