Photography by Stuart Grant and Nalder Photographics
The readout showed 118mph. That’s mph. Or in metric, almost 190km/h. By any measure, a lot of ground to be covering in an hour. Or in this case, a few seconds. And backwards. I had to stretch to see the speedo as I was facing where we’d just, fleetingly, been. I was also strapped rigidly into my seat. And I was on the water. I was now going faster than I’d ever been in a boat and I was hoping the guy next to me had a good night’s sleep, was possessed of good eyesight and liked me. Because if he hadn’t, wasn’t or didn’t, well … I didn’t want to think about it. I’ve seen all those crash videos and marvelled at how the people in the boats survived, but underneath it all I know that they never show you film of the ones who didn’t walk away… And so I hung on, tried to savour the moment, tuned my ears to the roar of the engine, felt the incredible wall of heat from the turbos and absorbed as much as I could in the space of a couple of breathtaking minutes on the National Water Sports Centre course at Patterson Lakes in Melbourne.
Dominating my view to the rear of the boat was a massive, twin-turbocharged, 8.4-litre Big Block Chevy V8 which could, at the driver’s whim, deliver an earthquake-like 1500hp to the Mercury racing sterndrive via a special two-speed automatic transmission. The technology was overwhelming, the noise deafening, the high-pitched whir of the massive turbochargers electrifying and the mechanical violence stupefying. I was in Heaven; actually Hell. Or to be more precise, I was in Hellbent.
My chauffeur was none other than multiple Club Marine Southern 80 winner, Mark Cranny and our charging steed was the aptly-named Hellbent, a boat that has carved its way into the ski-racing record books in recent times. As I climbed out at the end of our session, Mark casually commented that the boat “had a lot more in it”, and would top out at “around 133mph (212km/h)” in ideal conditions. I was happy to take his word for it.
I have to confess that I am of the old school when it comes to powered craft or vehicles and believe that there is no such thing as too much power or speed. Generally, that applies only if I do not happen to be in the vessel or craft at the time. I am a great spectator, but have to admit that whenever I watch motor racing, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to actually be in the boat or car, with all that power and speed at your disposal. One fine day in early December, I found out.
Though a relative newcomer to the sport of endurance ski racing, having competed in his first Club Marine Southern 80 in 2001, Cranny has managed to stamp his influence on the sport in a remarkably short space of time. In 2002, the team was overall winner and since then has notched up two more wins and two runners-up – a pretty meteoric rise in such an elite and extreme sport. In addition, Cranny and his team managed to find time to compete in the World Water Ski Racing Championships in New Zealand in 2007, earning a Junior Girl’s world title for Trudi Stout, a third place in the elite Mens F1 category for skier, Daniel Campbell and a third for Lauren Eagle in the Open Womens category. Prior to racing, Cranny and his family enjoyed social skiing, so it’s been a quantum leap to head of the field in the premier Super Class category.
Ski racing is a punishing, extreme sport. It not only pits boat against water, and pushes engines and drivetrains to breaking point, it also demands total commitment from the skiers, observer and driver. The slightest thing – a mistimed turn, unexpected wave or piece of debris – can bring everything to a bone-breaking, boat-smashing halt.
The racing schedule adds to the punishment, with teams competing mostly in NSW and Victoria up to 30 weekends a year. Racing is spread over up to 19 classes based on combinations of hull and engine type and size and skier age and gender. Success is down to a combination of things, including skier endurance and skill, plus the ability of everyone to work as a team. In the elite Super Class category, it demands total commitment and a full-time professional approach. To stack the odds in his favour, Cranny has assembled an operation that wouldn’t look out of place amongst the country’s premier V8 Supercar teams.
Before climbing into the observer’s seat, I spent the morning touring Hell Team Ski Racing HQ just up the road in Dandenong. When it comes to ski race teams, Cranny’s operation has to be one of the most impressive in Australia – or anywhere in the world, for that matter. A large, clean and uncluttered factory unit houses a total of four boats; three nearly-identical Class 1 Super Class boats and one Outboard craft. The surgically clean workshop and separate engine room bristle with all manner of spare parts and machinery, including lathes and mills. For good reason, too, because at this level, much of the engine hardware has to be fabricated and tweaked by hand.
But most telling is a wall full of trophies almost hidden away on the top floor amongst a mountain of racing bric-a-brac. In such a relatively short career, Hell Racing has managed to snare an incredible amount of trophies acknowledging an extraordinary number of race and series wins and race records.
When he’s not strapped into his race seat, Cranny, 50, occupies the helm of Dandy Premix, a successful concreting business in Dandenong. But the demands of competing at up to 30 races a year mean that keeping Hell Racing’s fleet of boats ready to race is left to a tight team, headed by veteran ski racer, Stuart Thomas. With more than 30 years’ of racing up his sleeve, Thomas works fulltime maintaining the boats between races, including rebuilding the massive engines to ensure they are ready for battle. Research and development takes up much of Thomas’ time as the team constantly strives for an edge over the competition, particularly when it comes to reliability. When you’re extracting such massive amounts of power out of an engine, parts can be pushed past breaking point and it’s Thomas’ job to reduce failures to a minimum. He is assisted occasionally by team observer, Damian Matthews and part-timer, Martin Bree.
The sleek 21-foot fibreglass hulls come from two NSW boat builders, Force Boats and Superclass Boats. Cranny says he’s more than happy with the build quality and performance from both companies. The hull shapes differ slightly between vee and flat bottom configurations so that the team can choose a particular hull to suit a specific race or watercourse.
But the boats are only part of the equation – the skiers largely determine the team’s fortunes and this year Hellbent will be towing none-other than current Men’s F1 World Champion, Jason Walmsley and team mate, Chris Gelle. Both skiers have extensive endurance experience and have developed a good working relationship with observer, Matthews.
Cranny says skiers can make or break a Southern 80 campaign.
“You can have the best boat in the world, but if you haven’t got the skiers you need to win in the back, you’re just not going to win,” he says. “They’ve got to have stamina and they’ve got to do a lot of training. Our two blokes are pretty heavily into the gym, so that keeps them pretty fit. Plus, we ski up to 28 to 30 weeks a year, so, they’re pretty well conditioned.”
Developing a good relationship and trust within the crew is another crucial ingredient for a successful team, says Cranny.
“It’s a team effort. Take the observer. He’s very important. The skiers have got to trust him. There’s a lot at stake when you’re going that fast. It doesn’t take much for it all to come unstuck pretty bad,” he says. “The trick is trying to drive the boat and give the skiers the best wash that you can. If they trust your driving, they’ll let you go harder. If they don’t trust you, they won’t let you go.”
So what is it about the Club Marine Southern 80 that attracts so many teams year after year? Cranny says it’s a combination of the challenge and prestige associated with what has come to be known as the world’s toughest ski race.
“From a driver’s perspective, it’s probably one of the toughest races we have. In my opinion, of all the races we do, it is probably the most prestigious race of the year. It has the biggest following among the ski-racing fraternity – the Southern 80 is simply the race.”
And the serpentine Murray River plays a big part in the appeal. Any race run over 80km and twisting and winding through 126 bends has got to have its own unique challenges.
“Yeah, it’s the tightness of the river,” explains Cranny. “There’s no course that we race on all year that’s as tight as the Murray. And you don’t get to have a second go. You get one go at it, and that’s it. It’s probably the toughest race on the driver and observer.”
Prior to the start of the race, Cranny and Matthews jump fully-suited-up into the river to immerse their race suits and help insulate themselves from the incredible heat generated by the engine. Even so, says Cranny, they are normally ‘blow-dried’ by the engine by about mid-course.
COMMUNICATION AND CONCENTRATION
From the start, Cranny says it’s a matter of maintaining communication through the team, with Matthews and the skiers using hand signals to dictate the race pace. Cranny, in radio contact with Matthews, also has to keep his eye on the river ahead and look out for any potential problems. It’s a job that requires serious concentration when you’re charging along the river at up to 200km/h and responsible for the safety of the skiers and boat.
“We have to keep an eye out for things that can bring you unstuck. You’re always aware of it. And the more driving you do, the more you know what you should be looking for,” he says.
Debris, objects in the water and other boats – particularly spectator craft – are a constant threat, but Cranny says corner entry and exit are critical, too.
“You have to watch that you don’t cut the corners too much and pull the skiers across (the apex), especially where there are logs sticking out of the water. You have to try to stay out, give yourself a late entry into the corner and come out as far as you can so that they can come around nicely. They’ll tend to want to short-cut it, but you have to work with them and keep it safe.”
The consequences if you get it wrong can be on the ugly side of serious, as Cranny related. The team was involved in an incident at Robinvale, Victoria, in 2003 in which a skier ran a little too wide on a bend and punched a largish hole in a houseboat with his body. Fortunately, in an incident that could have been a lot worse, the skier survived with a badly fractured arm, while the houseboat was in need of some serious renovation.
“Yeah, the boat missed it (the houseboat), but the skier didn’t,” recalls a laconic Cranny. “He (the skier) smashed all the handrails and pushed the side of the houseboat in. Luckily, there was no one in (the houseboat) at the time.”
Obviously things can get a little ‘hellish’ from time-to-time out on the water, but I had to ask whether, in an outfit with boats named Hellbent, Hell Razor, Hell’s Toy and Force ‘n’ Hell there was some sinister satanic undertone to the team’s activities.
“Hell no,” smiled Cranny, “We’re just here to have a helluva good time!”
So who does he rate as his biggest rival for the 2008 Club Marine Southern 80 crown, due to be run from February 8-10?
“Undoubtedly, Greg Houston and Kevin Boylan from Stinga are our main rivals,” he says. “They won the race last year, so I reckon it’s going to be a bit of a battle in 2008. They are a pretty savvy team and they know what it takes to win.”
We’ll find out how they fared in the next issue of Club Marine.