By Kevan Wolfe
Photographed by Paul Wilson and Kevan Wolfe
Billed as the toughest water ski race in the world, the gruelling event, sponsored for the fifth year in a row by Club Marine, attracts the best of Australia's water ski racers - and this year a contingent from New Zealand crossed the Tasman to take on the locals.
With heavy rain falling in the catchment area near Shepparton a week before the event, the river was running at about eight knots and despite the perfect weather, there was little hope of any of the top guns setting new records. Despite this young Adam Williams, skiing behind Nipple, driven by Steven Blight from Maiden Gully in Victoria, carved 15 seconds off the Tadpoles under 10 record set by The Force in 1998.
The Southern 80 outright winner was The Sting, owned by Cliff Priest and driven by family friend Ken Broughton with Heath Broughton observing. Stephen Robertson and Tim Galvin rode the planks. Cliff was more than chuffed with the win. The Sting has been a very successful boat in competition but the Southern 80 has always eluded them. And now The Sting has the distinction of being the only 'leg' boat to have ever won the event.
The Sting team is a family affair. Cliff and his two sons Darren and Malcolm built the 21ft hull, Darren also did the paint job and Malcolm, says his dad "is the guru" he does all the mechanical work on the twin-turbo 496 Chev engine. Although Cliff has never put the engine on a dyno, it is reputed to push out around 1500hp and drives through a Mercury five drive with a 1:1 gear ratio. The boat, with about 18lb boost on the turbos runs at around 122mph at 5900rpm with two skiers up.
During the Southern 80, Ken Broughton had the boat clocking 114mph in some of the short straights. Cliff said after the race that Ken could not have wrung much more out of it "It was a real challenge with a leg boat, he was exhausted at the finish," said Cliff. This was despite being able to trim the leg and keep the boat running flat.
The Sting had finished third in the Bakers Blitz the day before. The Blitz is a short 5km invitation run that decides the top 20 starting positions for the main event. Last year the boat had a skier fall near the last bend and started well back in the field. This year the only two boats in front of them were last year's record setter Top Shot and Moonshot whose crew were on a mission.
Moonshot looked to be the favourite after a taking out the Bakers Blitz one second in front of Top Shot and four seconds in front of The Sting. It was Moonshot's best shot yet for a win and the team including Jason Cartledge, who was out to impress the Australian team selectors, was serious. Four boats retired from the Blitz, three did not start and Ian Tricker in his 1999 overall winner Showdown was disqualified by race officials over the compliance of his lifejacket. The problem was solved the next day and Tricker was allowed to start in the main race. He managed to finish in third place overall behind race record holder Top Shot which was off the pace by more than a minute.
Moonshot's charge to victory came to a grinding halt when the propeller set up a bad vibration about 60km into the course. The propeller had been damaged in the Blitz the day before and during the race it cracked. There was much disappointment among the fans on the finishing line at Echuca when the minutes dragged on and the boat did not appear.
With 400-odd boats racing over a weekend there were bound to be some incidents. There were the disappointments of engines breaking down, gear failing and skiers simply falling off. On one occasion there were four boats, that had dropped skiers at the same time on the same corner and until they got themselves sorted out they were mobile obstacles for the boats coming behind.
Halfway through the race officials were forced to stop proceedings when one of the competitors lining up at the start suddenly sank. It appears that one of the skiers had dropped a rope and as they were sorting it out the next boat to start hooked it up and took off dragging the other but under stern first. Other casualties included God's Rival. The propeller threw a blade and John Bakker lost it, pitching Adam Reid into the fast flowing river where he promptly wore the plank in the head from one of his own skiers. He was lucky to go home with a just a headache.
In another incident a twin-rig running on only one motor, came around a corner only to find another competitor sitting in the middle of the river picking up a fallen skier. They had a very expensive coming together. And the ultimate in disappointment. Wild Turkey ran out of fuel just 50 yards from the finish.
Southern 80 organisers were pleased with the weekend and the behaviour of the crowd at the finish line. New restrictions on alcohol and crowd control kept the black singlet brigade away and it became a family affair with more mums and dads and the kids enjoying the atmosphere.