16/04/2024

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The History of Water Ski Racing in Britain

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The History of Water Ski Racing in Britain

1940s

Several years before the war, an aquaplane race was run on an annual basis from the isthmus at Avalon to Hermosa Beach, California. It was a race and a test of endurance for both man and boat and usually less than 20{4d40cc26d078fd4100d2daf00165e0560f17ee302de6bc2409b7ee95793dc9eb} of the field ever managed to finish. The remainder dropped out due to boat problems or because the aqua planer couldn’t hold on any longer. The last race prior to the war, on June 20 1941, was won by Bob Brown, towed by Don Berry, in a time of 1 hr 51 min.

In 1947, the Long Beach Boat and Ski Club was formed and almost immediately took over sponsorship of the race, renaming it the “Grand National Water Ski Race”. In 1949 the contest became a round trip run, starting at Hermosa Beach pier, the skiers raced to the isthmus, circled a turn-boat and returned non-stop to the pier. A skier was disqualified if at any time they touched the boat or anyone in the boat. Ed Stanley of Orange was the winner of this first round trip race with a time of I hr 41 min.

Of course, this event is well known these days as Catalina, and just for the record, Chuck Steams first won the event at the age of 16 and he went on to win it a staggering eleven times over the next few decades.

1950s

Now it was time for the Aussies to establish a piece of history in ski racing and in the 1950’s, the Bridge-to-Bridge Water Ski Race was launched. The 68-mile course on the NSW Hawkesbury River is now one of the most prestigious races in the world.

1960s

In 1966, Britain made a move to get involved in the sport of water ski racing and a meeting took place at the Mandeville Hotel in London, where 30 clubs were represented and a Racing sub-committee of the BWSF was formed. The legendary Chuck Steams of California happened to be in London at the time and he provided a copy of the Californian racing rulebook, which formed the foundation for British racing rules.

Alan Taylor recalls; “we knew that racing had taken place in Belgium three or four years earlier, on the Scheldt at a place called Rupelmonde. The following year, a few people from Whitstable Club went to Belgium and had a look at this race and we invited a Belgian team to compete in the first official cross-channel race”.

On May, 29 1967, the Whitstable and Varne Club water ski clubs organised the first cross-channel water ski race and no less than 56 teams, including one from Belgium, took part in the 42 mile run from Greatstone, Kent, to a trawler marker-boat, anchored three miles off Cap Griz Nez and back.

Boats were allowed to take up to three or four people to ski in relays. The skis were ordinary standard slalom skis for speeds of around 30 mph, as well as pairs, and the ski line had to be between 75 ft and 100 ft in length. Teams were also allowed to relay with more than one skier per team.

News soon leaked that skier 47 registered, as Mr. A.A.Johnson was non other than the Earl of Snowdon, patron of the BWSF, attempting to keep his identity from the Press. The result was dramatic news coverage of the event.

More than 20 of the 56 entrants failed to finish the race due to a gale, which whipped up 6 ft high waves. The winners were members of the Chasewater Power Boat Club, and they completed the course in 3 hr 15 min. The Snowdon team came in fourth at 4 hr 10 min and another skier in the race was a 14-year-old Bill Rixon. Taking 3rd place overall, this was just the beginning for someone who was to become one of the legends in British water ski racing.

In 1968 the BWSF Racing Committee organised the first British Championship series, run at Chasewater, Greatsone, Hunstanton, Hartlepool, Penarth and the River Medway. John Boardman of the Varne club became the first series champion.

In 1969, the British Championship series was increased to eight races and was won by Brendan Bowles of Penarth club. It was in this year that European Water Ski Racing Championships were established and races were held in Holland, Belgium and Britain. Bill Rixon became the first European Water Ski Racing Champion.

1970s

Rixon began making his mark on European racing in the 70s with no less than six overall European Championship gold medals amongst the numerous British too. Bill said, “it’s possible there are even another two European titles not accounted for”. In 1974/5 he spent a lot of time in Italy skiing for Mostes, and he paid a few disapproved visits to South Africa and also hit the racing scene in California.

Other names such as David Hutchinson, Guy Gooding, David Martin, Robin Mainwaring, Cliff Featherstone, Alan Hargreaves, Tony Cox, Gary Brooks and Colin Harris were scattered throughout the 70s when British F1 ski racing was as strong as ever.

Two other names were brothers Steven and Andy Coe. Steven won the British Championships in 1978 and 1979 and Andy followed suit in 1980 with Tom Lumley observing for all those three title wins. Britain’s top women included Liz Hobbs, Sue de Donker and Kim Gooding.

Liz had started skiing when she was 9, and by 15, she was had skied in her first race on the Medway in 1975. The following year, she went on to win every race she entered & won the first of seven British titles. In the same year, she broke the women’s British and European speed records behind a Cigarette powerboat called, “I like it too”.

During the 70’s, a few British skiers, including the Coes, had visited Australia and discovered a new way of skiing called, ‘wrapping’. Terry Bennett of Sydney was the name behind wrapping and he discovered the technique purely by accident, when trying to easy the strain on his back, after suffering an accident. So along with Fred Williams race skis, and a wealth of Aussie experience, these British skiers introduced us to the way we all now ski – wrapped.

Along with Ray Berriman and Alan Taylor, others such as Arthur Dawe, Peter Felix, Ted Rawlings, Wally Neale and John Hoiles were early organizers of British racing. John Hoiles actually went on to be European and World President of the IWSF, and contributed a great deal to the sport.

A turning point in world water ski racing came on September 9, 1979, when the first world racing championships sponsored by Sperry Univac were held, with races at Whitstable, Allhallows and Welsh Harp. Britain’s Ray Berriman chaired the organising committee.

The event was the first to bring together official top teams from around the world, and although Australia’s Wayne Ritchie and Bronwyn Wing snapped up the golds, Britain’s Kim Gooding took 2nd in the women’s, Bill Rixon 2nd in the men’s and Steven Coe 3rd. The British team clearly established Britain as a force to be reckoned with on the world water ski racing stage.

1980s

As Rixon neared the end of his unprecedented racing career, it was time for some new names to climb onto the stage and enjoy the limelight. Liz Hobbs and Steve Moore were the two big names in the early 80’s and both went onto become world champions and to be awarded the MBE. In fact Liz won the title of world champion in 1981 and 1984, and she won the European championship title at least four times.

But life in the 80s wasn’t so sweet for Liz, despite her incredible success, because at Penarth in 1984, she fell and broke her neck. She also broke her sternum in three places, six ribs, one of which punctured a lung. On top of that, Liz’s heart stopped.

Amazingly, Liz was back on a ski the following year and back on her winning streak in 1986. Later in the 80s she was nominated for the sports personality of the year award and she won the sports writers of the year award. After climbing onto the public stage with the help of a publicist a few years earlier, Liz went on to host her own TV series with Yorkshire Television called “Hobbs Choice”, and since then, has become one of the most publicly known waterskiers in the world.

Steve Moore began racing in 1980. He was the guy that fell, but got up, then fell again but always got up. Eventually he stopped falling and was an incredible machine on the water. By 1983 he had attempted a speed record at Windermere behind Alf Bullen’s F1 catamaran, but fell at 115mph.

Moore won no less than five European titles, five British titles and the 1988 world championships in Sydney, Australia. He also won the World Cup in 1986. This consisted of the Catalina, Giro del Lario and Botany Bay Classic in Australia. He won all three and in the same year, and became the first British skier to win Catalina outright.

Snapping at Moore’s heels in the late 80s was a young lad from London who skied in his first race in 1977. His name was Darren Kirkland and at the tender age of 18, Kirkland first represented Britain at the world championships in Spain, in 1985 and is about to enter his 8th world championship event in 2001.

With the Coes, Rixon, Cliff Featherstone, Paul Llewellyn, Gary Brooks, Tony Cox and others fighting for victory throughout the decade, the 80s played host to some incredible races across Britain. Nicky Carpenter and Lisa Coupland were also successful names in the 80s.

1990s

As the prosperous 80s faded away, the economic decline saw numbers in racing drop. In Europe, Australia and the USA, a similar pattern occurred, but this didn’t prevent the sport from becoming even more competitive in terms of the commitment given to win some of the limelight.

Kirkland went on to win his fair share of it and has virtually dominated British racing since the 90s. Showing the persistence he’s renowned for, Kirkland had racked up ten overall British titles, five European titles and became a well-respected skier throughout the world. On top of that, Kirkland won Catalina in 1994, the gruelling Diamond race in Belgium, an enviable six times and Italy’s Giro del Lario, twice.

But the jewel in the crown has eluded him for the last 16 years. The world title has been so near and yet so far, from the man who came so close to winning it on more than one occasion. In 1995, Italy’s Stefano Gregorio took the honours in Belgium, just as Kirkland thought he had the title wrapped up. In 1997 he took 3rd in Australia and in 1999 he took 2nd in Spain. This year he will try once again, to win the one achievement he wants so much.

In January 1997, Kirkland was awarded the BWSF General Lascelles Trophy in recognition of his tremendous achievements in the sport of water skiing. And at the 1999 world championships, gold medallist Stephen Robertson of Australia paid public tribute to Kirkland after receiving his crown.

The early 90s saw Rachel Casson put on an outstanding performance at the 1991 world championships in Darwin, Australia. So close to wining one of the rounds, Rachel fell at over 100mph and suffered horrendous injuries. Determined to succeed on the world stage, Rachel became Britain’s top women’s skier, but was dogged by the Darwin injury over the years. Gilly Clements was also a strong contender in the 80s and 90s, representing Britain on numerous occasions.

2000s

Over the years Britain has been very strong in Europe, winning countless titles in all categories, including the much-coveted team trophy at least four times. Fabulous performances by many but notably in the women’s category by Liz Hobbs, Nicky Carpenter, Lisa Coupland, Rachel Casson, Gilli Clements. More recently Kim Lumley has engraved her name on the British championship trophy three times already. Paula Newland, originally from Penarth club, has also been up there and secured a 6th in the 1999 world championships in Spain.

Darren Kirkland still dominates the men’s category in Britain but the likes Karl Brooks and Danny Evans are slowly closing in on the 34 year old. How long will he retain his spot at the top of British racing? – only time will tell.

On the official side of things, Britain’s Ray Berriman, who was instrumental in the very first world championships in Britain back in 1979, is Chief Judge at the 2001 world championships in Las Vegas this year.

It’s been impossible to mention all those who have played a part in Britain’s history of water ski racing here. There are so many names unmentioned. But this article has hopefully given you a high level view of water ski racing and it’s past.

All in all, Britain continues to play a major role in the world ski racing. It will undoubtedly continue to do so over the coming years.

Written in 2001 by Robbie Llewellyn

With thanks to: Aubrey Sheena, Alan Taylor, Darren Kirkland, Steve Moore (MBE), Mike Waterman, Martin Brooks, Tom Lumley, Liz Hobbs (MBE) and the Guinness Book of Waterskiing.

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