On a cool, quiet Friday morning, we loaded up our trusty Holden Barina with camping gear, a duvet, and a rucksack and piled in. The dawn sky brought a calming blue haze on a morning which would see us make the 6-hour pilgrimage to Robinvale, a rural town in northern Victoria where one of the biggest ski races of the calendar takes place. Waterskiing is a hobby for many Australians, but ski racing requires a different type of personality. Sam’s dad is a veteran skier and in March, we were given the opportunity to get up close to the sport and its competitors.
Ski racing is a growing sport in the red country of Australia, but aside from in the USA and in Belgium, it gets little international coverage. Ski racing still lacks a big name sponsor known for supporting extreme sports (I’m looking at you, Red Bull!) which only serves to make the field more competitive, and the teams far more passionate.
There are several classes of competition, from the supercharged, super-expensive, Superclass to the Tadpole Under 11s. Speeds range from 60mph to over 100mph with some of the more lucrative teams like Merc Force, Sapphire, and Superman reaching speeds of 135mph. Let me tell you, that is seriously fast.
ROBINVALE-EUSTON SKI RACE WEEKEND
Robinvale is a rural town 550kms (340 miles) north west of Melbourne. The Murray River stands as the border between Victoria and New South Wales, with Euston lying in the latter state. Every year, teams from all over Victoria and NSW flock to Robinvale for two events; Saturday’s 20km Dash, and Sunday’s 80km full race. This weekend is one of the most important in the calendar and, after the Southern 80, its the one that everyone wants to win.
We have never driven so far in one journey, and we’re not known to be early birds, so this drive provided a challenge. On this day though, it was a challenge that we relished. We got up with the birds, stuck Ed Sheeran’s new album on, and drove into the horizon as the sun came up behind us. We followed Sam’s dad for the whole journey and our mini-convoy slowly passed flat, golden field after flat, golden field.
Eventually we arrived at our campsite: beneath a half-dead Eucalyptus tree on an oval used usually as a cricket field. Robinvale was hot, and putting the tent up was no easy feat in the conditions. Luckily by now, we’re seasoned campers and we had few problems except a lack of pegs and an abundance of bull ants. We settled down for the evening and discussed the times and teams for tomorrow whilst we ripped apart a pre-cooked chicken with ravenous hands.
THE SATURDAY DASH
Dissolving any hopes of a late morning sleep, the first boats took to the water at 7am. Practice runs and warm ups were in full swing by the time we clambered out of the tent at 8am. At breakfast the swarming cockatoos perching in the trees above serenaded us with the morning chorus. Seriously, these hooligans screech like an eagle with a sore throat, and sport a hairstyle even a bad punk rocker would be too shy to wear.
The Saturday Dash is a 20km no-nonsense sprint to the finish line. The schedule runs through each class until all teams have raced. It all began with Merc Force. A team with a $1m budget and high expectations having triumphed during the carnage at the Southern 80. The legendary Hellrazor team set the time beat – 00:04:49. Last time around, Sapphire came the closest to the record, but this year surely Merc Force was ready to beat it.
The Dash was the first time that we’d seen anything so fast on the water; it’s the first ski race we’ve been to. We heard Merc Force’s engine roaring around the bend and readied the GoPro to capture it. It was a real blink and you’ll miss it moment. They were absolutely smashing it home.
The sound vibrated through our chests as our heads craned to follow the team across the line. Watching the skiers glide past sent shivers through our bodies at how fast they were going and how much skill was required to do so. Merc Force made a time of 00:04:44 – surpassing the previous record by a massive 5 seconds.
We’ve seen fast cars and motor races before, and that is quick. But on the water, its a different matter!
Sam’s Dad’s team for the Dash, Doindough, who were in a lower class than the big guns made a time of 00:06:53 and hit a top speed of 76mph. Sam felt exceptionally proud of his dad as he watched him cross the finish line. He’s been racing for 11 years now and this is the first time he’s been there to see him.
Race finished, teams seeded, and boats parked, the campsite’s festival atmosphere ramps up a notch. Music starts to play and the sunset provides a natural light display to usher in the evening. To our surprise however, there was a firework display from the riverfront which was spectacular. It helped the mood of the camp as competitors prepared for Sunday’s big race.
We ordered a pizza and suffered through hours of Keith Urban tracks – a mainstay of the skiing scene and the soundtrack to our trip so far. It was time to call it night by about 10pm and we climbed onto our rocky air mattress and listened to the campsite buzz itself to sleep.
THE SUNDAY RACE
On Sunday, we awoke to an explosion of power coming from the river which was less than 20m from our tent. It seems that today’s practice began even earlier, but perhaps that’s because of the earlier start time and the longer race distance.
By the time we arose, Sam’s Dad had already gone for breath analysis so we cobbled together some breakfast and made our way to the river. The temperature had dropped considerably, along with the stunning blue sky, and headwinds had picked up which gave the skiers an extra obstacle to think about. We walked through security and laid our tartan picnic blanket out on the ant-saturated grass.
People were perched on the fence and there was palpable anticipation in the air. The commentators droned on in their entertaining ocker drawl, interviewing skiers and speculating on the big names of the day. The atmosphere sparked and the race began. Some teams missed their starts, but the energy and the passion was in full swing, and we couldn’t wait to see who would win.
The winds picked up and the teams began to get closer to the finish. The two-hour wait for the return leg was over and the roaring engine sounds reappeared. We listened for the commentators. We thought we heard that Superman was to cross the line first. Who is Superman? Where’s Merc Force?
It turns out that the juggernaut team of the moment didn’t even make it to half way. Superman had the ultimate opportunity for non-Krypton glory. They came agonizingly close to matching Sapphire’s record scoring a time of 00:26:39. They had been flat-out for 12 minutes and came within 1 second of the record – it was edge-of-your-picnic-blanket stuff.
It went down on Sunday night. Laser lights, big speakers, full eskies (cool boxes) and dancing in the rain. We spent the evening with the Doindough race team. Their usual skiers are a father and daughter team and the daughter, Chloe is just 16 and already skis over 100mph. Her passion for the sport was remarkable and if she’s the future, then the sport is safe.
The Sunday party is a chance for the teams to let loose after the pressure of competition. Not only is important for them to win, but they are literally putting their lives at stake. Some teams ski over 100mph, and when you fall off at 28mph you start to bounce along the surface. Imagine what happens at 100+mph. Sat in the camp chairs watching the kookaburras nesting for the night, we considered the nelsons that these sportspeople must have.
We get tired just carrying around our backpacks.
[VIDEO] WHENTWOWANDER… ROBINVALE-EUSTON SKI RACE WEEKEND
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