Many years ago in the Seventies I remember looking through the latest edition of the famous ‘Tracks’ magazine where I came across the article about ‘Skurfing’. I was at that time a fortunate youth who surfed and water-skied, lucky to be in a water-sport loving family and apart from the water-skis, also got behind the boat with the odd surfboard or we rode whatever we found that could give us some fun. I was just one of countless kids around the globe doing the same thing, but, the first authentic ‘Wakeboarders’ were ‘Kiwis’.
The ‘Tracks’ magazine showed guys who had already mastered a concept, who laid over big body-horizontal arcs on keel-finned specialised objects that they called ‘Skurf-boards’ .The riders were Kevin Jarrett and Allan Byrne and they were showing the world a challenging new sport. Later at age 19, having just come back from a season in the Australian alps at Thredbo, I, while working for ‘Darby’ surfboards, was fortunate to be with the lads when we borrowed an authentic ‘Hot Stuff’ ‘Skurf-board’ from Allan Byrne. As fate had it I was the only one who could get out of the water on it, but we were all pumped on the idea of this newfound concept and were all talking of seeing a future for it.
The winter came and I passed another season in the snowfields, but kept thinking of this new concept and wanted to be part of the action. On my return to Queensland, to my dismay I was greeted with a certain run-around as to my participation in the project and was fed some information intended to lead me to believe that the concept was all sewn up and protected; in other words ‘No Trespassing’. Darby already had some nice T-shirts with the name ‘Skurfer’ printed up, and this was four years before the name appeared in the USA (but with a new face claiming responsibility for the product).
In between the ski-season I was also working in Sydney with ‘Raider-Skis’, the leading brand of custom shaped and moulded fibreglass wave-skis in the world at the time, so after not feeling the right vibe in Queensland I decided to try and launch the ‘Skurfing’ concept in Sydney. With my experience with moulded products I was going to propose to Raider the manufacture of the boards there. I mentioned the idea to the then Australian Champion ’Mick Petrie’ who suggested that I join up with him and that the best material to make the boards with would be roto-moulded polyethylene plastic.
Unfortunately Mick was a bit tied up financially and couldn’t proceed but he was a great help in forming a direction in how to go about setting up the project for manufacture. We did the basic research visiting the sports-stores and ski shops to get a reaction and the reaction was mixed. Mick pulled out and an old friend ‘Mitchell Ross’ came to the rescue and became my partner in the business which we called ‘Ski-Boards Australia’ and the board was called the ‘Mcski’ . We even had a television station backing us financially at the time with whom we accumulated more modifications to the product and more debts.
We had started manufacture at ‘Rotadyne Plastics’ and later moved to ‘Bombora Sailboards’. With the TV station shortly pulling out and the debts finally being eliminated we proceeded to move forward with the sales and marketing side of the business. We had distributors in each state. We were present at many boat shows, and I did the odd demonstration at the odd water-ski meeting. We made videos, were on TV sports and news shows and the next step was try to tie the product up in the USA and the rest of the world. We had patents on the concept which mainly only tied up the foot-binding system and to my dismay, the simplified version of my plate binding design, or the one we didn’t patent, is exactly what is currently in use today.
The fact of being too advanced in the foot binding design for the initial market state, ended being part of the reason for our demise in our contract with our eventual licensee in the USA. Our ‘Mcski’ ‘ski-board’ as we called it at the time and soon after named ‘SSS’ ski-board was (after negotiating with five of the USA’s biggest water-ski companies) manufactured under licence by the Wellington Puritane company’s ‘Medallist’ Water-Ski division. They renamed the board ‘Surf-Ski’ probably not realising that in Australia this is the name for another concept altogether ( tried to tell them ..but..).
Medallist were supplied with the moulds and parts and I personally did some fine tuning of the foaming jigs at their ‘Sun Products’ plastics division in Atlanta, Georgia. I was then present at the launch at Chicago’s ‘IMTEC’ boat show along with videos and associated propaganda. At the Chicago show I met ‘Tony Finn’ who had plans to be the ‘Surf-Ski’s’ Californian representative, but through a twist of fate, ended being the face behind the name of the ‘Skurfer’ brand who launched the following year in the USA manufactured by ‘Aiken Products’. The manufacturer had a small ‘kiwi’ for his logo which explains the connection. Contracts and agreements.. made to be broken, as far as some companies are concerned.. well we all learn the hard way. ‘Skurfer’ became the competition and our company decided that instead of pushing the product that they would enter into a price war. “Cut the overheads” they decided so we in Australia were eliminated. Darby and company basically faced they same fate as us at the hands of Tony Finn, but of a different nature. Just more sad stories of USA -Australian relations. If they can crush you, they will.
The Australian market took a while to get moving and being a country that glamorises whatever is imported, only when the US brands started entering did the sales really start to kick off. Australia is a difficult market to launch anything due to its reduced population and distance between cities in such a big country. I toyed with the idea of trying to manufacture with someone a surf stance version of a trick-ski (what ended up appearing years later as the current ‘wakeboards’) but the thought of trying to tie up an Australian manufacturer (who wouldn’t try to take the idea for themselves) became a mission that I gave up after the first steps. I had ideas of trying a relaunch in the USA with a different model and different name and even had Australian water-sports shop entrepreneur Neil Harris take my latest fibreglass model with him to his good friend Herb OBrien of the U.S.A.’s famed ( H.O. and OBrien water skis ). This model consisted of a twin track system for the front and rear bindings which are like the plate type commonly used today. I sent an instructional video with action and explanatory footage. I never heard one reply from Herb OBrien and Neil smiled and shrugged his shoulders at the outcome. Tony Finn is now credited and acclaimed as being the father of the ‘Skurfer’ style wake-board and Herb OBrien of ‘Hyperlite’the father of the current fibreglass composite types. I’ll let you be the judge. In the end our race was run. We sold the Australian company for pennies and the Mcski’s new name ‘WakeSnake’ was adopted by the new owners. ‘WakeSnakes’ can still be seen today in the odd cable-ski park around Australia. Wake-Boarding today is one of the world’s fastest growing water-sports, but in the beginning there were those that could see no future for it..