The petrol heads on water are revving and raring to go for the ninth annual Aquafest at the Goolwa Aquatic Club on April 4-5.
But times have changed. Unlike when the club was formed in 1959 when they raced like a boat out of hell and sometimes crashed they now perform professional spirited demonstrations.
Insurance premiums have soared over 60 years. The club itself is also different. A decade ago you would grab the biggest schnitzel this side of the Murray and members mingled in the masses scrambling for a table or spare seat, clinging to hope of winning one of 28 meat or veggie tray raffles. A night at the GAC was some occasion.
Now, Mark Harlow and Kevin Tonglee of Blues Restaurant fame do a brilliant job running Fleurieu’s Function Centre upstairs while in the original storeroom basement we have GAC. It is home to five clubs under its umbrella covering speedboats, vintage boats, sailing and dragonboats (two).
There are a lot of memories here on Barrage Road. Some ponder what happened to speedboat racing through these undulating years of challenge in this River Port of Goolwa; others bluntly ask the newly-appointed commodore Craig Thornquest whether the club is surviving.
Actually, all is well, thank you. The story here is not one about raking the past, but how a small but immensely proud committee in recent years has responded to the adversity that has confronted them.
The Aquafest is possibly the biggest and best organised speedboat event of its kind in Australia. The club now has very healthy financial balance sheets thanks largely to the out-going commodore and now club patron Graham McFee, and committee members.
Graham Stevens, who is on the Aquafest committee gathering entries from across Australia for this huge event, was born into speedboat racing at Goolwa. His late father, George, was secretary of GAC in its embryonic years, and these days Graham’s daughter, Michelle, who was just weeks old when she attended her first speedboat meeting, drives her own mean machine at high revs.
“We were brought up on watersport – that’s all there was,” Graham said. “People, especially the farmers, had ski boats and everyone gathered at the river.
“The Goolwa Regatta Yacht Club held a once-a-year race meeting on Boxing Day and speedboats came from everywhere. Out of that, and the fact guys wanted to go skiing all year round, we started an aquatic club.
“We had one speedboat on the river, and when did the first race start? When the second boat turned up.
“ A lot of people from Sydney used to come here to race in state and national championships, people like Ernie Nunn, who was known in Australia as Mr Speedboating.”
Graham, who used to get off the school bus from Victor Harbor and head to the Murray to ski, was a speedboat driver of national note in between his years moving around Australia and overseas as an instruments fitter with the Royal Australian Air Force.
“The biggest challenge facing the sport these days is the cost of competing at top level,” Graham said. “It’s why our Aquafest is such a big, growing event… it gives an opportunity for those who have speedboats and don’t race them because it’s too expensive or too intense to actually show how fast they can go.
“To have a competitive racing speedboat you are probably looking at a quarter of a million dollars. You are also talking $5000-$6000 a month just to keep it running.
“These days we can’t race – we have spirited demonstrations – because of the insurance. A lot of people come along who have never raced or been competitive. They just want to display their boats and go around.
“You also can’t suddenly throw someone into racing a speedboat – it’s not like that. The Australian Power Boating Association will make you go to three race meetings before they will give you a licence. Safety is of high importance.”
Personally, this Aquafest brings an enormous amount of emotion for Graham, as his wife, Margaret, passed away last July. Her contribution to speedboat racing was also remarkable.
“These days I get up in the morning to go out to the shed and do something on the five boats that I have,” he said. “It keeps me busy; that’s what speedboats do – they are something that just gets into your blood.
“The Aquafest is also a means of catching up with old friends from Victoria, NSW and even Western Australia – plus a lot of local people we don’t see often who come here every year.
“Our Aquafest is huge in the world of speedboats. If you go to an average race meeting interstate like one recently in Victoria there were 35 boats, and that was a big meeting. We expect to get 68 entries, and that’s our limit because we just can’t put more in the carpark.”
The Aquafest – it is a free event – has also been the financial lifeline for GAC in recent years. It was perilously close to folding, and both Graham and Craig believe such ramification would have had serious impact on Goolwa as a tourist destination given that it has been recognised as a speedboat and watersport town for more than a half a century.
Craig, nor anyone else at GAC, has shied from the fact it has endured its challenges probably just like every other sporting club. The focus, he said, was now on what the club was doing moving forward.
“There is that responsibility level upon us,” he said. “All eyes are on us. Membership is only $50, and we have about 180 members, and I can assure you that we are doing our best to support them… giving them value for money on and off the water.
“We have good cash flows, and great support from council, which is important. We also have wonderful support from the Goolwa community in regard to sponsorship. In the last few weeks we secured a major sponsorship with Bremerton Wines.
“Yes, we have probably been like every other club; we have had our challenges. I say to the doomsday sayers look at what we are doing now, look at the programs for the young kids on the water, the cruise days and vintage sailing days and all the other water activities. We are making things happen.
“I love the fact this club is offering young children a pathway through sailing. Only recently we had 98 through a development program over two weeks, teaching them the rigors and safety of sailing. They loved it.”
Stories of promoting watersports at all inclusive levels in a healthy environment also emerge from the neighbouring Goolwa Regatta Yacht Club. The wonderful relationship these clubs share is good for the town.
According to Craig, ultimately everything is about diligent volunteers like Graham behind the scenes who work incredibly hard to support both clubs that make watersports special in Goolwa. There is always fear of missing someone when naming particularly special club people, but Craig did note the spectacular meal nights put on by good people like Judy Shaw and those who help her. Much like the meal nights during halcyon days of GAC really, only now you have a better chance of winning a raffle. See you in the Jetty Bar at 5.30 this Friday night, and at the Aquafest, April 4-5.