The UK has a long and successful history of record breaking on land and water. From MacDonald, Hornsted, Guinness and Thomas in the early days, through to Segrave, Campbell and Cobb and then on to Richard Noble and Andy Green in 1983 and 1997, it is pre-eminent on land. On water, Donald Campbell with his Bluebird K7 jet boat became the most successful record breaker of all following on from his father Malcolm, who in turn improved on records set by Henry Segrave.
By the early 1950’s, the USA held the record with the last of the propeller driven boats piloted by Stanley Sayres at a speed of 178.49mph. Designed by Ted Jones, this featured a “prop riding” capability that pushed this design to its very limit. From then on, all subsequent unlimited water speed records would be set with jet propulsion and it was to be the first successful exponent of this technology that was the impetus for designer Reid Railton and pilot John Cobb. Both had worked together successfully to design, build and run vehicles to set track records, distance records and the outright land speed record.
The current water speed record is held by Australian Ken Warby at a speed of 317.18mph with his Spirit of Australia jet boat set in 1978. His son is currently undergoing trials with a new boat that is an evolution of that boat. The time gap between the two indicates the difficulty of setting a new outright water speed record. Others have tried and failed.
By definition, record breaking pushes limits and can therefore be dangerous. Those risks can be mitigated by research, testing and rigorous operational procedures but can never fully be removed. Bluebird K7 co-designer Ken Norris said that anybody going record breaking should pay equal attention to the 3 Ms – Man, Machine, Medium. Getting the right person in the right machine running on the right surface is the key to success. He later added a fourth M – sufficient money to do all this.
Statistically, the outright WSR is far more dangerous than the outright LSR since one element of those 3 Ms – the water – is more difficult to control and can change from second to second influenced by unseen factors. Therefore, any boat design should take account of the possibility of those changeable conditions within achievable limits. This translates to a robust design as well as one optimised for speed.
Like to FIA for automobiles and the FIM for motorcycles, the governing and certifying body for water speed records is based in France and has strict rules about class, technical and operational procedures to be followed in order to claim an internationally recognised record.