Saturday, September 15 will be the day of London’s Great River Race, which will feature almost every kind of boat you can imagine. Think skiffs, Chinese dragon boats, Hawaiian war canoes, Viking longboats, whalers and more.
Some contestants are in it just to have a laugh. Others, however, are determined to win the 21-mile race from the humming Docklands down the Thames.
These athletes are among those who want to make their mark in the boating world — leaving others in their wake. Perhaps they aspire to become the next boating greats.
There are some men who have already achieved that distinction. Meet the world’s best powerboat racers.
Sir Malcolm Campbell
1885 – 1948
British daredevil Sir Malcolm Campbell is the godfather of the human obsession with traveling solo on water at shattering speed. At various times during the 1920s and 1930s, Campbell achieved the distinction of setting world speed records on both water and land.
Campbell set the water speed record four times, clocking his fastest time of 141.740 mph on August 19, 1939. His adaptable racing on a range of vehicles made him famous around the globe.
Adding to his reputation, he was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and he won two French Grand Prix in a Bugatti. He was knighted in 1931.
Each of Campbell’s racing cars and hydroplanes was named Bluebird after the play L’Oiseau bleu (“The Bluebird”), by the Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck. You can see replicas of his Bluebird K4 and its K7 successor on display at the Lakeland Motor Museum in Cumbria, northern England.
1921 – 1967
Sir Malcolm Campbell’s son, Donald, continued the great family tradition of setting records on land and water. But Donald Campbell was destined to wind up with an even more spectacular racing resume than his fearless father.
Donald Campbell started out zooming about in his father’s old Bluebird K4 boat. After a 170 mph structural failure on Coniston Water, Lancashire in 1951, the budding trailblazer decided to upgrade and develop a new supercharged powerboat: the Bluebird K7. It worked.
Between 1955 and 1964, Donald Campbell set seven world water speed records on his K7, reaching 276.33 mph. In 1957, Campbell received a Citizen of the British Empire (CBE) medal.
But, eventually, Donald Campbell’s luck ran out when he made yet another stab at breaking the water speed record on Coniston Water. Campbell was topping 300 mph when his supposedly improved K7 took off. His untimely death haunts the British sporting psyche.
1880 – 1971
American powerboat ace Garfield Wood ranks as one of the most spectacular characters in the sport’s turbulent history. Blessed with extraordinary drive, the ferryboat operator’s son evolved into an inventive entrepreneur, motorboat builder and racer.
Garfield Wood set the world water speed record several times and became the first man to top 100 mph on water. Garfield Wood’s trademark vessel was his Miss America series of “hydroplanes”: light, fast motorboats designed to skim the surface.
Wood’s hydroplanes won nine successive races (1920–21, 1926, 1928–33) for the top international prize for motorboat racing, the Harmsworth Trophy. In eight of the wins, Wood drove the winning boat.
In 1925, Wood raced the Twentieth Century Limited train up the Hudson River between Albany and New York, winning by 22 minutes. Besides racing, Garfield Wood concocted hundreds of patents, becoming a multimillionaire. In 1990, long after his death, he won induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
1891 – 1981
Widely known as Kaye Don, this Irish speedboat racer started out as a motorcycle competitor but switched to cars and boats. In 1931, Kaye Don was tapped to compete in the Harmsworth Trophy Race on the Detroit River.
The event was touted as a face-off between Don and the formidable American Wood brothers – Garfield and George. While training for the Harmsworth, Garfield Wood became the first man to top 100 mph on water.
But three days later, riding his Rolls Royce engine-powered speedboat Miss England II, Don became a new water speed world record holder, beating Garfield Wood by just 1.25 mph. Despite his verve, nerve and success, Kaye Don was unassuming.
In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada in 1931, when he held both land and water world speed records, Don said “One or two experiences that I have had have been somewhat thrilling”. Supreme understatement.
1939 – Present
Powerboat racing once seemed like a Transatlantic contest with Brits and Americans routinely swapping trophies. But then along came gutsy Australian garage tinkerer Ken Warby. Warby holds the distinction of setting the current world water speed record of 317 mph in 1978.
Warby achieved that exploit on Blowering Dam, on the Tumut River in New South Wales in a boat tribally named Spirit of Australia. He designed the hull of his winning super-boat himself, building it with classic Aussie grit in his backyard.
As a child, Warby’s role model was Donald Campbell, who died trying to break the world record in 1967, but retained an aura of heroism. In 1978, Warby was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to speedboat racing. He remains the only person to have topped 300 miles per hour in a boat and lived to tell the story.