Wed, Mar 6, 2024 4:39 PM

Not just skimming the surface


Tessa Jaine

Nestled in the serene Queen Charlotte Sounds, a remarkable story unfolds every summer. Meet Bryan Murray, a sprightly 92-year-old who defies the inevitable challenges of ageing with an unwavering passion for water skiing.

Words: Alistair Hughes | Photos: Tessa Claus

An inevitable symptom of ageing can be a deterioration of balance, as numerous physiological factors can cause maintaining an upright position to become increasingly challenging.

But not only does 92-year-old Bryan Murray have no difficulties with this – he also remains comfortably perpendicular at speeds in excess of 50 kilometers per hour. Easily the oldest water skier in New Zealand, Bryan gains as much delight from barrelling across the water now as he did when he first put on skis in the 1960s, and his strong connection with Marlborough is intrinsically linked with this passion.

Although based in Canterbury, Bryan’s home-away-from- home for six decades has been Momorangi Bay at the top of Grove Arm in the Queen Charlotte Sounds. Bryan recalls that he and his late wife Anne heard about the Bay completely by chance while chatting to their washing machine repairman at their Christchurch home.

“He happened to mention that he’d found this little bay up in the Marlborough Sounds”, he says. “We had previously travelled with friends to Kaiteriteri every year for Christmas. But we decided we would call in on Momorangi Bay and have a look on our way.”

It was love at first sight for the Murrays, who never holidayed anywhere else from that point on. “The Sounds get into your heart and soul and hold you captive forever,” Anne told the Marlborough Express back in 2010.

Every summer, Bryan tows his caravan up from Rangiora to Momarangi Bay Campground.

But the question has to be asked, what made the Murray’s forsake the indisputable glamour of one of Tasman’s most beautiful golden sanded beaches for the pebbled charms of the Queen Charlotte Sound? “It’s perfect for water skiing”, is the instant reply. “From a skiing and boating point of view, there are more places you can go in the Sounds. The sheltered waters are better than Kaiteriteri, where it is more open sea. Momorangi was our ideal place.” While back on land, he has always enjoyed being amongst the other campers, and having people around him.

Bryan would use his annual three-week holiday at Momorangi to practice for the national water skiing championships, his work commitments allowing him little time elsewhere in the year. With the permission of the local harbourmaster, he would lay out a slalom course each summer, and Anne would tow him as he practiced. In a TV3 news item about Bryan from 2016, she joked that if they ever argued “I can leave him there, then he can swim back home.”

Bryan had few concerns about returning late to work, as he had been his own boss since the early 1950s, when he established the agricultural services business which still exists today as BA Murray Ltd. “At 18, I started contracting, operating our family tractor on neighbouring farms, and it grew from there,” he remembers.

As Christchurch expanded and agricultural land began to shrink, he adapted by working on the new housing sections, laying lawns, tennis courts and developing parkland. “We ended up contracting with Lincoln College, for Watties and also Fletchers, who were harvesting lucerne.”

Bryan ruefully remembers soaring fuel prices combined with a plague of lucerne aphids almost brought everything to a halt in the late 1970s, but unexpected help arrived from agricultural royalty. “We kept a harvesting machine called the ‘Field
Queen’, (a hydraulically operated juggernaut known as ‘the mother of all forage harvesters’), and it became famous throughout the country as the only one of its kind.”

With this publicity boost, Bryan’s harvesting contracts soon expanded again, and the following decades brought lucrative fresh opportunities. Perhaps it is not a stretch to suggest that maintaining your balance on water skis is not unlike remaining agile enough to adapt to shifting market forces in New Zealand’s agricultural sector.

Today, Bryan’s son Stephen runs the business and describes his father as ‘a great source of knowledge’. He may also be referring to inheriting wisdom gained on the water, as Stephen himself actually water skied for the national team until he was 30.

BA Murray Ltd is now busier than ever, especially at this time of year. But that didn’t stop them driving their large flatbed truck as the float for the local early learning centre at the Rangiora Christmas parade. A close connection with the community has always been paramount. Finally taking a very late retirement – Bryan was still working in the business he began, into his eighties – he now gets to devote his time to water skiing. It might be said that he came to the activity relatively late, at age 25, but has certainly made up for it since.

“A friend in the air force brought some water skis back from Singapore with him,” he recalls, “And I got instantly hooked on it. Proudly self-taught, Bryan doesn’t feel that any special skills beyond a good sense of balance are required. “It’s a bit like riding a bike, once you can do it, you’re away.” Bryan has taught a lot of keen aspiring water skiers in an unofficial capacity, and even made his own skis back in the early days.

“1964 was my first competition, and I was a bit lucky in a way, because water skiing was still in its infancy. I was fortunate to be at the top of my game, and happened to go up a category ahead of anybody else, so kept on winning. If I hadn’t kept advancing into the next category the younger fellas coming through
would soon have cleaned me up.”

Bryan competed in all three skiing events, (slalom, trick and jump), at the Lake Wiritoa Nationals the following year and in 1971 set a New Zealand record in the senior tricks event on Christchurch’s Brooklands Lagoon. “I started winning in the next age categories and that’s what’s happened with me ever since. Until I got to the over 65’s and had to stay there right until I was 90.”

His long career hasn’t only been as a competitor, Bryan has served as an official at national level and held the position of president of the Christchurch Water Ski Club. As recently as last April, he was a star attraction at the 12th annual Autumn Swerve Slalom Tournament held at local Waihopai Valley property: The Throne. This was the debut of a new venue, an artificial irrigation lake on the Dillon family farm, and the first time the event had been held in Marlborough.

Now in his nineties, Bryan is more active than some half his age; does he have some secret to reveal? “I think I’ve just been lucky that my health has always been very good. I haven’t got a magic formula; staying active is the main criteria. And if you’ve ever smoked, give it up.”

This year, Bryan has been joined at Momorangi by Stephen and his family, making up four generations of Murrays. The great grandchildren are keen to work on their own water skiing skills, so it definitely runs in the family.

Bryan enjoys the community of the bay and waking up to the water at his doorstep every morning.

It doesn’t sound as if Bryan plans to put away his own skis, either. “No bloody way,” he laughs. “I’ve no intention of stopping, not while my legs will keep me up.” And no doubt they will, as Bryan once again enjoys his Marlborough Sounds ‘home-away-from-home’ this summer.

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