Southern 80

Level of competition still high class, says ex-skipper

By Fraser Walker-Pearce

SATURDAY afternoon brought a strange new feeling to Don Gulley, the man on the microphone for the President’s Dash.

That’s because 2019 was the first time in recent memory Gulley was not driving Merc Force, the second-most successful crew in Southern 80 history.

The former skipper of Merc Force, Gulley sold up in early 2018, just months after cleaning up the 49th edition of the world’s biggest race, and Superclass, the biggest race’s biggest event.

And he hasn’t once looked back on the decision.

Not until Saturday afternoon.

That’s when the 58-year-old suddenly found himself broadcasting the progress of his former boat and its new owner.

‘‘I thought the new owner Timmy (Pickford) drove it really well actually,’’ Gulley said of Merc Force’s President’s Dash run where the team qualified for Sunday’s big dance in eighth position.

But it must have been tough for Gulley.

After all those successful years racing with Merc Force, it must be similar to seeing an ex-girlfriend has moved on to another man.

And although he did admit that seeing his old fling one more time was tough and emotionally confronting, Gulley said he enjoyed his weekend nonetheless, and wouldn’t change his mind on the sale, even if given the chance.

‘‘It was a bit surreal really. Seeing it come across the line was very exciting,’’ he said.

‘‘It didn’t really hit me that I wasn’t driving it until they finished and then idled in – that’s when reality set in.

‘‘I felt like a fly on the wall during the race, actually. Calling it, it was a strange feeling.’’

But like any good successful retired sportsman, Gulley has put the tow ropes back in the garage and picked up the microphone with relative ease.

‘‘I’ve found my calling I think,’’ he laughed.

‘‘People were telling me I just need a haircut and I should take (commentating) on properly.

‘‘It was nice watching the race and commenting on it, but you’d rather be out there of course.

‘‘And if you can’t do it out on the water I’m more than happy to do the next best thing and be in the commentary box — it’s a good spot to be.’’

The only problem, Gulley said, with commentating for the big races was the spot of trouble he found himself in with the lady who also came down to watch the races with him — his wife.

‘‘My wife is up here with me, which is really nice. But I’m in a bit of trouble I think, for not spending time with her today (Saturday), but we’re making up for it now of course so that’s good,’’ he said.

‘‘Fisher and Richo (fellow commentators) are old hands at commentary for the 80 and they like to have a good laugh in amongst the racing, which made it a bit easier, but you do have to be quick-witted and on the ball.

‘‘It’s pretty busy down there at the finish line, people idling in to the banks and boaties being called over and doing interviews as well.

‘‘The traffic around the event is crazy. Just us getting to the finish line (on Saturday) took forever.’’

And it wasn’t just a shock to the system for Gulley. His old boat would have been shocked to learn that only one member of the 2018 Southern 80 winning squad stuck around for the hat-trick attempt – observer, Brian Griffin.

When it comes to skiers, the team lost Jake Teggart and Kris Knights to a knee injury and retirement, but gained it all back in terms of experience.

Open women’s class record holders Chelsea Blight and Maddi Boyer picked up where Teggart and Knights left off, making a real go of their opportunity.

On Saturday the team crossed the line for the President’s Dash in sixth spot, leaving them in eighth overall. A damn good effort for a mish-mash team assembled in under a year.

‘‘The girls went really hard and they were great. Timing wise they went fine, they are pretty incredible really I reckon,’’ Gulley said.

‘‘It was very exciting to see them come across the line. I’m glad I sold it to Timmy (Pickford), I think he’ll take good care of it.’’

Asked if there were any lingering doubts on whether he had made the right decision, the answer was emphatic and filled with emotion.

‘‘Oh look, 100 per cent you do miss it. You want to be out there so badly,’’ Gulley said.

It can’t help knowing the fact that his own story with Merc Force finished on two consecutive wins.

A hat-trick was right there but his family was calling too. Gulley promised his wife this would be his big finale and he’d call it a day before he turned 60.

Imagine bowling over the number nine and 10 batsmen in two balls, with one left in the over. One chance to make a real name for yourself on the final ball of the final day – and go into the sport’s history books forever.

‘‘We were on the podium six times over the years and then won it twice,’’ Gulley said.

‘‘So seeing the level (of competition) is still well and truly there is just a nice finishing note for me personally.’’