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1st World Championships – Great Britain 1979

By Peter Ball
So near, yet so far. The British gave their all in the first World Water Ski Racing Championships, sponsored by Sperry Univac, but their all this time was just not enough. Wayne Ritchie (below) from Australia took the gold and in a hard-fought contest, he deserved it. The women’s event was by no means as close, for here Wayne’s compatriot, Bronwyn Wright, was in a class of her own.

On to the silver medals and here come the Britons, Billy Rixon in the men’s and Kim Gooding in the women’s. But let us not forget for one moment Steve Coe, leader into the final sprint heats, only to suffer engine problems and finally finish up with the bronze – pipped for the silver after trying for second place with his fellow countryman.

After a long delay at the end of racing, with protests bouncing about, the computer finally decreed that on aggregate speed, Rixon was second. It must have been incredibly close and I understood that the Sperry Univac computer was later injected with aspirins for a severe headache!

No golds and it must be admitted that it was a disappoint- ment but the British Water Ski Federation staged a superbly organised first World Championship, we took three medals and gained friends and admirers throughout the world.

And much more important, these championships with all the TV, radio and Press coverage have stamped ski racing on world map. The sport has grown immeasurably in a week and has a new status all of its own.

Whitstable – Sunday 9th September 1979

The Championships got underway on Sunday with the first round at Whitstable, Kent. With titles at stake for both men and women, the organisers, the British Water Ski Federation, had received entries from America, Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and of course the host nation Great Britain. The opening race had attracted a crowd in excess of 15,000 people who had covered the Tankerton Slopes from end to end.

Tono Cassin, the diminutive veteran water ski racer from Como in Italy, put his name in the record books by winning the very first men’s race of the series.

Climbing up mountains

The 34 year old sports goods shop owner, who openly admits that he would rather be climbing up mountains or snow skiing down them than water skiing, surged into the lead with only four laps to go, when Ritchie, the 21 year old Australian, skiing behind Jeff Prices Phantom began to tire.

When the race started in front of the largest crowd that I have seen at any meeting either here or on the continent, Ritchie took the lead and virtually held it unchallenged almost, until half distance when Tono and the British hope, Stephen Coe, managed to pull themselves to within two seconds of the flying Aussie.
Although the weather forecast was for a north westerly force 3 to 4, it didn’t materialise and the water conditions presented no problem to the boats or skiers.

Ray Wheeler, the other Australian Team member, skiing behind Mike Ring’s new Watney’s Bitter sponsored boat quickly powered his way though the field after a rather indifferent start. From tenth place on the first lap he rapidly made his way through the field to take over second place on the eleventh circuit, only to retire shortly afterwards with a slipping propeller bush on one of the Mercury engines.

Exciting scraps

And so the race wore on with some exciting scraps all the way down the field to keep the crowd interested throughout. But the day belonged to Italy and Tono Cassin for with two laps to go, Ritchie fell when under a great deal of pressure and the jubilant Italian received the chequered flag to record the most important result so far in a long and illustrious career.

In a very creditable 2nd place came Coe, who must have skied the race of his life to finish 21 seconds behind Tono Cassin. Third was the elder of the two Johnson brothers, Carl, the 21 year old salesman from California.

Earlier on the the ladies championship everyone enthralled with the skill and determination of Bronwyn, the 26 year old teacher from Sydney. Standing only 5ft nothing in her ski boots, she completely dominated the eleven strong field.

Leading from start to finish, Bronwyn completed the forty mile course in a time of 45 mins 32 secs at an incredible average speed of 47mph.

True, the American girl Dawna Patterson Brice who incidentally set the women’s world speed record at a staggering 111mph over in the Long Beach Marine Stadium last year, made a determined effort to get on terms with the leader, but maybe she tried just a little too hard for on the eighth lap she suffered the ignominy of falling, rather spectacularly in front of the crowd.

Although she quickly got going again, her chances of victory had passed and she had to be content with finishing in fourth spot. The battle for second place lasted throughout the race with the second string Australian Janet Rein, pipping our own champions Kim Gooding on the run in.

Left behind at the start

Poor Liz Hobbs, the other British Team member, got left behind at the start when one of the engines on her boat failed to start. Practically a lap down before she finally got away, she could not get into her rhythm and finished an unsatisfactory sixth.

Allhallows – Tuesday 11th September 1979

In the second leg of the women’s section held at Allhallows, Kent on Tuesday afternoon the sun shone from a cloudless sky, although the wind had freshened from the north enough to make conditions in the Thames Estuary a little lumpy for the eleven ladies who had come to the start line.

Once again it was little Bronwyn who sped into the lead at the start and managed to lap everyone else on her way to notching up her second win of the series. After the race Bronwyn told me: – “I’ve been training in America since last April thanks to the Maharaja Ski Company and to keep in physical shape I run 10 miles each day and ski most days. I’m happy to be going to the Welsh Harp with the knowledge that I’ll be starting in pole position.”

Second was the American all rounder, Dawna Patterson Brice, who finished the 40 mile course in 56m 29secs compared to the ´Aussie´ girls winning time of 52m 17 seconds. Sadly though, Dawna finished the race with a badly injured left arm. Third, as on Sunday was Kim Gooding, the 18 year old trainee bank cashier from Peterborough. This performance moved her into second place overall, tied with Dawna and Australian Janet Rein all on six points.

Men’s second round

The men’s second round was held on Wednesday. With the wind freshening all day causing four foot waves the prospects appeared favourable for the British team of Stephen Coe and Billy Rixon, who are quite capable of skiing very fast in adverse conditions.

But as the flag fell, it was the two Americans Carl and Matt Johnson who sped into the lead and as they came round on the first lap it was Mathew who had a slight edge on his elder brother.

The two of them had opened a gap of 200 yards on Coe and Wheeler, who were locked together in an engaging battle. In fifth place was the 19 year old student Danny Bertels from Belgium, skiing behind British team Captain Malcolm Coe’s ´Macho´, after his own boat had developed engine problems.

Then came a gaggle of skiers, including our own European Champion, Billy, who was already looking uncomfortable. Little Ritchie, the very popular young Australian who showed a class way above anyone else in these championships, got ´sandwiched´ between two boats shortly after the start, hit a wave – shot five feet into the air and spent the next three minutes in the water sorting himself out before he could get going again.

Fell twice in first lap

The Whitstable winner, Cassin, fell twice on the first lap, the result of which virtually put paid to his chances of winning the gold medal. At the quarter distance Carl Johnson, who had dropped back slightly, came in to replace a broken ski and, although, he started again, he was deemed to have retired.

As the race wore on, it looked as though it was going to be a three cornered fight for Rixon seemed to find some extra pace to take over second place after Wheeler, and Bertels went ´swimming´. The Australian told me afterwards that he had gone jumping on £10 notes! (must be an Aussie joke!!)

Coe, not happy at loosing his second place, began to fight a little earnestly until, at the three quarter distance he squeezed past Billy. But try as he might, he could not catch the America, who was skiing the race of his life.

Meanwhile, Ritchie had the large crowd, lining the sea front at this popular power boat and sailing club, on their toes with his meteoric rise through the field until on the last lap he easily passed Rixon and set off after Coe.

Virtually locked together

As the two boats came round the final turn buoy they were virtually locked together and with partisan crowd willing the English boy on, the two skiers went up to the finish line side by side. It certainly needed a Sperry Univac computer to separate these two fine athletes and when the times were announced it went to the British boy by a mere half a second!

This exciting finish to the 60 mile race seemed to detract from the winner, Mathew Johnson, who had crossed the line some eight seconds in front of the second place man.

Nevertheless, he skied faultlessly throughout end led from start to finish. At times it looked as though he would be caught but its my guess he had the situation well under control.

No undue risks

Likewise, so did Len Coe, Stephen’s father and driver, for he was not going to take any undue risks especially with the knowledge that they were now leading the Championships and would start in pole position at the Welsh Harp, and this could be vitally important for them.

Billy Rixon who was sadly below par on the early rounds finished in fourth place with Donato Trezzi, the Italian improving on his Whitstable result to finish fifth.

And so, with two races completed in both the ladies and men’s section the positions are as follows:

1. Bronwyn Wright (Australia) with 2 points
2. Janet Rein (U.S.A.), Dawna Patterson Brice (U.S.A.) and Kim Gooding (G.B.) all with 6 points.

1. Stephen Coe (G.B.) with 4 points
2. Billy Rixon (G.B.) with 8 points
3. Wayne Ritchie (Australia) with 9 points and Matt Johnson (U.S.A.) also with 9 points.

Welsh Harp – Saturday 15th September 1979

For the final rounds the competitors and officials moved the thirty odd miles from Allhallows to the Welsh Harp in the Borough of Brent. For those of you who don’t know this stretch of water it lays just off the North Circular Road about two miles from Wembley Stadium.

Being a little narrow it has been questionable whether such a venue would be suitable for a tournament of this nature and importance. However, be that as it may the 18 men and 11 lady competitors were ready to do battle.

During practice in the morning Ritchie, Carl Johnson and Rixon of the men and Bronwyn. Dawna Brice and Janet Rein of the ladies were fastest but it very soon became apparent that indeed it was a little dangerous out on the water. And so, in their wisdom, the drivers got together and pleaded that only six skiers should start in each race and the organizers reluctantly agreed. The net result was a rather disappointing days racing.

The format that was agreed in the interests of safety was that each skier would have to ski in three races over the two days on a time trial basis and they would be allowed to discard one race time.

Not fast enough

In the ladies race our own team of Kim Gooding and Liz Hobbs were not fast enough to make any impression on the Australians and Americans, who are used to circuit racing and only managed to finish fourth and fifth respectively. Once again, Bronwyn did everything right and surely secured the championship.

On the brighter note Rixon despite spending over a minute in the water when he missed his ´snatch´ at the start, soon managed to get into his stride and was lapping consistently in the low 1m 20secs pushing him now into overall contention.

Worst time of the series

Coe, on the other hand, put up his worst time on the series when his boat developed engine problems. Stephen, who was leading the championship after the first two legs at Whitstable and Allhallows told me after the race that his mechanic, Maurice Holman would be working on the suspect engine all night if necessary to get it ready for the two races on Sunday.

Ritchie posted the fastest time of the day and in doing so, greatly strengthened his claim for the gold. One more day and all the questions will have been answered.

The final day and the final heats and you could cut the tension with a knife. Only two of the three sprints counted, the British boys needed the discard…the whole championships were wide open. And in the first series it all happened. Billy won his heat, so did Wheeler, Steve borrowed another boat before the start and clawed his way to fourth place and Wayne Ritchie missed the pull out.

In the girls´ event the unbeatable Bronwyn was beaten because she failed to finish and Kim Gooding came good and achieved a really fast time.

Ski was cracking up

Rixon did really well, considering his ski was cracking up and our European champion had at last come into his own. Unlucky Steve was going as fast as he could be dragged and you could almost feel his misery from the bank.

In the complicated aggregate scoring system, allowing for the whole week and including the option of a discard, no-one knew exactly who was lying where and how. In the last race Rixon and Coe took to the water knowing that to have any chance of the gold Ritchie had to fall…and, would you believe it, he did, on the first lap.

Eardrums were deafened as the British spectators roared home their men, but it was to no avail. Rixon had to settle for third place in this heat behind Ray Wheeler and Carl Johnson, neither of whom counted in the overall shake-up. Steve could still not force his rig to travel any faster and he finished down the field.

Bronwyn in the last women’s heat gave an exhibition of flat-out ski racing, showing us all what the sport was all about. She stood like a rock on her ski and even a casual glance told that this was the style of a world champion. Kim, who had fought so hard and with such dogged determination and courage, fell in the last heat and we all despaired that this might cost her the silver medal, but the computer came up trumps and she had held on…and no-one deserved it more.

Last impressions

My lasting impressions of these well organized and richly entertaining championships has been the friendliness and sincerity of all the officials and competitors. I’m sure our friends from overseas will return to their countries with happy memories of this very first World Series, and will have a better understanding of Great Britain and in particular of our Ski Racers.

For me it was sad to see the two Italians Pierantonio Cassin and Donato Trezzi, not figuring in the medals especially after the fine start Tono made when winning the Whitstable round. If, and they have made a bid, the Italians hold the next Championships I’m sure they will fare better.

The Belgians, Danny Bertels and Erwin Verlies, are both still very young and lack just that little bit of experience especially at this lever of competition, but time is on their side and having participated, the knowledge gained will no doubt be more than beneficial to them in the future.

Splash of colour

The Americans who always add a splash of colour to any even wherever they may be, showed us some spectacular skiing and, had it not been for their atrocious luck with boats loaned to them they could have collected more than just the bronze that the glamorous Dawna Patterson-Brice gained. Matt the younger of the two Johnson brothers led the Allhallows leg from start to finish which quickly dispelled any doubts we had of whether or not the Americans could ski in rough water.

For our own Stephen Coe it must have been a bitter pill to swallow when, on the very last day, he was to see the overall title slip from his grasp, due I might add to problems with one of his engines.

Steve had skied consistently, some times brilliantly, throughout the week to lead by a big margin only to be let down at the last hurdle by no fault of his own. On top of which he was to miss out on the silver by a fraction of a second!

By his own standards Rixon had a disappointing Championship. Perhaps the long arduous season leading up to this event had taken its toll…perhaps we had all expected too much from Billy.

Nevertheless he managed to haul himself up from the brink of disaster to clinch the silver medal by some spirited skiing at the Welsh Harp. Kim Gooding, quietly and efficiently got on with the job to secure the second silver for Great Britain, continuing in the good form that has gained her this years National Title.

But of course, the Sperry Univac World Ski Racing Championships belonged to the supremely fit, well disciplined, richly talented Australians. They had arrived here without any prior knowledge of the European opposition and it was left to the two smallest competitors Bronwyn Wright and Wayne Ritchie to stamp their superiority over everyone else.

Bronwyn, often described as the ´five foot ball of dynamite´ took everyone by surprise from the very first moment she strapped her ski on. From then on there was never any doubt that this likeable young Australian lass was going to strike gold.

However, the man of the meeting must surely be Wayne Ritchie who, despite suffering several set backs, refused to give up and at the end of the day was richly rewarded as he triumphantly took the coveted award, and was named the World Water Ski Racing Champion.

Written in 1979 by Peter Ball
(The best British ski racing reporter ever)

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