Friday, January 14, 2000

Boater hopes to top 317-mph feat

A star in Australia, he's just a regular guy in Miamitown

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ken Warby's boat has 9,000 horsepower.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        WHITEWATER TWP. — Sipping his coffee at Miamitown's Home Like Restaurant each morning, Ken Warby is about as recognizable as Pete Rose would be at a diner in a small Australian town. But turn the tables, and camera flashes would pop, film would roll and crowds would gather around.

        That's what Mr. Warby gets two or three times a year when he returns to his native Australia, where he is a national hero.

        He still holds the imaginations he captured in 1978, when he set the standing world record for water speed in a boat he built part-time in his back yard. Two men — including former Morrow res ident and drag racer Craig Arfons — died trying to surpass his 317.6 mph mark.

        Now 60 years old, Mr. Warby is planning to do it himself. He hopes to capture the hearts of a new generation by attempting another speed run on an Australian lake sometime in the fall of 2001.

        But this time he built the boat here, in his Whitewater Township back yard. And he is unveiling it today at the Cincinnati Travel, Sports and Boat Show at the convention center.

        “The next-door neighbors don't even know what I do” in three 30-by-50-foot workshops sitting on his 5-acre lot, Mr. Warby said.

        “I think it's great because I can wander down the street here and eat at the local mom-and-pop restaurant. ... I can sit around. I can play with the boat. I can do what I want to do.”

        In Australia, where he appears a few times a year to

        run in promotional boat races, the scene is much different: “The media are meeting me as I'm coming off the plane and they're asking me, "What are you here for?' and "What are you doing?' It's nice for a while, but then you want to get back to reality.”

        And reality, for Mr. Warby, is Miamitown.

        He first visited Cincinnati in search of jet engines. He moved here in 1982, but spent about four months of each year in Sydney, Australia. It wasn't until 1989, when he opened the Mini Mix Inc. cement company, that he decided to stay full-time.

        In 1995, he started to work on his new jet-powered hydroplane. With 9,000 horsepower, it will have 50 percent more oomph than the 6,000-horsepower craft he used in 1978. That boat, christened Spirit of Australia, is displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney Harbor.

        “Ken Warby's achievement on the world stage was unparalleled,” said Sandi Logan, spokesman at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. During the shifting post-Vietnam era, he helped Australians forge an identity beyond being the people from “down under.”

        “We certainly had good cricket teams and good rugby teams and good surfers, and we were starting to become well-known for some of our film-making and pop music. ... But the world water speed record was kind of a do-it-yourself record,” Mr. Logan said.

        It appealed to the national imagination and became the subject of early television movies and programs.

        “It involved speed, it involved water, it involved a record. It involved what you might call a quintessential Australian figure,” Mr. Logan said. “Until (the record-breaking) happened, Ken Warby was the guy who tinkered with his engine out in the back yard and on the weekends gave it a go.”

        These days, Mr. Warby is gearing up to go again.

        Divorced and the father of three grown sons, he said he is not afraid of the attempt. He knows exactly what went wrong when other pilots tried and failed, with fatal results, and can avoid their mistakes. And the design for his ship has floated around in his head for more than 20 years.

        “(It is) a slight variation on the last boat,” he said. “It was a matter of making it a little safer, a little more sophisticated ... and more powerful.”

        Mr. Warby is unusual because he designs, builds and pilots his boats — normally the work of at least three people. He said that is his greatest challenge.

        He does not do it for the thrill.

        “If you put someone in my boat who had been round on the Ohio River at 30 mph and put them in my boat at 300 mph, you'd probably give them a heart attack,” Mr. Warby said.

        After so many runs, he is used to the rush — and busy with the task at hand.

        “If you're sitting back saying, "Hey, this is great,' you're not watching what you're doing. It's more about dedication and getting the job done.”

        To complete his plan, Mr. Warby hopes to find a corporate sponsor. He already has the support of the Australian government, which owns the Blowering Dam Lake in New South Wales where he plans to run.

        “He became, for many years, a household word,” Mr. Logan said. “... I suspect that once it becomes known that he intends to attempt to break the record, people will say, "Oh, yeah,' and he will become part of a new generation.”


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