Sports

A Day at the Southern 80, Australia's Batshit 190kph Water Ski Race

“Is it scary?” I asked, imagining myself being towed on skis at 190kph along a winding river behind a speedboat called “Satan’s Brimstone Vengeance”.
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Arielle Richards for VICE Australia

If the social calendar of Australia’s south-east was put on a scale, ranging from “conceptually innocuous” to “bat-shit mad”, the Southern 80 would be up there, leaving the B&S balls, the Denny Ute Muster, and the Stawell Gift in its wake. 

Speed boats race a winding 80km stretch of the Murray River from “bridge to bridge” for the four-day event, each towing two brazen water skiers. The elite class of competitors, known as the “Superclass”, have their speed capped at 120 miles per hour. That’s miles. Just under 200 km/hr. Bonkers. The event draws over 500 competitors and hundreds of spectators from around the country. 

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In my mind, the Southern 80 was some sort of extreme sport-fuelled countryside Coachella. But imagining the event wasn’t enough. I had to go.

First impressions: Amazing pink speedboat design + a lift in a trailer

First impressions: Amazing pink speedboat design + a lift in a trailer

Two and a half hours from Melbourne, Echuca, the sprawling river town on the Victoria/NSW border and its parallel interstate neighbour, Moama, have been home to the Southern 80 since 1965.

I drove up on Sunday, the final day of the race.

An out-of-place city kid, I knew the best way to tackle the event would be to glean as many life lessons as I possibly could. So, here’s what I learned.

The Southern 80 is an intergenerational event

We spoke to one white-haired, jovial bloke who introduced himself as “Krackers”. He had done his first race at 9-years-old. 

“And he’s 80 now,” laughed his grandson. 

He was actually 60, but sweet Jesus. This was a revelation. He’d only stopped doing the race a few years back because of medical reasons. Now, he was team manager and “trailer bitch” for his adult grandkid’s squad, passing the torch and the like. 

We also met a boat owner named Warren, owner of “The Gun”, who’d driven his team and machine down from the Gold Coast. His life advice to me was to “get involved”. 

“Throw a wetsuit on and get in there, I reckon,” he laughed, “Have a go!”

When I asked him how people usually “get involved”, he confirmed my suspicions that it wasn’t so easy for an outsider. 

“You sort of grow up with it, really,” he said, “Most people come from the industry, or at least their father or someone initiates them. It does cost a fair amount of money”.

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the vibes

the vibes

Speedboats are sick

Don’t laugh. This was not something that I was aware of. These water-borne beasts elicit the same emotion on sight as super-fast speedbikes. In fact, they are very much the speedbikes of the water. There were some stand-out vinyl wraps and boat names, my favourites among them included “Hell’s Arsenal”, “The Mistress”, “Extreme Meltdown”, “Corruption”,  and “Public Enemies”. Most names were built on themes of anger, evil, hell and brute force, which was fitting.

speedboats are sick

speedboats are sick

Water Safety Victoria and New South Wales are potentially hiding something

I tried speaking with two kindly blokes from each respective water safety jurisdiction to find out just how dangerous the extreme sport of waterskiing on a river was, but they were cagey.

“We’re not advised to speak on that, sorry,” one gentleman said. 

“But why are you here!” I asked, partly in jest and partly in indignation. I wanted to know about the danger.

“To give general water safety tips, hand out brochures and the like. We aren’t allowed to give you any info.” 

Something was up. But I left it alone. They seemed like nice people.

The Southern 80 is a sportspersons event

I hadn’t realised just how out of my depth I was until I made an incredible gaffe while talking to one of the skiers from “Public Enemies”, Max, whose team ended up placing 19th overall (huge). He was describing all of the “classes” they had done the day before, when I interrupted with, “oh, so you were teaching classes?”

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Silly, silly girl. A “class” is a race, in sports terms. But I was there to learn. And Max was nice about it. 

“Is it scary?” I asked, imagining myself towed on skis at 190kph along a winding river behind a boat called “Satan’s Brimstone Vengeance”.

“Well, you don’t want it to be scary. You can have a few… funny moments out there but we got through pretty good today,” he said, “The most important thing is everyone gets through safely.” A fearless gentleman.

"Krackers" and Alex (L) and the entire "Public enemies" team (R)

"Krackers" and Alex (L) and the entire "Public enemies" team (R)

“Family friendly” means “family friendly”

Make no mistake, this was a family event. The second largest cohort of people, after “blokes”, was kids. Most spectators were parked up at the main watching area on the banks of the Murray, the finish line, chillin’ out in camping chairs, sipping beers, watching the river for the periodical whoosh of a boat and skiers going past. It was all very calm. Which was a nice respite, to be honest. 

Judging by the handful of spectators we spoke to, most people were either there to support friends and family in the race, or for the sportsmanship tilt of it all. A yearly event like the Southern 80 brings communities from across the regions together to socialise and experience one of humanity’s finest activities: watching fast things go round a track. Much like NASCAR. 

Southern 80 tableau

Southern 80 tableau

By late afternoon, the setting of the riverland, Yorta Yorta country, was touched by golden hour, and all very beautiful. It felt almost wholesome. Even the chaotic soundtrack of screaming children, shouting blokes, motorboats, tractors, and the live band had begun to feel normal. 

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So that was that. No gnarly accidents, no booze-ups, no furore. I learned to not judge events by their intriguing titles and absolutely batshit stakes.

And that’s everything I learned at the Southern 80. 

On the way back, I learned that a two and a half hour drive through twilight, which quickly turned to inky evening with only the light of my high-beams and an eerie full moon, which led to Sunday city traffic which took the journey up to three hours, was almost a grating enough experience to make me forget everything I had learned. Almost. 

I will never forget the Southern 80 and all that it taught me.

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