Fred Williams: The Father of Australian Water Skiing
This article by Harry Dale was originally published on Savage Force
Fred Williams is the father of Australian water skiing. He needs little introduction. Anyone familiar with water skiing or water sports in general will instantly recognise his name. And so, I will give him little introduction.
Instead, I will jump straight into the amazing story that is Fred’s life.
Humble Beginnings: The Coastal Champion
Fred Williams was born in the NSW Coastal town of Forster in 1931. The grandson of Captain Peter Williams and the son of Fredrick Williams (a marine engineer), it’s little wonder he was destined for great things on the water.
As a child, he was an enthusiastic swimmer and surfer. After joining the local surf club at age nine and working his way to the position of captain, Fred went on to win the Australian Junior Open Belt Championship (1949) as well as a handful of other junior surf swimming titles.
But did you know he could also sing? Yes, in his childhood Fred won first prize in the Taree and District Eisteddfod for boy vocalists under age 13.
Boiling Water and Beechwood: The Birth of Fred Williams Water Skis
In his teenage years, Fred took up an apprenticeship as a carpenter in Newcastle.
One day whilst out in Forster, he and his friends stumbled upon an old garage door. With a bit of encouragement from his mates, Fred put his joinery skills to good use and shaped the metal sheeting into an old-school aquaplane. Desperate to try out his invention, he then visited local Bert Tickner and offered to fix his old powerboat in return for a tow. Low and behold, after a little while, Bert’s boat was up and running with Fred following behind on his makeshift aquaplane.
That aquaplane was the first wakeboard to be manufactured in Australia. But Fred was not done yet.
In 1947, he attended the local bakehouse on Little Street in Forster. Here, he made the first pair of water skis to be manufactured in Australia. He did so by hanging two bricks off either end of a piece of beechwood. He then poured boiling water over the ends of the posts to bend them into tips. Finally, he’d cut down a sandshoe and nail it to the timber to be used as a fitting.
The beechwood boards did the job, but they weren’t perfect. Fred wanted to improve upon the design and create a mould for production. He took some old tallowwood verandah posts from the pub in Forster and gave them to local boat builder Alf Jensen. Fred drew the shape of the mould on the block and Alf cut it out with his bandsaw.
With this mould, Australia’s first water ski manufacturing business was born: Ski-Ace.
Freddo Frog and the Forster Ski Club
During the Christmas holidays of 1948, Fred bought his first boat and aptly called it “Joker”. Around the same time, he bought a green rover to tow the boat with. Naturally, he called it “Freddo the Frog”.
This led to Fred skiing more than ever, which in turn inspired those in the community to also take to the water. During this time, the water skiing scene grew rapidly on the Mid North Coast of NSW. As the sport grew in popularity, Fred saw the need for a local ski club.
In January 1957, he lead the formation of the Forster Ski Club at Pipers Creek. Here, he would attend two twenty-mile training sessions per day whilst coaching his good friend Graham Barclay (State and National Slalom Champion). Fred would drive the Victor J (his first tournament boat) with Graham skiing behind on the first Fred Williams “New Comp Special” Ski.
Betty and the Boats
As a child, Fred nearly drowned during a surf swimming competition at Black Head. A crowd gathered around as his body was dragged from the water and up on to the beach. Little did Fred realise, however, that in that same crowd, watching on, stood his future wife and life-long partner: Betty.
It wasn’t until some years later that Fred actually met Betty whilst taking a break from his apprenticeship. It must have been love at first sight because the couple married in 1952 and have been together ever since. Fred’s been quoted as saying “She’s been the biggest support to me through everything; she’s an amazing woman.”
In 1959, Fred co-organised the 1st Forster Speedboat Race with his life-long friend Wally Hall. The event was a great success and drew entries and visitors from all over NSW. Following the popularity of the event, Fred and his friend Harry Alcorne purchased their first racing powerboat. Naturally, Fred named it “Betty”.
This started a long illustrious racing career for Fred. Over the coming decades, he owned and drove numerous famous racing boats including Ron-Also, Goldfinger (1 and 2) and Buster. Perhaps the most famous of Fred’s boats however was the legendary RAGE IV.
RAGE is remembered as one of Australia’s most decorated racing boats. Beloved by all for its sleek red and yellow design, RAGE went on to win the coveted Stuart Doyle Gold Cup (established in 1933) and the Jack Rushton Memorial Trophy for Australian Unlimited Displacement Speed Boat in 1979.
The Birth of Modern Ski Racing
Fred’s water skis started to gain major attention after Graham won third place in the world slalom championships. Riding off the back of this success, Fred and Betty moved the business to Sydney in 1962 and won a major contract with Australia’s most famous sporting store, Mick Simmons.
With this move, Fred’s Williams Water Skis became a household name in Australia. Dozens of champions skiers began to use his water skis. After setting up the Ski-Ace factory and a marine dealership in Burwood, Fred quickly became renowned as the largest waterski producer in Australia. The business also branched into producing wetsuits, vests and other water sports equipment.
But Fred refused to let success go to his head. Instead, he devoted even more of his time to supporting those in the burgeoning Australian water skiing scene. During this period, Fred was a:
- Popular show skier and competitor;
- Team manager;
- Tournament driver at State and Australian Championships;
- Founder of the first lane and circuit racing at Cabarita (the start of modern speed ski racing);
- NSW Water Ski Association Councillor, Vice President and then President over a 15 year period; and
- Major sponsor of water ski events such as the Bridge to Bridge.
Williams Takes Over the World
As if being the largest water ski manufacturer in Australia wasn’t enough, Fred Williams Water Skis went on to become the third-largest in the world. Then, in 1981, they were awarded for their outstanding efforts by being named the best international waterski manufacturer at the prestigious Vapor Trail Awards.
During this era, Fred and his family would tour the world with Australia’s best skiers. On these trips, he would develop designs for new skis and equipment that would help Australian competitors gain an edge over international rivals. In 1979, Aussie skiers Bronwyn Wright and Wayne Ritchie respectively became the first World Water Ski Racing Champions. Later, Robbie Woods became the only man in the world, at the time, to win the USA Nationals twice. All of them used Fred Williams skis.
But the rest of the world wanted to get in on Fred’s secret as well. And they did. In 1964, world champion Chuck Stearns visited Australia and helped Fred to develop his first “Concave” ski. Similarly, when Europe’s best skiers visited Australia in 1978, they were quick to make use of Fred Williams’ superior racing skis.
Even Prince Charles used a Fred Williams water ski – ‘Black Max’.
Taking to the Track
Fred’s legend extends beyond the water. At the height of his success, Fred was also a major sponsor and supporter of motorbike and speedway racing in Australia.
In 1969, the Fred Williams Marine Speedway team won the NSW Side Car Championship Trophy. Later, Graham Young would also go on to enjoy national success at the Australian Side Car Championships on a Fred Williams sponsored bike.
In 1972, Fred and his family decided it was time to head north to Newcastle again. Here, they set up a new factory in Gateshead and relocated the family home to Belmont.
It was during this period that Fred found a new passion – sailing. For years, Fred could be seen sailing around Lake Macquarie on his 30 ft. Diamond Class Keel Boat ‘Mistress Kate’.
Fred and his racing team went on to win the Lake Macquarie Yacht club line honours many times.
Hall of Fame
In 2014, Fred was inducted into the Australian Water Ski and Wakeboard Federation’s Hall of Fame. He’s been quoted as saying that his induction “was the icing on the cake for what has been a tremendous career”.
Today, Fred is retired and lives in Forster.
Lastly, we would just like to note the character of the man.
I think that Sandra Ferguson said it best when she wrote “This hyperactive man, through good fortune and bad, has never failed to give a helping hand to all who have come in contact with him. The names are too numerous to mention but we all thank you sincerely for your dedication which has made our sport what it is today and for contributing to Australia now rating as a leading nation in the world of water skiing.”
Fred, you are a legend, loved by many. Few people are more deserving of being recognised for their contribution to the sport of water skiing, let alone Australian manufacturing. We are proud to carry on your legacy in any way we can.