Report by Kevan Wolfe
Photographs by Paul Wilson

It was another huge February weekend for the running of the 2004 Club Marine Southern 80 ski race, organised by the Moama Water Sports club on the ‘Mighty’ Murray River.

More than 300 teams entered this year’s Southern 80, which still lays claim to being the largest water ski race in the world, and a huge crowd of enthusiasts descended on the twin border towns of Echuca and Moama. Teams came from all over Australia as well as New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom.

But even before Saturday afternoon’s Bakers Blitz, it was obvious the outright record of 31 minutes and 23 seconds, held by Top Shot, would be safe. The ‘Blitz’ is an invitation event run over a 20-kilometre course to decide the starting order of the top 20 boats over the full 80-kilometre course the next day,

The weekend weather forecast was for heatwave conditions and fairly strong winds on the Murray. The mercury reached 39 degrees on Saturday but soared to 44 degrees on Sunday, which did nothing for the performance of the boats, especially the highly modified inboards of the top runners. Crews found that it was almost impossible to adjust the fuel mixtures for best performance and most engines were running ‘fat’. The river was running well and this didn’t help either.

Despite the conditions, two records were broken. One in the Standard Motor Open Cockpit (SMOC) Expert class and the other in Junior Girls under 16 Expert class.

In the SMOC Expert, Tony Rowe, driving Crossfire, a Bullet powered by an Evinrude 225, broke his own record that he had set in the same boat in 1998. Ian Kirk was the observer with Andrew Ellis and Sam Home.

The other record was set by a local Echuca boat, The Sting, driven by Neville Freeman, Jeff Howard observing and Kahlie Freeman and Lauren Eagles on the planks.

On Saturday all the attention was on the Bakers Blitz and the battle of the twin-turbo Chevvies.

Last year’s Blitz winner and back-to-back Sydney Bridge-to-Bridge winner, Stinga was again hot favourite. The boys from Blown Budget, overall race winner last year, were pretty relaxed and reckoned they were in with a chance. Humble spun out last year in the Blitz but this year with Jamie Oliver and Nathan Glynn skiing, both previous outright winners, it was a bit of a dark horse. Another chance was Gary Holzwart’s Special Edition, which won at Grafton with a blistering pace, but a broken rope was to put them out of the Blitz.

Col McQuinn had added a coupe of turbos to his Chev 540 in The Chief. He had dropped the compression down to 7:1 and wound the boost on the turbos up to 20lb. The boat looked immaculate and Col was hoping for some better luck this year. Unfortunately, the propeller he had ordered from the States didn’t arrive in time and he was forced to use an untried three-blader. Col said he expected to finish in the top five.

There were the usual suspects making up the rest of the field; Thundernuts, Mayhem, Moonshot, Hellrazor, The Axe and Violator towing three times women’s world champion, Leanne Brown.

The Stinga team charged around the course in seven minutes, eight seconds outside their winning time last year. But just two seconds away was Syndicate and another five seconds behind, The Axe. Most of the other boats had fairly slow times in the hot conditions. The Chief finished in seventh and a happy Col McQuinn said that the boat was on race pace and he expected to do well in the big race the next day.

Race day was a stinker. By mid-morning the temperature was already 38 degrees and climbing.

Stinga had pole position for the mid-day start but the favourite was only to make it halfway before the sterndrive expired. The Syndicate didn’t appear and then around the final bend into the finish straight came The Axe on full song. They were about a minute off the pace but it was obvious that their time was not going to be beaten on the day. The team from Beacon Hill in Sydney, Kelvin Black (driver), Darren Patterson (observer), Grant Patterson and James Buser finished in second place last year and this was their first major race win.

“We were a bit worried about the engine as we could only get 100 octane Avgas fuel and we normally run 120 octane,” said observer Darren Patterson. “The water was also a bit rough in some of the straights.”

But, despite the river conditions and the heat, The Axe averaged 148kph (92.5mph) for the 80-kilometre course with its 120 bends. At times the GPS was showing the boat was travelling at 110mph in the straights.

For Grant Patterson the win is the start of bigger things for the keen skier who has been racing since he was nine-years-old. “I am only 24 now so I have a long way to go. Many of the top skiers are well into their 30s,” he said.

Hellrazor, driver Mark Cranny, observer Greg James and skiers Steve Rowe and Keith Buxton, claimed second place with a time just over a minute slower than The Axe. Mark Cranny had brought the 2002 winning Racecraft out of the shed for the race. He has been recently campaigning Hellbent, a Connelly 21 with some success.

Then just 10 seconds behind came Special Edition, a 19-foot Stephens with a twin turbo 496 Donavan on board, driven by Gary Holzwart from Forestdale in Queensland with Jason Griffen observing and Charlie Hunt and Chris Singleton on skis. They had come a long way and putting aside their disappointment in the Blitz they turned it on. There was a very nervous Di Hunt (Charlie’s mum) waiting at the finish for them to come around the last bend.

Blown Budget crossed the line with a decidedly sick sounding engine in a time of 37 minutes and 59 seconds – and where was The Chief? They broke a rope, even though they were using a wire trace near the engine. Apparently the heat from the turbos was transmitted down the wire trace to the synthetic rope, which melted. And that was the end of their race. By the time they got it fixed they were well out of contention.

The only major incident occurred when Gassa, a beautifully fitted out 21-foot Stephens with a new supercharged 540 Chev, driven by David Broadford, with Kevin Dahlberg observing and Michael Stevens and Justin Cadden on skis, came to grief about a third of the way into the race. The prop shaft broke, jammed the rudder and pitched the crew out of the boat, which then sank. Broadford suffered a broken arm and Dahlberg damaged his shoulder.

Matty Morrison (inset) - A little man on a big river

But the one little guy who stole the show was, almost-six, Matty Morrison whose family had come down from Mackay in Queensland for the race. This gutsy little guy has shrugged off open-heart surgery at the age of two to get into ski racing. He has only been on a single ski since September last year and was up behind Still Crazy in the Tadpoles class under 10 with his mum, Jodie, observing. His older brother, Luke, who is just eight-years-of-age, up behind Rhythm with dad, Brad, observing finished second. Matty’s ambition now is to beat his older brother.

The happiest kid on the day was young Dayne Tannenberg. During practice he snagged his handles and lost them. Another pair could not be found for love or money in Echuca and it looked as if he would miss out on his first Southern 80. “We had one devastated little boy,” said his mum, Leanne. “We were so grateful when the Newtons from Gangster offered to lend us a pair. We couldn’t thank them enough.”

Dayne finished the 20-kilometre course with a big grin on his face.

Of the international competitors, the New Zealander’s cleaned up the Unlimited In/Outboard Expert class. Grant Hazelwood shipped Warlord over from Auckland for the race. The Bullet with twin-Mercury outboards was an outright Southern 80 winner in 1994. He had Steve Madsen observing and John Sloan and Mathew Campbell skiing.

From the United States came Gary Sawyer and Bob Grande to compete in the Veteran and Unlimited Expert class behind Michael Dominguez’s old Thundernuts driven by Cameron Cox. Grande is the current over 45’s US marathon and speed skier champion. They didn’t make it to the finish.

Once again the Southern 80 has proved to be not only an event that attracts international skiers but one that also caters for families and social skiers. And with the younger skiers, coming through, boys and girls, the Club Marine Southern 80 will be around for some time yet.

The winner heads for home - The Axe.