The outrageous paint schemes, the sleek lines and finish of the boats, the incredible engine technology, the party atmosphere, the roar of the big V8s, the endurance of the skiers and the exciting racing – for a first-timer like myself, the Club Marine Southern 80 was all this and much more.

I have to confess that as far as ski boat racing goes, I’m a bit of a novice. But that’s likely to change pretty quickly after I was thrown in at the deep end at this year’s Southern 80. No amount of research and questions to those in the know prepared me for the visual and sensual onslaught that began on the Saturday morning with the static display in Echuca’s main street.

The previous night I had begun to get some idea of the drawing power and prestige of the Southern 80 as I noted the twin cities of Echuca and Moama filling to overflowing with incredibly well painted ski boats. There was an electricity and anticipation in the air as rigs poured in from all points of the compass. And some of the tow vehicles could have qualified for a show in their own right. There were some sensationally presented cars, utes and trucks, obviously the result of as much loving attention as the boats they hauled.

But the racing was what everyone had come to see and when the spray finally settled, it was the Melbourne crew of Hellbent that took out the big race. Driver Mark Cranny, observer Damien Matthews and skiers Steve Rowe and Daniel Campbell kept their twin-turbo 500-inch Chevy wailing for the entire course to take the win in a time 32 minutes, 46 seconds. It was the second win for Cranny, having taken out the 2002 Club Marine Southern 80 in his previous boat, Hellrazor.

This was the 40th anniversary of this great event, drawing even more competitors and spectators to the Murray on the weekend of February 12-13. An estimated 40,000 fans lined the river enjoying clear skies and hot weather – ideal conditions for Australia’s premier ski race event.

My Southern 80 began with a media/sponsor function on the Friday night at the Echuca race club. Run by race organisers, the Moama Water Sports Club, the well-attended event was an opportunity for organisers to thank sponsors, including Club Marine, and also served to heighten anticipation for the following two days’ action and excitement.

Curiously, and despite the millions of dollars the event generates for surrounding towns, it apparently receives only minimal support from local councils and other official bodies. In this humble author’s opinion, it is high time they lifted their games and gave the Southern 80 the support it deserves.

Run over 80km, and including 126 bends from Torrumbarry Weir up to the finish line at Echuca, the Club Marine Southern 80 is an event with a place of its own on the Australian ski racing calendar. Indeed, it has rightfully earned a place as the world’s toughest ski race. This year, though, there was a shadow over the race, with heavy rains the preceding week raising the river level and washing debris down the course. Fortunately, organisers were well prepared and, with the assistance of the local SES intercepted the majority of logs and other jetsam before they presented a hazard to skiers and boats. Inevitably, though, some did get through, causing occasional delays to the program and more than one incident on the course.

As always, the ski classic attracted a strong entry from overseas, including Lori Dunsmore from the US, skiing with Lauryn Eagle from NSW behind Double Up. Brady Hoggins logged up frequent flyer points from the UK to ski in the Under 16 Boys category behind Tuff E Nuff, while expat Aussies, Greg and Lesley Toole came back from Hong Kong for the event they love.

The Kiwis had a strong contingent, too, headed by former Aussie boat, Top Gun, along with Team Brazilian and Upholstery Services.

Kicking off the two days of racing was the inaugural Kincaid Marine Rolco Short Course race. Four classes, including 8-litre Expert, 6-litre Expert, SMOC (Standard Motor Open Cockpit) and MOC (Modified Open Cockpit) contested the race, which was run on a two-way format. Competitors raced from the traditional finish line at Echuca downriver to the Five-Mile boat ramp, where they formed up for the return run back to the finish line.

Running in the Short Course 8-litre Expert Class, the Melbourne crew of Rick Richardson (driver), Anthony Giddens (observer) and skiers Kane Powell and Jason Tennant took out the race on their 454 Chevy Exertion. Second place was snared by the Chevy-powered Strike Two crew of driver, Don Gulley, observer, Gerald Gulley and skiers Aiden Gully and Steven Lomas.

The crowd favourite Baker’s Blitz, brought out the big boys on Saturday afternoon. The field of 16 Super Class boats thundered over 20km of twisting Murray to decide pole position for the following day’s feature event and a big crowd lined the river to see the fast guys do battle. They weren’t disappointed, either, with the big Chevy Syndicate from Raymond Terrace taking top honors and breaking the seven-minute barrier with a time of 6m 57sec, four seconds ahead of Blown Budget, with the winner of the previous two year’s Blitz’s, Stinga, only a second slower for third.

The close contest for the Blitz gave spectators and competitors something to look forward to for Sunday and the river banks were packed to capacity early in the morning, especially around the finish line. After the announcement that the first boat was away, the crowd settled in for the close to 30-minute wait for the sound of the first big V8 approaching from down-river.

Unfortunately for the Syndicate team, they weren’t to be the first boat across the line in the 2005 Club Marine Southern 80, despite having blitzed the Blitz the previous day. A misbehaving fuel pump let the team down not far from the startline and with falling fuel pressure they stayed in the race, but could only manage third place with a time of 36min, 32sec at a reduced average speed of 131km/h.

Others to encounter difficulties during the main event included Exertion, with driver, Rick Richardson being flung out of the boat when the big 8-litre spun at Winbi Resort, just 5km from home.

The aptly-named Blown Budget was on target for the win and was flying. But a mere 3km from home, at Wharparilla Drive, the gearbox shuffled off its mortal coil, sidelining the Victorian team of Mike and Brett Dominguez, Steven Morley and Jamie Oliver.

Last year’s winner, The Axe, also looked to be a contender, until it was held up by another boat. The outcome was a dropped skier and, by the time the NSW team recovered, they lost enough time to eventually cross the line for fourth.

Stinga failed to live up to its Blitz promise, with a blown sterndrive forcing a retirement, while Kiwi boat, Top Gun had an expensive weekend, wiping out a set of big end bearings in the twin turbo Big Block Chev.

Popular Chief owner, Col McQuinn had a mixed weekend. The larger-than-life ski race identity attracted a lot of fans during Saturday’s static display in town, but the Frankston, Victoria team struggled after skier, Jason Jezewsk hit a log at 170km/h. The encounter left him badly bruised, but the team straightened out his ski and tow rig enough for him to get back up and he held on to cross the line for a commendable sixth place.

The Mayhem team probably had a weekend they’d want to forget after throwing a weight off their jack-shaft in the Bakers Blitz. The resultant vibration damaged the drive relegating them to eighth in the Blitz and forcing them to look for a replacement boat for the Southern 80. Luckily, fellow Victorian team, The Judge came to the rescue. Though entered in the Veterans category, Peter Hally, Rod Hogben and skiers Greg Dutton and Paul Skipper opted to loan their boat to their Mayhem mates. But just when it looked like Mark Doherty, Scott Wilson, Rick Love and Tim Driver would be in with a chance, a blown sterndrive on The Judge ended their weekend. President of the Moama Water Sports Club, Neil Donald said the club was pleased with the 2005 event, despite some difficulties caused by the swollen river.

“This year was a huge success for us. We had the biggest crowd we’ve ever had on the Saturday, which we feel was due to the increased advertising and the fact that we had a full program of racing on the Saturday,” he said.

“The debris and rubbish on the river was a problem and we had a few delays because of it. But there were no more injuries reported than previous years, so we did an effective job of getting rid of the majority of rubbish that came down.”

Donald said a couple of innovations for 2005 added to the success of the event.

“We were extremely pleased with the live coverage on the giant screens we had this year. They ensured people at the finish line could see the race starting some half an hour away. And the new format, with four extra races on the Saturday starting and finishing in the same place worked well.”

Finally, I can’t complete our coverage without special mention of the friendly crew of the good Lady Edna houseboat, who made our Club Marine Southern 80 so memorable and enjoyable. Thanks to Donnie, Brett, Shaza, Ash, Bernie, John, Jo and Noelene. Hope to see you all again next year.

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