Carabinieri's motorboatWhen one imagines the luxury speed boat, images of James Bond fleeing terrorists through the narrow canals of Venice come to mind almost too naturally. The sport of speed boat racing is indeed filled with excitement and yet the danger is very real. With a projected fatality rate of 85% since 1940, trying to break the water speed record is not for the weak-willed or timid. Yet the sport continues more popular than ever, with daredevils clamouring for a fast speed boat and literally risking life and limb for the coveted title. The history is over a century old, which is surprising since the speed boat seems contemporary.


The steam powered engine speed boat was the first to be considered holding the water speed record at a mere 26.2mph in 1885. This early era was punctuated by the steam yacht Feiseen which could reach up to 32mph in 1893. Before 1910 these speed boat charter expositions were more about the showmanship rather than seriously breaking the water speed record. However when the first gasoline powered speed boat broke the speed record, interest began to swell. The famous Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, began experimenting with high powered boats in order to break the water speed record. It was American businessman Gar Wood, however, who dominated the early days of the sport with his line of Miss America boats which could hit up to 95mph. The Miss America boat was part of the businessman’s speed boat rental business and he was aggressive about it. Similarly to the land speed record, a rivalry between the British and the Americans came to head with Miss England breaking the record with 98mph; however this cost the British dearly. The pilot, Sir Henry Segrave died of fatal injuries during a high speed crash – even at 100mph speed boat racing is incredibly dangerous.

Calm Before the Storm

The end of the early era only came about after an intense back and forth for the water speed record between Gar Wood and, a new British challenger, Kaye Don; although in the end Wood won. During the lull between the new and old era, technology was being advanced although at first only providing minor improvements. After World War II was over and peace returned, speed boat engine designers had a new toy; the jet engine. However it proved to be a failure and the designer, Malcolm Campbell retired from attempting the water speed record.

1960-The Future

During the beginning of the late era, another ill-fated Englishmen John Cobb was pushing the boundaries of the 200mph mark. His unique design fitted the speed boat floats to the back of the boat and indeed hit over 200mph although the nose of his boat hit the water disintegrating the entire craft. Picking up the pieces, Donald Campbell honoured his fallen national by improving on the design of the speed boat until finally reaching 276.33mph in the K7. The history of the speed boat and the water speed record reads like a riveting novel with men putting their lives on the line to push the boundaries of what was capable. Today the water speed record stands unchallenged at 317mph and is held by Ken Warby of Australia – set in 1978. 24 years later and there is still not a speed boat in existence that can touch that record, truly a challenge worth the 15% you might have for survival.

Eugene Calvini is a writer and boating enthusiast; his wedding boat served as the kick start for his passion of the water craft.