By Kevan Wolfe
Photographs by Paul Wilson and Kevan Wolfe

When Hellrazor smashed the Baker's Blitz record by a whopping eleven seconds at the Club Marine-sponsored Southern 80 ski race, there was talk around the town that the team of driver Mark Cranny, observer Greg James and skiers Justin Cadden and Steve Row would make Top Shot's outright record for the 80-kilometre river race, set in 2000, look pretty sick.

The team from Melbourne's Patterson Lakes would have pulled it off except for a blown turbocharger, just a few kilometres from the finish, which robbed them of the record but not an overall win. Hellrazor crossed the finish line at Echuca with smoke pouring from the turbocharger and with Greg James waving his arms wildly in the air. Even with the mechanical problem he knew that they would be hard to beat after completing the tough event in 32 minutes and 23 seconds - just 70 seconds off the pace - to average 147 km/h.

Ken Broughton - driver of The Sting

The Southern 80 is usually held in February on the Murray River. The event attracts hundreds of skiers, experts, novices, veterans, social and disabled who race over the two days from Torrumbarry Weir up river to the old port town of Echuca. This year's event was nearly called off by the organisers - the Moama Water Sports Club - because of problems obtaining the necessary liability insurance. It looked as if the Mildura 100, usually held over the Easter weekend would also suffer the same fate when the organisers were faced with a mammoth $1.2 million liability insurance bill.

The powerplant of Chief and it's owner Col McQuinn.

Club Marine's Victorian state manager, Mark Crockford, in conjunction with insurance brokers Graham Stevens from Willis Insurance and Craig Saunders from King Insurance Brokers were able to come up with a one-off insurance package that saved the two events. Some 300 local businesses in Echuca and Moama, on the New South Wales side of the river, dug deep and the necessary funds for the insurance premium were raised.

And so that is how the world's toughest ski race came to be held in April this year. With the uncertainty that surrounded the race in the beginning, and being held later in the year, it meant that competitor numbers were down slightly. Although, this didn't seem to daunt the avid fans who turned up in bigger numbers than ever for the presentation on Sunday night. A Victorian boat winning the event for the first time in about five years might have had something to do with it as well.

The Bakers Blitz is held on the Saturday afternoon of the two-day event. It is a 20-kilometre dash for the Super Class boats to sort out the starting order for the next day. The winner starts on pole and generally sets the pace for the others. Second in the Blitz was Stinga from Wilberforce in New South Wales, which also came second at Mildura and third was the Victorian Moonshot team. The favourite for the event was last year's overall Southern 80 winner and winner at Mildura just a few weeks before, The Sting from Abbotsford (NSW). And although The Sting started first the team could only manage a time that put them in sixth place.

Another favourite was The Chief, this magnificently-prepared Connelly powered by a Chev 496 from Victoria was having only its second major race. Owned by Col McQuinn, a larger than life character, the boat is driven by another character of the sport, John Robertson, the observer is Owen Morgan and the skiers are Robert Cheetham and Daniel Graziano - both young and up and coming.

Although, the crew tested a four-bladed prop the day before, they found it was the wrong one for the Blitz and eleventh was the best they could manage. "It had plenty in the strait but nothing in the corners," Col explained. It was changed for the main race and despite blowing an oil line at the Five Mile boat ramp about 20k from the finish, The Chief finished fourth overall. McQuinn was philosophical, "our skiers are young and we will know what to look for in the future. There is still a lot of development to go."

Ian Tricker was back driving the 1999 overall winner, Showdown, one of the few outboard-powered boats in the Super Class. This year he was proudly showing off his brand new life jacket. Readers might remember that Ian and the race officials didn't see eye-to-eye last year when he turned up with a much-loved and much-worn lifejacket. They said it didn't meet the specs and the champion driver was sidelined for the Bakers Blitz.

Showdown could only manage a fifth in the Blitz but in the main race Tricker, despite not having raced since last year, showed he was still the master of the river and brought the veteran boat home in second place - perhaps spurred on by his new lifejacket. Immediately after the race Showdown's owners announced that the boat was for sale.

God's Rival had a better run this year to finish third just under a minute behind Showdown. Last year God's Rival threw a prop blade causing driver John Bakker to lose it and the observer was pitched into the river where he promptly wore one of his own skier's planks.

Last year's winner and the winner of the Mildura 100, The Sting, lost all chance when skier Tim Galvin hit a submerged log smashing his ski and not doing his nose a power of good either. He managed to scrounge a social ski from somewhere and the team finished the race nearly an hour behind the winner, after starting in sixth position. After the race driver Ken Broughton announced his retirement.

In another gutsy effort, local Echuca entrant Geoff Connell, driving his boat, Strong Brew, in the 5.2 litre and Six-cylinder Inboard Expert Class hit some leftover wash from another boat and spun out. The observer was pitched across the boat, crashed into Geoff and broke two of his ribs. He got going again and finished third in the class. He was taken to hospital after the boat crossed the finish line but nothing was going to stop him collecting his trophy at the presentation. Geoff returned to the presentation and in obvious pain was literally carried up the steps of the stage.

The prize for the keenest team must go to Don and Gerald Gully who had brought Double Trouble (right) all the way down from Bellbowrie in Queensland. It was an all family and friend's affair and they were going to make the most of it after coming such a long way. The boat was entered in four events over the weekend - Don and Gerald even had a ski themselves. The team finished with a first, a second, a fifth and an eighth.

Another team to do well was Status Qld all the way from Emerald in Central Queensland. They finished with two firsts and a second. Next year the Club Marine Southern 80 will be back to its regular weekend in February. A full list of results can be found on the Southern 80 website: www.southern80.com.au