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The World Unlimited water speed record is the officially recognised fastest speed achieved by a water-borne vehicle. The current record of 511 km/h (317 mph) was achieved in 1978.

  • From 1909 to 1927 the record was an unofficial listing from the organisers of powerboat races.
  • In 1928 the record category was officially established.
  • From 1930 the rules of the record stipulated that a craft must make two runs over a timed kilometre course in opposite directions, with the record being the average speed of the two runs.
  • The record is currently ratified by the Union Internationale Motonautique (UIM).
With an approximate fatality rate of 85% since 1940, the record is one of the sporting world's most hazardous competitions.

Before 1910

William Cogswell's steam yacht Feiseen, which set a new world speed record on August 25, 1893 of 50.8 km/h (32 mph).
Until 1911, the world water speed records were held by steam-powered, propeller-driven vehicles, including Nathanael Herreshoff's Stiletto (1885, 26.2 mph), William B. Cogswell's Feiseen (1893, 31.6 mph), Charles Algernon Parsons' Turbiniamarker (1897, 39.1 mph), and Charles R. Flint's Arrow (1903, 45.06 mph).


Beginning in 1908, Alexander Graham Bell and engineer Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin began experimenting with powered watercraft. In 1919, with Baldwin piloting their HD-4 hydrofoil, a new world water speed record of was set on Bras d'Or Lakemarker in Nova Scotiamarker.


During the 1920s powerboat racing was dominated by American businessman and racer Gar Wood, whose Miss America boats were capable of speeds approaching 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph). Increased public interest generated by the speeds achieved by Wood and others led to an official speed record being ratified in 1928.The first person to try a record attempt was Gar Wood’s brother George. On 4 September 1928 he drove Miss America VII to 149.40 km/h (92.83 mph) on the Detroit River. The next year Gar Wood took the same boat up a waterway Indian Creek, Miami and reached 149.86 km/h (93.12 mph).


Like the land speed record, the water record was destined to become a scrap for national honour between Britain and the USA. American success in setting records spurred Castrol Oil chairman Lord Wakefield to sponsor a project to bring the water record to Britain. Famed land speed racer and racing driver Sir Henry Segrave was hired to pilot a new boat, Miss England. Although the boat wasn’t capable of beating Gar Wood’s Miss America, the British team did gain experience, which was put into an improved boat. Miss England II was powered by two Rolls-Royce aircraft engines and seemed capable of beating Wood’s record.

On June 13, 1930, Segrave piloted Miss England II to a new record of 158.94 km/h (98.76 mph) average speed during two runs on Windermeremarker, in Britain’s Lake Districtmarker. Having set the record, Segrave set off on a third run to try to improve the record further. Unfortunately during the run, the boat struck an object in the water and capsized, with both Segrave and his co-driver receiving fatal injuries.

Following Segrave’s death, Miss England II was salvaged and repaired. Another racing driver, Kaye Don, was chosen as the new driver for 1931. However, during this time Gar Wood recaptured the record for the US at 164.41 km/h (102.16 mph). A month later on Lake Gardamarker, Don fought back with 177.387 km/h (110.223 mph). In February 1932, Wood responded, nudging the mark up by 1.6 km/h (1 mph).

In response to the continued American challenge, the British team built a new boat, Miss England III. The design was an evolution of the predecessor, with a squared-off stern and twin propellers being the main improvements. Don took the new boat to Loch Lomondmarker, Scotland, on July 18, 1932, improved the record first to 188.985 km/h (117.430 mph), and then to 192.816 km/h (119.810 mph) on a second run.

Determined to have the last word over his great rival, Gar Wood built another new Miss America. Miss America X was 12 metres long, powered by four supercharged Packard aeroplane engines. On September 20, 1932, Wood drove his new boat to 200.943 km/h (124.860 mph). It would prove the end of an era. Don declined to attempt any further records, and Miss England III went to a museum. Wood also opted to scale down his involvement in racing and returned to running his businesses. Somewhat ironically, both record-breakers lived into their 90s. Wood died in 1971, Don in 1985.

Boat design changes

Wood’s last record would be one of the final records for a conventional, single-keel boat. In June 1937, Malcolm Campbell, the world-famous land speed record breaker, drove Blue Bird K3 to a new record of 203.31 km/h (126.33 mph) at Lake Maggioremarker. Compared to the massive Miss America X, K3 was a much more compact craft. It was 5 metres shorter and had one engine to X's four. Despite his success, Campbell was unsatisfied by the relatively small increase in speed. He commissioned a new Blue Bird to be built. K4 was a ‘three pointer’ hydroplane. Unlike conventional powerboats, which have a single keel, with an indent, or ‘step’, cut from the bottom to reduce drag, a hydroplane has a concave base with two floats fitted to the front, and a third point at the rear of the hull. When the boat increases in speed, most of the hull lifts out of the water and runs on the three contact points. The positive effect is a reduction in drag and an increase in power-to-weight ratio - the boat is lighter as it doesn’t need many engines to push it along. The downside is that the three-pointer is much less stable than the single keel boat. If the hydroplane’s angle of attack is upset at speed, the craft can somersault into the air, or nose-dive into the water.


Campbell’s new boat was a success. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, he took it to Coniston Watermarker and increased his record by 18 km/h (11 mph), to 228.11 km/h (141.74 mph). The return of peace in 1945 brought with it a new form of power for the record breaker – the jet engine. Campbell immediately renovated Blue Bird K4 with a De Havilland Goblin jet engine. The result was a curious-looking craft, whose shoe-like profile led to it being nicknamed ‘The Coniston Slipper’. The experiment with jet-power was not a success and Campbell retired from record-attempts. He died in 1948.

1950s. Slo-Mo-Shun and Bluebird: Propriders to Turbojets

Early in the morning of June 26, 1950, a small red boat skipped across Lake Washingtonmarker, near Seattlemarker, and improved on Campbell’s record by 29 km/h (18 mph). The boat was called Slo-Mo-Shun IV, and it was built by Seattle Chrysler dealer called Stanley Sayres. The piston-engined boat was able to run at because its hull was designed to lift the top of the propellers out of water when running at high speed. This phenomenon, called ‘prop riding’, further reduced drag.

In 1952, Sayres drove Slo-Mo-Shun to 287.25 km/h (178.49 mph) - a further 29 km/h (18 mph) increase. The renewed American success persuaded Malcolm Campbell’s son Donald, who had already driven Bluebird K4 to within sight of his father’s record, to make a push for the record. However, the K4 was completely out-classed and Campbell could not run at the speeds of the Seattle-built boat. In 1951 K4 was written-off when it hit a submerged object on Coniston.

At this time, yet another land speed driver entered the fray. Englishman John Cobb, was hoping to beat 320 km/h (200 mph) in his jet-powered, all-aluminium built, Crusader. A radical design, the Crusader reversed the ‘three-pointer’ design, placing the floats at the rear of the hull. On September 29, 1952, Cobb tried for a 320 km/h (200 mph) record on Loch Nessmarker. Travelling at an estimated speed of 386 km/h (240 mph), Crusader's front plane collapsed and the craft instantly disintegrated. Cobb was rescued from the water but died of shock soon afterward.

Two years later, on October 8, 1954, another man would die trying for the record. Italian textile magnates Mario Verga and Francesco Vitetta, responding to a prize offer of 5 million lire from the Italian Motorboat Federation to any Italian who broke the world record, built a sleek piston-engined hydroplane to claim the record. Named Laura, after Verga’s daughter, the boat was fast but unstable. Travelling across Lake Iseomarker at close to 306 km/h (190 mph), Verga lost control of Laura, and was thrown out into the water when the boat somersaulted. Like Cobb, he died of shock.

Following Cobb’s death, Donald Campbell started working on a new Bluebird - K7, a jet powered hydroplane. Learning the many lessons from Cobb’s ill-starred Crusader, K7 was designed as a classic 3 pointer with sponsons forward alongside the cockpit.

The long, wide, high, 2.5 ton craft was designed by Ken and Lewis Norris in 1953-54 and was completed in early 1955. It was powered by a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl turbojet of 3500 lbf (16 kN) thrust. K7 was of all metal construction and proved to have extremely high rigidity.

Campbell and K7 set a new record of 325.60 km/h (202.32 mph) on Ullswatermarker in July 1955. Campbell and K7 went on to break the record a further six times over the next nine years in the USA and England (Coniston Watermarker), finally increasing it to 444.71 km/h (276.33 mph) at Lake Dumbleyungmarker in Western Australia in 1964.Donald Campbell thus became the most prolific water speed record breaker of all time.

It must be noted at this time that the the world speed record (200.42mph) for piston-powered propeller-driven boats was held by the Miss U.S. I owned by George Simon. This record was set at Guntersville, Alabama in 1962 by Roy Duby. This record stood for 38 years.


Donald Campbell arrived back at Coniston Water, scene of previous triumphs, in November 1966. Bluebird K7 had been re-engined with a Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus jet rated at 4500 lbf (20 kN) thrust. His stated aim was to bump the record out of reach of the Americans, and push it beyond 300 mph (480 km/h)The new attempt suffered many setbacks both mechanical, and weather related, and by the end of 1966, Campbell's existing record was still not broken. On the morning of January 4, 1967, he was a man under pressure, but the day dawned still, and conditions seemed perfect.

Bluebird K7 was over a decade old, and an American called Lee Taylor was threatening the record with a new boat, Hustler. The patriotic Campbell desperately wanted a Briton to be the first to break 480 km/h (300 mph). His first run across the lake was untroubled and fast. K7 averaged 475.2 km/h (297.6 mph). A new record seemed in sight. Campbell applied K7's water brake to slow the craft down from her peak speed of as she left the measured kilometre.The wake caused by the water brake was very large from travelling at such high speeds, so Campbell would normally refuel and wait, before starting the mandatory return leg, for the lake to settle again.This time, perhaps fearing that conditions would deteriorate if he waited, Campbell immediately turned around at the end of the lake and began his return run, to try and beat his own wash. Bluebird came back on her return even faster. At around 512 km/h (320 mph), just as she entered the measured Kilo, Bluebird met its wake from the first run.The boat began to lose stability, and finally, 100 m before the end of the kilometre, its nose lifted at a 45 degree angle. The boat took off, somersaulted and then plunged nose-first into the lake, breaking up as she cartwheeled across the surface. Campbell was killed instantly. Prolonged searches over the next two weeks located the wreck, but it was not until May 2001 that Campbell's body was finally located and recovered. Campbell was laid to rest in the churchyard at Coniston on 12 September 2001

Lee Taylor, a Californian boat racer, had first tried for the record in April 1964. His boat Hustler was similar in design to Bluebird K7, being a jet hydroplane. During a test run on Lake Havasumarker, Taylor was unable to shut down the jet and crashed into the lakeside at over . Hustler was wrecked and Taylor was severely injured. He spent the following years recuperating, and rebuilding his boat. On June 30, 1967 on Lake Guntersvillemarker, Taylor and Hustler tried for the record, but the wake of some spectators’ boats disturbed the water, forcing Taylor to slow down his second run, and he came up 3.2 km/h (2 mph) short. He tried again later the same day and succeeded in setting a new record of 459 km/h (286.875 mph).

1970s to the present

Until November 20, 1977, every official water speed record had been set by an American or Briton. That day Australian Ken Warby broke the Anglo-American domination when he piloted his Spirit of Australia to 464.46 km/h (288.60 mph) to beat Lee Taylor’s record. Warby, who had built the craft in his back yard, used the publicity to find sponsorship to pay for improvements to the Spirit. On October 8, 1978 Warby travelled to Blowering Dam, Australia, and broke both the 480 km/h (300 mph) and 500 km/h barriers with an average speed of 510 km/h (317.6 mph).

Warby’s record still stands today, and there have only been two official attempts to break it (although Campbell's attempt discussed in the previous section would have exceeded the value, it resulted in his death).

Lee Taylor tried to get the record back in 1980. Inspired by the land speed record cars Blue Flame and Budweiser Rocket, Taylor built a rocket-powered boat, Discovery II. The long craft was a reverse three-point design, similar to John Cobb’s Crusader, albeit of much greater length.

Originally Taylor tested the boat on Walker Lakemarker in Nevada but his backers demanded a more accessible location, so Taylor switched to Lake Tahoemarker. An attempt was set for November 13, 1980, but when conditions on the lake proved unfavourable, Taylor decided against trying for the record. Not wanting to disappoint the assembled spectators and media, he decided to do a test run instead. At 432 km/h (270 mph) Discovery II hit a swell and one of the floats collapsed, sending the boat plunging into the water. The cockpit section with Taylor's body was recovered three days later.

In 1989, Craig Arfons, nephew of famed record breaker Art Arfons, tried for the record in his all-composite fiberglass/Kevlar Rain X Challenger, but died when the hydroplane somersaulted at 483 km/h (301.875 mph).

Despite the high fatality rate, the record is still coveted by boat enthusiasts and racers. Currently there are three major projects aiming for the record. The British Quicksilver [120438], The American Challenge project [120439], and spurred into action by the new challengers, Ken Warby has also built a new boat [120440].

In 2001, Bluebird K7 was raised from Coniston Water by members of the Bluebird Project.

In March 2009 Nigel Macknight, Managing Director of the Quicksilver company and pilot of the boat, was declared personally bankrupt and had to step down because it disqualified him from holding any company directorships [120441]. At the same time the UK's Companies House issued a proposal to strike-off Quicksilver (WSR) from its register [120442]. If this follows the normal course then the company will cease to exist mid-2009, effectively ending Quicksilver's record bid.

The Quicksilver WSR Ltd company was struck off on 1st Sept 2009. But the company appears to have come back as QWSR Ltd. Companies house return shows the company have very little in assets. One Director and a Company Sec

Record holders

mph km/h Craft Pilot(s) Location Date
70.86 114.04 Hydrodome IV Casey Baldwin Bras d'Or Lakemarker 19 September 1919
74.870 120.492 Miss America Gar Wood Detroit River 15 September 1920
80.567 129.660 Miss America II Gar Wood Detroit River 6 September 1921
87.392 140.644 Farman Hydroglider Jules Fisher River Seinemarker 10 November 1924
92.838 149.409 Miss America II George Wood Detroit River 4 September 1928
93.123 149.867 Miss America VII Gar Wood Indian Creek 23 March 1929
98.760 158.938 Miss England II Henry Segrave Windermeremarker 13 June 1930
102.256 164.565 Miss America IX Gar Wood Indian Creek 20 March 1931
103.49 166.55 Miss England II Kaye Don Parana Rivermarker 15 April 1931
110.223 177.387 Miss England II Kaye Don Lake Gardamarker 31 July 1931
111.712 179.783 Miss America IX Gar Wood Indian Creek 5 February 1932
117 189 Miss England III Kaye Don Loch Lomondmarker 18 July 1932
119.81 192.82 Miss England III Kaye Don Loch Lomond 18 July 1932
124.86 200.94 Miss America X Gar Wood St. Clair Rivermarker 20 September 1932
126.32 203.29 Bluebird K3 Malcolm Campbell Lake Maggioremarker 1 September 1937
129.50 208.41 Bluebird K3 Malcolm Campbell Lake Maggiore 2 September 1937
130.91 210.66 Bluebird K3 Malcolm Campbell Hallwilerseemarker 17 September 1938
141.74 228.11 Bluebird K4 Malcolm Campbell Coniston Watermarker 19 August 1939
160.323 258.015 Slo-Mo-Shun IV Stanley Sayres, Ted O. Jones Lake Washingtonmarker 26 June 1950
178.497 287.263 Slo-Mo-Shun IV Stanley Sayres, Elmer Leninschmidt Lake Washington 7 July 1952
202.32 325.60 Bluebird K7 Donald Campbell Ullswatermarker 23 July 1955
216.20 347.94 Bluebird K7 Donald Campbell Lake Meadmarker 16 November 1955
225.63 363.12 Bluebird K7 Donald Campbell Coniston Water 19 September 1956
239.07 384.75 Bluebird K7 Donald Campbell Coniston Water 7 November 1957
248.62 400.12 Bluebird K7 Donald Campbell Coniston Water 10 November 1958
260.35 418.99 Bluebird K7 Donald Campbell Coniston Water 14 May 1959
276.33 444.71 Bluebird K7 Donald Campbell Lake Dumbleyungmarker 31 December 1964
285.22 459.02 Hustler Lee Taylor Lake Guntersvillemarker 30 June 1967
288.60 464.46 Spirit of Australia Ken Warby Blowering Dammarker 20 November 1977
317.596 511.13 Spirit of Australia Ken Warby Blowering Dam 8 October 1978


  2. The Bluebird Project


  • Fred Harris and Mike Rimmer (2001). Skimming the Surface.
  • Kevin Desmond (1996). The World Water Speed Record. Batsford.
  • Leo Villa (1969). The Record Breakers. Hamlyn.

See also

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