This is a story about a father-son rivalry on steroids.
Forty years ago, Australian motorboat racer Ken Warby became the fastest man on water when he powered across Blowering Dam in New South Wales at 511km per hour.
But his long-cherished world record could now be about to be broken – by his own son.
Dave Warby recently allowed 60 Minutes reporter Tara Brown and her team exclusive access to his critical and very dangerous test runs to prepare for his own world water-speed record attempt next year.
A disability care worker by day, Dave said he has two inspirations to break the 40-year record: his “revolutionary boat”, Spirit of Australia 2… and his father.
“You watch your father in a backyard build a boat. And he had boat racers, people around the world saying, ‘This guy will never do it,'” Dave told Brown.
He firmly believes growing up watching his father has given him the edge he needs.
“I know what designs work, what doesn’t work, what has killed people and what’s kept them alive,” he said.
Dave has enlisted the help of experts and family support to help realise his childhood dream. They spend all their spare time working on Spirit 2 at a warehouse in the back-blocks of Newcastle.
Ken Warby’s original record-breaking boat – Spirit of Australia – was homemade, all the way down to a $65 scrap jet engine. So too is Dave’s Spirit 2 – powered by a next-generation fighter-jet engine.
Crew chief Phil Frawley, a former RAAF pilot, is among Dave’s hardcore supporters.
“The boat is a vacuum cleaner at one end and a Bunsen burner at the other,” he joked.
Dave shrugs off the prospect of being killed in his attempt – as others have since his dad set the record.
And it’s not hard to see where he gets his optimism from – after all, on the eve of his 1978 record run, Ken Warby was confronted by a reporter asking if he was happy with his 50-50 chance of survival.
“I think I’m going to be one of the lucky 50,” cracked Ken. “Not the unlucky 50.”
But still, he refused to let his son Dave watch his attempt – just in case.
Forty years later, with Spirit 2 in the water at Blowering Dam one frosty August morning, Dave is determined to prove his boat, and himself, whatever the odds.
“I don’t see (death) as a high chance, because I understand what I’m doing, how it works, and the approach,” he said.
“All those things keep you alive.”
But one factor the team hadn’t considered was recent high-water in the dam, causing an abundance of floating deadwood. Drones were deployed to spot the debris – and boats sent out to bring it in.
Ben Trollope was responsible for the Westpac Little Ripper drones tasked with the job.
“The smallest of sticks at 400km per hour feels like a massive log,” he told Tara Brown.
But despite the meticulous debris recovery efforts, during an early test run, as Dave pushed through the 200km mark towards 400km per hour, his boat hit a branch at 377km per hour.
In what was described by Brown as a potentially “catastrophic” result, Spirit of Australia 2’s rudder was damaged.
Swift repairs were carried out, but there would be time for only one more run. The tension ran high as Spirit 2’s fighter-jet engine ignited for the last time that weekend.
Watching from the shore with Tara Brown was one of Dave’s biggest fans, his partner Leesa.
“I think being his father’s son, I think only he truly understands that he has to do it,” she told Brown.
“It’s something he’s really been born to, I think.”
Then Dave opened the throttle on Sprit 2. Witnessing his final run, Tara Brown described it as “like a bullet being shot across the lake.”
And then the radio crackled. He’d done it. Dave had broken through 400km per hour – a feat few have achieved and lived. It was proof positive that he and his boat were record-ready, a fact acknowledged by his dad Ken in a Skype call from his home in the USA.
Ken said he’s had the record for “long enough” and that it was “time to hand it over”.
“If there’s anybody in the world I want to have it, it’s my good-looking son!”