My eyes were opened that day. I was a teenager and had won the Australian Junior Overall Water Ski title two years running and had reached the stage of having to decide whether or not I should embark upon a professional career competing in national and international men’s events. I had also been noticed as a promising junior player of Australian Football.
Our main interest, along with many others spectators who had gathered along the shoreline, was to see Hoodoo perform. Hoodoo was owned and driven by local hero, Harvey Gunn.
Harvey was also the owner of the Gunn’s Gully petrol station that was located on the eastern edge of Moe on the highway just before it wound through the area known as the Haunted Hills. Strapped in his racing life jacket, with his goggles, square chin and jet-black hair he could easily be mistaken for a fighter pilot in a wartime movie.
As a teenager I was enthralled by the speedboat stories and theories that were told over and over by my dad and his friend and motor mechanic, Jack Moffat. Many of these stories included Harvey and what he was trying to do with Hoodoo.
Visiting Jack’s garage workshop was a boyhood treat. He was so tall; he had to duck his head to get through the doorway. He always wore overalls and had a rollie protruding from the corner of his mouth. His voice was laconic and friendly. Most vivid of all was how he could fold so effortlessly from such a great height to a position where he crouched comfortably for long periods on his haunches with his arms folded over the knees, both feet flat on the oil-soaked wooden slats of his garage, yapping to his mates.
We were his attentive audience. My father usually sat next to him on a garage stool. Boys, for it was always boys, listened as they piled onto the top of tyre stacks, cluttered benches, petrol drums, and generally mucked about in the garage, poking at grease tins, engine sumps, pistons, gaskets, drawers containing metal and plastic washes, bolts and nuts. My father said Jack was a genius with engines. Les said he liked the smell of Jack’s garage. The floorboards were soaked grey with old engine oils. Jack and Les were men of fuel.
My homeland heroes were the men, like my father who had rolled highly inflammable drums of White Spirit cleaning fluid into our backyard dry cleaning factory at our home in Bayley Street and Jack, with his hands soaked in petrol and grease attending to carburetors, adjusting sparks plugs, wiping coils and distributors, or holding a welding stick, wearing protective goggles and a fierce concentration.
Dad and I sweated on Jack completing his work. In his hands engines that had previously spluttered or were mute suddenly roared and sang.
Both men were devoted to powerboats. They liked the homebuilt variety. From them I learnt there were two main types – runabout and speedboat. A runabout was capable of planning across the water surface and was usually built with stability in mind, and could be adapted for several purposes such as recreation, fishing, and water skiing. A speedboat was built for racing; only some varieties were suitable for waterskiing. Runabouts were elephants. Speedboats were swallows; they flirted. Les and Jack surmised the objective of a speedboat was to minimize the planning surface therefore reducing frictional drag, which would in turn, maximize propeller thrust. Stability was marginally negotiable but not always feasible.
The garage sessions between Les and Jack created in me a fascination for what Harvey and Hoodoo were trying to achieve – the pursuit and attainment of prophetic moments in a speedboat.
Hoodoo was a racing skiff. The racing skiff was said to be a specifically Australian invention: a clinker construction made with overlapping wooden planks so modified it could skim the surface. Its rounded bilges and numerous chined planks added stability; and helped to reduce friction drag, as did a small flat planning area at the transom. Even in the choppiest of conditions, racing skiffs are capable of skimming across the surface at high speed, and still retain a fair degree of stability and manoeuvrability compared with other craft built for speed. How fast and how stable depended upon the final shape and strength of the hull, and on the engine’s power.
The racing skiff was particularly well suited to Australian speedboat racing conditions. Venues such as Lake Guthrie, like many other circuits at the time, featured short straights and tight corners. Handicap events dominated the racing fixtures. Hence, the faster boats had to be maneuverable and able to handle the roughened wakes of the slower boats in front. As the scratch boats closed on the field for the final turn, rounding into the home straight was a dangerous place to be.
A favourite topic of Les’ was prop riding. He reckoned it could be done. Jack wasn’t so sure. Both agreed that if anyone could find out, it was Harvey. Conversations like these mattered to us. The township was founded on the technical trades that were so critical in supporting the district’s brown coal and electricity industries. The spectacular scenery of the Latrobe Valley and hinterland and its abundant brown coal reserves were rapidly being converted into a fuel tank. For many of the men, like my father, dreaming the benefits of mechanical and electronic devices became an obsession. Building and owning a powerboat became an important symbol of progress. To make his case he often repeated the claim that there was nothing new about a yacht. I recall him saying, ‘A yacht today might look sleeker and go faster, but it is still basically the same vessel as it was for Columbus. It’s still a sailboat with a hull, keel, and rudder. It’s been around for forever.’ He often expressed his annoyance that the rules of waterways, which required powerboats to give way to the path of oncoming yachts. He argued that nothing like a speedboat had ever been created before, and thus, deserved more consideration. Was it simply because a speedboat had a racing engine? Well, yes, according to him. The leading characters of Moe were in the grip of modernism. Les was a fuel man. So was Jack. So was Harvey. Nirvana for them was the prospect that Hoodoo could prop ride.
Picture standing on the shoreline of still water, holding a flat stone in your hand and thrusting it low across the surface so that the stone bounces once and then continues skimming several times at considerable speed further into the distance. Or consider the film ‘The Dam Busters’, featuring the bouncing bombs of the British scientist, Dr. Barnes Wallis. In this case it was a bomber-plane descending into the Ruhr Valley and dispatching an explosive metal ball that skipped across the lake to a designated target. These were the kind of possibilities that Moe’s men of fuel contemplated. Could the same principles apply to a speedboat? They envisaged a hull skimming mostly airborne across the surface with only the propeller and a tiny area of transom ever touching the water.
Their quest was prop riding in its purest form.
A form of prop riding already existed with the hydroplane, sometimes referred to as a ‘three pointer’, which at the time was the fastest watercraft. Under throttle the engine power lifts the main hull above the surface and the hydroplane rides on ‘three points’ – narrow twin pontoons at the front of the craft and the rear propeller. At high speed, a hydroplane tends to flutter and the spinning propeller sends a spectacular fan of trailing water high into the air. While undoubtedly quick, it is susceptible to water or air disturbances and can easily flip over as a result. Also, because the craft is so broad and flat, manoeuvring around corners is notoriously unstable.
Could Harvey prop ride Hoodoo and keep up with the fastest hydroplanes?
Could he steer through rough water better?
Could he corner better?
Les and Jack introduced me to sports theory.
Hoodoo had the largest racing motor of any skiff. Harvey went to the United States especially to buy it and ship it home. At home, he dropped in a supercharger with six carburettors and then added more and more alcohol to the fuel mix. He reckoned on a speedboat that could hurtle through the air, like a stone skipping across water. Between heaven and earth there were three things: Hoodoo, Harvey Gunn and logic.
At Lake Guthrie, the water was beginning to calm.
Much later I recalled what the famous American dancer, Gene Kelly had once said:
In film, a dancer should always be shot from head to toe, because that way you can see the whole body and that is the art of dancing. Nowadays they shoot the nose. Left nostril. Right nostril. Hand. Foot. Bust. Derriere. The film prevents you from determining who is a good dancer and who is not.
That day at Lake Guthrie, Harvey dared the lot. His whole craft was open to view, unfiltered. He was Kelly’s depiction of a true dancer.
As Hoodoo sat in the water tied to the bank, the clinker planks loosened. It is a feature common to skiffs and more so if they are bearing the stress of a heavy, high revving engine. Water leaked in. As the time for the main race approached, Harvey got up from the picnic rug where his family and helpers had been sitting. He wore sandshoes without socks, shorts, golfing shirt, and a life jacket with a bulky collar. He carried a bucket in one hand and a petrol can in the other. When he reached Hoodoo, he bucketed water from the bilges and then added the fuel containing the alcohol, fired up Hoodoo, and leant over the transom to remove the drainage bungs.
Cavitations’ is a horrible sound and thought. It is the mechanical equivalent of Edvard Munch’s painting of a scream. It occurs when there is a sudden formation and collapse of low-pressure bubbles in liquids. Powerboats can experience it because the motion of water created by the hull and propeller stir up the conditions for a cavitations’ vacuum to occur. When a propeller spins into this vacuum there is no water or air resistance holding back the engine toque and it launches into a frenzied fit of engine screaming, and can die.
On the last turn into the straight of the main race, Hoodoo screamed and corkscrewed into air, span backwards, and landed inside a vertical skein of water. Thankfully, Harvey had miraculously escaped decapitation and drowning on a Sunday afternoon race day.
Fuel driving modernism
On a later occasion, I teamed up with Harvey and Hoodoo for an attempt at setting an Australian water-ski speed record. It was for a fundraising picnic day held by the Moe Lions Club at the Yallourn Storage Dam. The club was eager to make mileage from the reputation of a local water ski champion and the famous Hoodoo. Speed skiing had become popular in the United States and was beginning to attract attention in Australia.
World champion water skier, Chuck Sterns had been clocked at reaching over 100 mph riding a single ski, the fastest ever recorded. An American magazine had featured dramatic time sequence pictures of him falling during one of his attempts at setting a record. The sequence of pictures showed him tucked up into a ball like the bomb skipping over the water in The Dam Busters film.
At the time in Australia, there was no specific equipment available for speed skiing and no idea of technique, except for what could be gleaned from the pictures in ski magazines. My father and I fawned over these, examining them for details and clues. For instance, the shape of the speed ski appeared exceptionally long, sleek and thick. The foot bindings looked as heavy and elaborate as those used in deep sea diving costumes. Speed skiers wore a lot of protective gear including a thick padded vest, helmet, wetsuit, and knee protectors.
The speedboats towing the skiers were called ‘drag boats’, which were different to the racing skiffs and hydroplanes familiar to us in Australia. The American version had been adapted for straight-line go to whoa races held on smooth water surfaces. It was a flat bottom boat with a substantial planning surface supporting a massive engine located at the transom. Because it was designed to hold a steady course in a straight line, it was suitable for towing speed skiers.
There were no drag boats in Australia then. Hoodoo would have to do. The Lions Club advertised the event on radio as the first ever attempt to set an Australian water-ski speed record. There was still another challenge to resolve – equipment?
My father and I went to see Hans who worked for Vel Aqua Skis in Melbourne. I had tested skis for Hans. A recent migrant and cabinetmaker trained in the Black Forest of Germany, he had never water-skied. He was gifted at cutting patterns from plywood and folding it. Mostly, he copied examples of water skis shown to him that were made by other manufacturers. Sometimes he surprised, showing me promising looking examples he’d made from his imagination. Vel Aqua encouraged Hans because it wanted to sell something different and better than anything else.
When we met with him and explained the problem, Hans presented us with an exotic looking ski. It was longer than anything else we have ever seen before and with a series of unfamiliar shapes and folds. In various sections the plywood was thinned, thickened, beveled, tapered, broadened, and hollowed. At least in its overall length it seemed similar to what we had seen of speed skis in American magazines. It was worth a try. I was able to get hold of a fluorescent orange buoyancy life vest that was bulky and looked fearsome enough. A padded bicycle helmet was the only protective headgear I could find before the event. There were no knee protectors around.
After school had finished for the day, my father picked me up in his Chrysler Valiant V8 and we headed to the dam for a test run. Harvey and Hoodoo were waiting. We attempted several trails. The ski was terrible. It kept tracking sideways. Hoodoo, as racing skiffs are inclined to do, skipped and pounded across the water. The towrope was lashing all over the place and dipping into the water. The experience was like riding on the end of a whip. Afterwards, Harvey said that the speedometer had flicked to 60 mph. We were stumped on what to do. Then my father, who had been watching from the bank, said it appeared we were going twice as fast and with twice the danger. We all agreed.
Thousands attended on picnic day, lining the banks of the Hall’s Bay area of the dam. Because of a lack of planning and available equipment, no official distance and timer was set in place. We reckoned that if Hoodoo went flat out across Hall’s Bay with myself in tow the spectacle would be convincing enough.
I think it was.
Hoodoo, Harvey Gunn and Ted Hopkins approached Hall’s Bay from the narrow channel end. Around the corner, the crowd heard an engine roar. As planned, we then burst into the bay with the speedometer tipping 50 mph. As Harvey steered within just a few meters from the shoreline and crowd, he hit the throttle and Hoodooskipped into the air. I didn’t fall off. We might well have set some Australian speed ski record. There were no announcements.
None asked for their money back.
The best athletes and teams thrive on creating uncertainty in their respective opponents. They are more at home in a world of random events and dangerous outcomes. They back themselves to read the play. Risk taking is a necessity, which is why there is always a chance of an upset result.
A favourite example I have of this principle is the 2005 Australian Tennis Open semi-final between Roger Federer and Andre Agassi. Federer won in three straight sets. The match result belied the closeness and intensity of the contest. At critical times throughout the match when the result of a set could have gone either way, Federer launched a series of daring serves that had the effect of restricting Agassi’s lethal return of serve, and that was a decisive factor.
In the courtside post-match interview the television commentator asked an exhausted and relieved winner to reveal the secrets of the tactical plan he had adopted to counter Agassi’s return of serve. A bemused Federer hesitated then responded that there were no tactics, “I just tried to serve as fast and as close to the line as I could.”
His response to the interviewer highlighted the value of strategy more so than a tactical ploy. Tactical advantages can dissipate quickly. On court, calibre players such as Federer and Agassi are not easily misled. Against a quality opponent, a tactical ploy aimed at creating uncertainty soon converts into a certainty and an invitation to punishment. A player who is over-reliant on the use of tactics can easily get caught in a trap. Changing tactics becomes like always having to change the colour of cordial. A quality opponent tastes and spits it back. How can the tactician then, respond? Add another colour?
A highlight of Federer’s play in the semi-final was not so much the ominous threat of the first service, which is expected at the elite level of competition, but how much dare he placed on the second service. Anything less may have opened the door for Agassi to take an advantage. Next time, the precision and chance that Federer takes on second service may waver only minutely, which could easily be enough for the table to turn.
He is constantly flirting with dangerous outcomes. To build a home he knows the value of constructing solid walls – nous, technique, and the resourcefulness to control an attack and also control an opponent. But this is never enough. He takes risks. His is willing to fail for the greater good.
When I was writing this section I read a magazine article asking a sample of 40 Australian ‘high achievers’ what were the secrets for their business success. All interviewees claimed hard work, dedication, and persistence. None mentioned backstabbing, trickery, cheating or bribery. Only four mentioned good luck and not one said they were blessed with innate talent.
Elite sport is not so forgiving.
Performances and results are open to view.
Various studies of English Premier League Football results, notably by mathematicians Baxter and Stevenson in 1988, showed that scoring patterns fitted a Negative Binomial Distribution curve, meaning there did not appear to be a constant rate of scoring. If random variation dictates so much in scoring goals, a theory emerged whereby teams could win by creating more chances or dangerous outcomes near the goalmouth. Hence the adoption of the long kicking game into the penalty area made famous by teams such as Wolverhampton and Watford.
In cricket, a bowler’s capacity to create dangerous outcomes and let random variation do the rest of the work; is how the best consistently take wickets. Australia’s successful strike bowler Glenn McGrath, on average produces a situation where better than one in 20 of his balls results in a batsman’s dismissal, or near dismissal such as a dropped chance ‘close shave’ with the bat or a Leg Before Wicket decision. Analysis shows around one in every three dangerous outcomes results in a dismissal.
The legendary chief executive of General Electric, Jack Welsh, famously said; “If the environment is changing faster than your business is, you’re dead.”
Randomness influences environmental change. The great players read the wavering signs better, and respond accordingly.
Another environmental influence is the principles governing home ground advantage effects. Like many, I had grown up with a sense of the phenomena. But it was not until 1994, when I began collaborating with Swinburne University sports mathematician; Professor Stephen Clarke was I aware a range of elements for home ground advantage effects could be expressed in quantifiable terms.
Among my personal experiences was as a teenager playing for the Moe thirds in the morning and later in the day barracking for the seniors. A rim of cars was perched on Fowler Street hill overlooking the oval.
Sitting in the family car with family and friends.
Catering courtesy of mum: sandwiches and a Thermos, enhanced by pies from the ladies auxiliary kitchen.
An excited voice on the car radio described the game in front of us and the exploits of our heroes Peter Jennings, Allan Steele, Dicky Wheildon – all local household names.
A cacophony of car horns is unleashed! Immediately the whole town and any poor visitor got to know about it. It was like a symphony proclaiming: try us on here, if you dare!
At home the Moe battlers became formidable. Townsfolk reckoned Moe was a four-goal better proposition when playing at home.
The reverse was every second Saturday morning during the football season packing the kit, hopping into the car and driving to play a rival town or regional city. Mostly, the visiting rooms were miserable and the home team cocky. The chances of winning were not as good. Nevertheless, the travel itself I found pleasurable, cruising along bitumen roads through the Australian landscape, listening to local radio, engaging in car chatter and then absorbing the local views.
Given this positive experience of car travel, at Carlton I was surprised the coach was worried that an hour-long bus trip could affect body and mind. There was no such thing then as a national competition and interstate travel. The annual team bus journey to Geelong was the sole occasion Melbourne-based Victorian Football League players had to travel to another part of the world to play football. The trip generally took not much more than an hour.
Not long after the Carlton team bus passed by the township of Werribee, a distance of about 30km from our home at Princes Park, coach Barassi demanded the driver stop immediately. On the pretext of stretching the legs and concentrating the mind, he ordered all players to disembark and walk along the freeway apron for more than 1.5km towards Geelong. Within a few moments of the bus exodus, cars screeched to a halt, amazed to see Carlton players ambling along the freeway as other vehicles swerved and drivers slammed on brakes to avoid collision.
Miraculously, serious injury and death were avoided while Barassi seemed totally obsessed on how to beat Geelong. Previously I’d never thought about travel effects.
Another aspect of home advantage I experienced as a teenager was competing in water ski tournaments. Most venues were located throughout south-eastern Australia, which meant all competitors were accustomed to driving long distances, or occasionally flying interstate.
With the exception of the Moomba Masters Water Ski Championships held on the Yarra River, the numbers of people attending events were nothing like football and the audiences always genial. What mattered were the local water and wind conditions.
Elite level water skiing is unique for the amount of sensitivity required; feeling the water via the feet planted on a thin fluttering ski and the wind via the face, nose and ears. The eyes must be alert to both water and wind signals. Each venue can present vastly different characteristics and can change significantly within an event, and sometimes during a competition run. Like most competitors, at least 90 percent of my practice was at one venue and each competitor and support crew had a fair idea of who would perform best at the various tournament venues. Melbourne’s Moomba Masters tournament, recognized as the most prestigious trophy on the international competition calendar, was interesting because it was the most challenging and fairest. No one was able to practice on the Yarra River course during the year. The water was turgid, tidal and stank. A narrow watercourse lined by bluestone and concrete banks and a boat wake stirring a different slop on every turn of a ski. It was dangerous, tough and exhilarating, especially if you did well.
When Clarke introduced me to the current thinking attributing home ground advantage to three distinct influences – crowd, travel and environment effects I already had a good appreciation of each. My fascination was with his attempt to measure these effects, in what combination and what context? If mathematics could assist understanding the degree of each effect then athletes and coaches could be more efficient devoting resources towards either exploiting the advantage or countering it.
An important distinction he drew is the difference between a simple tally of a win or a loss home or away and the actual phenomenon of home grand advantage effects. For example, of the former, if a top team travels interstate to play a bottom team playing at home there is a fair expectation the top team will still win because it is appreciably a better outfit. However, let’s say the top team wins by two goals. Assuming the game was played at a different venue; a neutral ground with equal travel distance between the teams, the expected winning margin would likely be four goals. If it were played at the venue of the top team, six goals would be the expected margin. In summary, a home ground advantage effect is defined by how much better the team performs than its ladder ranking and current form indicates, compared to its performance anywhere else – in the above scenario the home team is a two-goal better proposition while facing a two-goal disadvantage when visiting.
The best-known example of this principle is applied to the rules qualifying for the World Cup Football (soccer) tournament. Following considerable research of scoring outcomes involving the major leagues across the globe, mathematicians were able to determine that for every three goals scored, one can be attributed to home effects. Hence the FIFA one in three stipulation for all qualifying matches is applied to calculate the ladder positions of each qualifying zone. It’s a sound, evidence-based calculation. Far more elusive is weighing the different components – is it because of referee bias in front of home crowds, or hostile home crowds that will resort to extraordinary taunts ridiculing and demeaning visitors, or different surfaces, different climates, body clocks and digestive systems unsettled by jet lag and uncustomary food, and so on?
David Foster Wallace, in his masterly essay: Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes (Harpers, 1991), thrives on home ground advantage effects. As a budding junior champion, he rated his tennis physiological attributes rather poorly. Nevertheless, he could still win games against his local cohorts. It was his liking and reading of the persistent, driving, tornado-infested winds that sweep across the plains of his hometown Illinois district that made him competitive. His opponents found the wind unsettling. This, and everywhere about them, they could only see flat lands and cornfields and assumed the courts were similarly uniform in nature. Instead, he saw the trigonometry differently. Each court had its unique nuanced lilt and crackling edges, which was exploited to his benefit. He recounts that when he stepped up a grade to regional and national competition, his prospects declined. He laments how the manicured, standardized conditions encountered at the higher level undid him.
As a writer, young and adult, Foster Wallace was a prodigy, virtuoso, and audacious. Even when flaying, he was absolutely generous for those he railed against and those he loved. In 2009, at the age of 39 he hanged himself. He adored his early years playing tennis and watching it played. His essay, Roger Federer As Religious Experience (Harpers, 2006) is widely recognized as a masterpiece.
My path is in the opposite direction. From the outset, I was a sporting prodigy, retired early from elite competition and then during my early adulthood set upon becoming a poet and writer. I am still finding my feet. At the time, I instinctively had a sense there were similar patterns in sport and elsewhere. Important lessons were the value of dangerous outcomes and home ground advantage effects. Attempting to set an Australian Water Ski speed record, as a teenager I had ridden on the end of a wildly whipping ski rope behind Harvey Gunn in Hoodoo, and saw both heaven and peril in a glimpse.
In 1964 the Australian Water Ski Championships were held for the first and only time in conjunction with the Melbourne’s Moomba Masters tournament. At the championships as a 14-year-old, I won the National junior titles for slalom and overall. The next year I also won the slalom and overall titles competing in the National championships help on the Swan River, Perth. As a 16-year-old junior I competed in the Moomba men’s events and was placed third in the slalom.