Some of the world's fastest powerboats and their drivers have become legends with their names firmly lodged into the history books. Here we highlight just five of the world's highest profile record breaking powerboats…

Bluebird K3

The iconic Bluebird K3, which has been restored to her original glorious form.

Bluebird K3

The Campbell dynasty has generated some tremendous success stories both on land and sea – but for the powerboaters among us, it all began with Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird K3. Sir Malcolm had already claimed his first Land Speed Record in 1924, but in 1937 (and again the following year) he topped 130 mph on Italy’s Lake Maggiore to claim the World Water Speed Record back from the Americans.

Naturally, as technology moved on, the original K3 became all but obsolete and fell into disrepair. In fact, Sir Malcolm’s son, Donald, would eventually flirt with the 300mph mark in Bluebird K7, a far more advanced successor to that original. But what makes the K3 so iconic is not just the fact that it was the first chapter in the epic Campbell powerboat story, but that after more than two decades of hard work from current owner, Karl Foulkes-Halbard, she is once again on the water. The entire craft, complete with wooden hull in the original blue livery, has been restored to the same glorious form that saw her put Britain back on top way back in 1937 – and while nobody is attempting to guess what it must have cost to complete the restoration, this pristine embodiment of the Campbell legacy is a very special boat and a credit to Foulkes-Halbard.

Virgin Atlantic Challenger II

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Challenger II.

Virgin Atlantic Challenger II

In 1952, the Americans had claimed the Blue Riband (the record for a Transatlantic crossing) in a time of three days and ten hours. It had been untouchable for a very long time, so Sir Richard Branson decided to mount a campaign to trump it.

His original Virgin Challenger failed miserably, when in 1985, it sank just a few miles from Britain’s west coast, but Challenger II was a different matter. In 1986, just a year after his embarrassingly high-profile sinking, his new and improved 72-foot, £1.5 million aluminium powerboat smashed the record by two hours. It was a magnificent feat from this Soni Levy designed, 52-tonne, 4,000hp monster of a boat – but despite the success, it was denied official recognition by the trustees of the trophy because they deemed that Sir Richard had broken two vital rules. Firstly, he had stopped to refuel and secondly, his vessel had no demonstrable commercial maritime purpose.

Somewhat deflated, Sir Richard turned his attention to Transatlantic ballooning instead and the boat fell into disrepair in a forgotten Spanish boatyard. Happily, however, this magnificent 80s icon of endurance powerboating (which is reportedly fitted out in original Virgin Airways upholstery) is now restored and back in Britain where she belongs. See for more.

Gran Argentina

Fabio Buzzi's Gran Argentina.

Fabio Buzzi Gran Argentina

Fabio Buzzi is a bit of a legend in race and record-breaking circles and so too are his boats. In a fleet dripping with pedigree, the ‘Gran Argentina’ is a particularly impressive candidate for the powerboating Hall of Fame. It employs a deep-V monohull built from a Kevlar/Carbon Fibre composite, with two transverse steps towards the stern.

These steps help shift the centre of lift forward to stabilise the pitch at high speeds and compensate for the weight of the big diesel engines. The two-man crew sits in a capsule designed around the canopy of an F16 military aircraft, while four Biturbo Seatek diesel engines with an aggregate output of 3300 KW are responsible for propulsion. Capable of speeds of up to 115 knots, not only was it three-times Superboat World Champion, but it also became a long-distance record breaker, when it completed the gruelling Miami-Nassau-Miami endurance event at an average speed in excess of 100 mph. The fact that it happens to look like Satan’s weekend plaything is just a bonus.

Ferrari’s Arno XI Hydroplane.

Ferrari’s Arno XI Hydroplane.

Arno XI Ferrari

There are not many names that can evoke so emotive a response as Ferrari, so when Enzo Ferrari directed his considerable knowledge and technical expertise toward a project to break the World Water Speed Record, everyone sat up and paid attention.

Funded and overseen by Italian Industrialist, Achille Castoldi, the Arno XI Hydroplane was fitted with a marinised version of the engine from Ferrari’s Type 375 Grand Prix car – and in 1953, this 12-cylinder, 4,500cc V12 unit (with twin superchargers and an output in excess of 600hp) powered the Arno XI to 150.2mph on Lake Iseo, setting a world record for an 800kg boat that remains intact today.

After its record run, it was adapted with aerodynamic tweaks and stabilising fins and raced with great success for more than a decade. It was then sold on again and today, in mint condition and under the ownership of an unknown party, its rarity, not to mention its record-breaking heritage (and the fact that it enjoys the aesthetic loveliness of a 1950s Grand Prix race car) has seen it valued at an astonishing £1.5 million.

Spirit of Australia

Spirit of Australia hit 317.6mph back in 1978.

Spirit of Australia

In October 1978, Ken Warby took his jet-powered ‘Spirit of Australia’ to a new World Record speed of 317.6 mph on the Tumut River near the Blowering Dam in Australia. The feat itself was impressive enough, but the story behind it makes it even more astonishing. Ken had designed the boat at home and built it in his back garden with nothing but his own personal hand tools.

His progress was subject to good weather and extremely modest budgets and construction was a process of adding a piece of timber as finance and opportunity allowed. He bought cheap surplus jet engines from the Australian Air Force and apparently took up oil painting in a bid to fund the boat’s testing and development. While selling his paintings at shopping centres, he finally got sponsorship from local retailer, Fosseys, and sought technical input to improve the boat’s performance.

Built from balsa wood and fiberglass and powered by a Westinghouse J34 jet engine, he finally smashed the 300mph barrier in 1978, succeeding where Bluebird K7 had failed. Today, Spirit of Australia is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, Sydney – and Ken remains the only person ever to have designed, built and driven his own boat to an unlimited water speed record.

Written by: Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a journalist, copywriter and magazine editor with a long history in boating and a happy addiction to the water. He’s worked on boats, lived on boats, bought boats, sold boats and – when he’s not actually on board a boat – he can generally be found in his Folkestone office, tapping away at the computer and gazing out to sea.