Fred Williams – Water sports legend

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Hi Fred. Tell us about your early years in the area …

I was born at Nabiac hospital. In the old days, women travelled to Nabiac to have their children, usually in a horse and sulky, towed across the channel by a punt.

I spent most of my childhood in Forster, but also went to the William Thompson Masonic School in Baulkham Hills.

How old were you when you joined the local surf club?

I joined when I was about 9 or 10. I was a surf swimmer, and I also won a lot of belt races up and down the coast.

A belt race uses a reel, line and belt. You line up on the beach, run down to grab your belt and put it on, while you tow the line out to a buoy in the water. Your other team members help with the line and the reel. It’s a hard race – especially in big seas.

I nearly drowned once – out at Black Head. Believe it or not, that’s when Bettie – my wife – actually saw me for the first time, although we didn’t meet until later.

That must have made an impression!

Yes! They were dragging me up the beach, and she was in the crowd watching me and probably thinking, “Look at that poor bugger”!

When I used to work in Newcastle, I’d come home to Forster for visits. I met Bettie while she was in the area for a camping trip. We were married in July 1952 – we’ve been together 60 years now. She’s been the biggest support to me through everything; she’s an amazing woman.

You did pretty well with your swimming, didn’t you?

I won just about everything I could on the Mid North Coast – titles in both belt racing and junior surf. I almost won the Australian Junior Open Belt Championship in 1949, but I stopped to help one of the other guys, who was drowning. I came second.

What did you do to earn a crust back then?

I trained as a joiner. I worked for Arthur Davis Constructions first in Newcastle, then in Taree.

How did you make your first set of skis?

‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray was a friend of mine. He and his mates were messing around with old planks on the water, and he encouraged me to give it a try. We thought we’d make something similar to an aquaplane – we made it out of an old garage door! I also read about a bloke by the name of Waller in an American magazine who’d made a set of long skis.

I got two pieces of Beech and hung them over the verandah with two house bricks tied to the end. I poured boiling water over them to make them bend and left them overnight. I attached two sandshoes and painted a bulls-eye in the middle – and that was my first set of skis!

Next, I decided to make a mould. The pub in Forster was being renovated, and the old verandah posts were big, solid blocks of Tallowwood. I took one of these posts to local boat builder Alf Jensen. I drew the shape of the mould on the block, and we cut it out on his bandsaw. I used this mould up until the time I started to steam bend and use veneers in my skis.

How did you figure out the best way to make skis?

Trial and error. The hardest part was chasing timber – Silver Ash was the best timber to use, and my mate Keith Singh flew me in his plane all around Queensland sourcing it. Then we moved onto veneers … these days we still use Silver Ash and Mahogany. From the early days, my skis were branded ‘Ski Ace’.

How did your ski business grow from here?

In 1955, a few of us started up the Forster Aquatic Ski Club. Graham Barclay and I established a slalom course in Pipers Creek. I taught Graham to ski, and he went on to become a very successful competitor, becoming the Australian champion and coming third in the World Championships.

The club would put on shows and spectaculars, and my skis began to get noticed. In 1962, we decided to move our manufacturing business from Forster to Burwood.

We branched out into designing wetsuits, vests and other gear.

When did you discover boating?

I started to sail in VJs with Bettie before we were married, then I progressed into speed boats. While we lived in Sydney, we began manufacturing speed boats in a big way. We started with a 21ft ski boat called the ‘Hustler’, and branched out into many other models afterwards, including the ‘SS160’, the ‘Maverick’, the ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Rage’.

What led to the relocation of your business from Sydney to Newcastle?

The business had grown so much, and it was difficult to keep pace with the demand. We moved to Gateshead, Newcastle, in 1972, as a way to get back to basics.

This was successful: in 1981 we won the ‘Vapor Trail’ – an American magazine award for the best water skier manufacturer. We also won an Australian Design Award for a lifejacket we made out of Neoprene.

You took up sailing again while you lived at Gateshead too?

Yes, I became a member of the Lake Macquarie Yacht Club. I entered many yacht races there, did well, and I became Commodore of the club.

My dream was to compete in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. I leased the ocean racer ‘Helsal Il’ for 12 months, refitting her and renaming her Helsal II – Our Town Newcastle’. She was ready for the race in 1981. After starting well, we ended up becalmed for hours – eventually coming in third behind ‘Vengeance’ and ‘Condor of Bermuda’.

What was your last business venture before moving back to Forster?

We purchased the Marmong Cove Marina in 1983 and expanded the business. It was an innovative operation that became a talking point among the boating fraternity.

Unfortunately, these were hard times for investors, with high interest rates, and it was difficult to source partners with the necessary capital to help expand the business. We made the decision to auction the property in 1990 and moved back to Forster – where it really all began for us.

We moved back to retire – but I decided to start making skis again. I’m the only one in the world now making water skis for the trade out of timber – most manufacturers use fibreglass.

What’s the recent major acknowledgement you’ve received?

I’m being inducted into the Australian Water Sports Hall of Fame. It’s nice to be appreciated by everyone from the water skiing fraternity and the boating fraternity! I’ve helped a lot of people throughout my life and spent a lot of my life on the water.

How do you keep yourself fit these days?

I play golf now twice a week to get some exercise. I’m 82, you know! Actually, Graham Barclay, Keith Singh and I did go for a ski about 3 years ago. Graham was fine – he’s pretty fit. But I have to tell you … I needed to go to bed for a week afterwards. I found muscles I didn’t know I had!

Thanks Fred. You’re a true local legend.

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