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The History of Water Ski Racing in Britain
Several years before the war, an aquaplane race was run annually from the isthmus at Avalon to Hermosa Beach, California. It was a race and a test of endurance for man and boat and usually less than 20% of the field ever managed to finish. The rest left because of boat problems or because the seaplane could no longer hold its grip. The last race before the war, on 20 June 1941, was won by Bob Brown, driven by Don Berry, in a time of 1 hour 51 minutes.
In 1947, the Long Beach Boat and Ski Club was formed and almost immediately became responsible for sponsoring the race, renaming it the “Grand National Water Ski Race”. In 1949 the contest became a round trip, starting at the Hermosa Beach pier, the skiers raced to the isthmus, circled a flip boat and returned non-stop to the pier. A skier was banned if he touched the boat or anyone in the boat at any time. Ed Stanley from Orange was the winner of this first round trip race with a time of 41 minutes.
Of course, this event is known these days as Catalina, and just for the record, Chuck Steams first won the event at the age of 16 and went on to win it eleven times over the next decades.
Now it was time for the Aussies to establish a piece of ski racing history and in the 1950s, 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.
In 1966, Britain moved to participate in the sport of water ski racing and a meeting was held 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 from California happened to be in London at the time and provided a copy of the California racing rule book, which was the basis for the British racing rules.
Alan Taylor recalls; “we knew that a race had taken place in Belgium three or four years before, on the Scheldt at a place called Rupelmonde. The following year, a few people from the Whitstable Club went to Belgium and had a look at this race and Belgium team was invited to compete in the first official cross-channel race”.
On May 29 1967, Whitstable and Varne Club water ski clubs organized the first cross channel water ski race and no fewer than 56 teams, including one from Belgium, took part in the 42 mile run from Greatstone, Kent, to 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 relay races. The skis were normal slalom skis for speeds of about 30 mph, as well as pairs, and the ski line had to be between 75 feet and 100 feet long. Teams were also allowed to exchange with more than one skier per team.
The news soon revealed that skier 47 had registered, as Mr. AAJohnson other than the Earl of Snowdon, patron of the BWSF, trying to keep his identity from the Press. The result was dramatic news coverage of the event.
More than 20 of the 56 competitors failed to finish the race due to wind, which whipped up 6ft high waves. The winners were members of the Chasewater Power Boat Club, and completed the course in 3 hours 15 minutes. The Snowdon team came fourth at 4 hours 10 minutes and another skier in the race was 14 year old Bill Rixon. Taking 3rd place overall, this was just the beginning for someone who was to become one of the legends of British waterski racing.
In 1968 the BWSF Racing Committee organized the first series of British Championships, which were run at Chasewater, Greatsone, Hunstanton, Hartlepool, Penarth and the River Medway. John Boardman from the Varne club became the champion of the first series.
In 1969, the British Championship series was increased to eight races and was won by Brendan Bowles from the Penarth club. It was in this year that the European Water Ski Racing Championships were established and races were held in the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain. Bill Rixon became the first European Water Ski Racing Champion.
Rixon began to make his mark on European racing in the 70’s with no less than six overall gold medals in the European Championships among the many British too. Bill said, “there may even be two more European titles unaccounted for”. In 1974/5 he spent a lot of time in Italy skiing for Mostes, and paid a few unapproved visits to South Africa also hitting the racing world 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 70’s when British F1 ski racing was as strong as ever.
Two other names were the 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 three of those titles he won. Among Britain’s best women were Liz Hobbs, Sue de Donker and Kim Gooding.
Liz had started skiing when she was 9, and by 15, she had skied her first race on the Medway in 1975. The following year, she went on to win every race she entered and won the first of seven British titles . In the same year, she broke British and European women’s speed records behind a Cigarette powerboat called, “I like it too”.
During the 70s, a few British skiers, including y Coes, had visited Australia and discovered a new way of skiing called ‘lapping’. Terry Bennett from Sydney was the name behind wrapping and he discovered the technique purely by accident, while trying to relieve the strain on his back, after suffering an accident. So together with Fred Williams racing skis, and a wealth of experience in Australia, these British skiers introduced us to the way we all now ski – wrapping.
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 racing in Britain. John Hoiles went on to become the European and World President of the IWSF, and made a huge contribution to the sport.
A turning point in world water ski racing came on 9 September 1979, when the first world racing championships sponsored by Sperry Univac were held, with races at Whitstable, Allhallows and Welsh Harp. Ray Berriman from Britain chaired the organizing committee.
The event was the first to bring together leading official teams from around the world, and although Australia’s Wayne Ritchie and Bronwyn Wing took the gold, Britain’s Kim Gooding came 2nd in the women’s, Bill Rixon in 2nd in the men and Steven Coe in 3rd. It is clear that the British team has established Britain as a force to be reckoned with on the world water ski racing stage.
As Rixon neared the end of his unprecedented racing career, it was time for some new names to take to the stage and enjoy the limelight. Liz Hobbs and Steve Moore were the two big names at the beginning of the 80’s and both went on to become world champions and to win the MBE. Indeed Liz won the world champion title in 1981 and 1984, and won the European championship title at least four times.
But life in the 80s was not so sweet for Liz, despite her incredible success, because in Penarth in 1984, she fell and broke her neck. He also broke his sternum in three places, six ribs, one of which punctured a lung. Furthermore, Liz’s heart stopped.
Amazingly, Liz was back on skis the following year and back on her winning streak in 1986. Later in the 80s she was nominated for sports personality of the year and won sportswriter of the year. Having climbed 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 has since become one of the skiers most famous water in the world. world
Steve Moore started racing in 1980. He was the guy who fell, but got up, then fell again but always got up. Eventually it stopped falling and was an amazing machine on the water. By 1983 he had attempted a speed record at Windermere behind Alf Bullen’s F1 catamaran, but failed at 115mph.
Moore won no fewer than five European titles, five British titles and the 1988 world championships in Sydney, Australia. He also won the World Cup in 1986. This included the Catalina, Giro del Lario and Botany Bay Classic in Australia. He won all three in the same year, and became the first British skier to win Catalina outright.
Hot on Moore’s heels in the late 80s was a young boy from London who skied in his first race in 1977. His name was Darren Kirkland and aged 18, Kirkland represented Britain for the first time at the world championships in Spain, in 1985 and about to compete in his 8th world championship event in 2001.
With the Coes, Rixon, Cliff Featherstone, Paul Llewellyn, Gary Brooks, Tony Cox and others battling for victory throughout the decade, the 80’s were home to some amazing races across Britain. Nicky Carpenter and Lisa Coupland were also successful names in the 80s.
As the prosperous 80s faded, the economic downturn saw a drop in numbers in racing. In Europe, Australia and the USA, a similar pattern was found, but this did not prevent the sport from becoming even more competitive in terms of the commitment given to gain some of the prominence.
Kirkland went on to win his fair share of it and has pretty much dominated British racing since the 90s. Showing the perseverance for which he is famous, Kirkland collected ten overall British titles, five European titles and became a highly respected skier around the world. In addition, Kirkland won Catalina in 1994, the grueling Diamond race in Belgium, an outstanding six times and Italy’s Giro del Lario, twice.
But the jewel in the crown has eluded him for 16 years. The world title has been so close 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 honors in Belgium, just as Kirkland thought the title was 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 sport he wants so much.
In January 1997, Kirkland was awarded the BWSF General Lascelles Trophy in recognition of his outstanding achievements in water skiing. And at the world championships in 1999, Australia’s Stephen Robertson, the gold medal winner, paid a public tribute to Kirkland after receiving his crown.
In the early 90’s Rachel Casson was seen performing excellently at the world championships in 1991 in Darwin, Australia. So close to winning one of the rounds, Rachel fell over 100mph and suffered horrific injuries. Determined to succeed on the world stage, Rachel became Britain’s top women’s skier, but was hampered by Darwin’s injury over the years. Gilly Clements was also a strong competitor in the 80s and 90s, representing Britain on several occasions.
Over the years Britain has been very strong in Europe, winning countless titles in every category, including the coveted team trophy at least four times. Great performances from many but especially in the women’s category from 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, who is originally from the Penarth club, has also been up there and secured 6th in the world championships in 1999 in Spain.
Darren Kirkland still dominates the men’s category in Britain but players like Karl Brooks and Danny Evans are slowly closing in on the 34-year-old. How long will he keep his place at the top of British racing? – only time will tell.
On the official side of things, Ray Berriman from Britain, who was instrumental in the first world championships in Britain back in 1979, is Chief Judge at the world championships in 2001 in Las Vegas this year.
It has been impossible to mention everyone who has played a part in the history of British water ski racing here. There are so many unmentioned names. But hopefully this article has given you a high level view of water ski racing and its past.
Overall, Britain continues to play a major role in the world of 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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