May 23, 2023

Sled dogs, hot rods and Jet boats, KJet Queenstown’s mechanic Tony Turner knows how to make things run. Celebrating 19 years with the company, as the longest serving staff member aside from owner Shaun Kelly, Tony has some interesting stories to tell and features in many magazine articles already. We caught up with Tony to hear some of these stories as he settles in towards his 20-year anniversary in charge of KJet’s Jet boat workshop.

As the world’s first commercial Jet boat operation, starting out in 1958, KJet has been involved in multiple Jet boat innovations over the years and Tony has been right there at the forefront for almost 20 years. Looking after the maintenance of the boats, parts supply and managing the workshop is Tony’s main role for the tourism business alongside keeping KJet’s racing boats running at full speed.

Tony’s love of speed continues with his interest in hot rods and husky racing; being an important part of New Zealand’s sled dog history.

Jet boating

Tony’s introduction to jet boating came in 1985 when a friend roped him into working on his race boat. He’d played with jet boats during his apprenticeship in Christchurch previously so thought “it sounded like a bit of fun”. 1986 saw Tony compete in his first world jet boat marathon as the mechanic, which he describes as a real learning curve and the start of a life-long jet boat racing career.

Tony went on to compete in the 1986, 1989 and 1993 World Jet Boat marathons and was involved in race boats heavily until 2000. The World Jet Boat Marathons are held annually in rotation across the USA, Mexico, Canada and New Zealand. Travelling internationally with a high spec Jet boat is not for the faint hearted, Tony exclaims.

KJet owner Shaun Kelly had also been racing jet boats for a while in 2004 when he and Tony teamed up to work on Shaun’s own race boat; which of course lead Shaun to offer Tony a job! They’ve now been racing together for almost 20 years, with a highlight being a 2nd place finish in the New Zealand jet boat racing championships.

Looking back on his boating life, a great highlight was the time he was one of three Canterbury boaters who volunteered to take the Australian Cricket Team up the Waimakariri River. It was January 1993 and Australia had just thrashed New Zealand at Lancaster Park. All was going well until the river spread out and he ran out of water. This meant the cricketers all had to get out of the boat and give it under-arm support to push it across 100 metres of gravel to reach deeper water. “It was one hell of a push” Tony laughs.

Sled Dogs

Alongside his love of Jet boats, sled dogs have been a large part of Tony’s life. Getting his first Husky in 1991, Tony says: “Two became infectious so I got 2 more and 2 more and so on and so on”, until he eventually ended up with 15 dogs in his care!

With a passion to find out more about these phenomenal athletic animalsTony started visiting Alaska in 1998, first working for a Yukon Quest musher at their kennels in Willow, Alaska. Mushing is a sport or transport method powered by dogs, but according to Tony there’s a lot more to it than just transport; “it’s a way of life, where your dogs are your life”. The Yukon Quest is an annual long-distance sled dog race. Tony also worked as a handler on the Iditarod race, which is another 1000-mile race, entirely within the US state of Alaska. Tony has visited Alaska 3 more times since then and is planning another trip next year.

Alaskan Huskies had never been seen before in New Zealand when Tony imported the first two back in 2001. Prior to this, New Zealand only had Alaskan malamutes and Siberian Huskies. His main motivation was to share his joy of owning and running Huskies with his home countrymen.

This love of sled dogs encouraged Tony to be involved in the first sled dog experience in the Southern Hemisphere at Cardrona’s Snow Farm, between Queenstown and Wanaka. Snow Farm is New Zealand’s only cross-country ski field, where sled dogs are hooked up to a sled and run over snow. The art of sled dog running is a slow and steady controlled practice and not as simple as it looks. The slightest failure at keeping the tug-lines tight can result in potential injuries to the dogs. Instead, Tony likens it to them “becoming one body with many legs, but one mind and heart”. It’s this one body mentality that allows him to steer and control the pack, calling ahead and leaning into each turn for the dogs to respond.

He describes the feeling of running all his 11 dogs at once as “unconditional happiness” and being part of the pack as its leader and caretaker.

After thirty years of being involved with sled dogs, including twenty years racing, Tony doesn’t get involved anymore but still has 6 dogs in his care. He still does some recreational running with 3 of them and the rest are enjoying their retirement.

Hobby Cars

In the mid 1980’s Tony got a name for himself tuning hot rods and race cars. A member of the Pegasus Bay Drag Racing Club, he spent four years building a custom 1966 Volkswagon Beetle. Word has it that the Beetle could get up to speeds of 100mph, after being caught by a local policeman who thought his radar was faulty! These days Tony drives a Chevy pick-up with plenty of room in the back for his huskies.

Tony is looking forward to celebrating 20 years with KJet, maintaining the fleet of 8 Jet boats, including Shaun’s race boat, and continually developing new features to fine tune the fleet. Keep an eye out on the mountain for Tony as huskies will always be a passion. His vehicle skills are still second to none and enjoys working on hot rods for friends and fellow “rodders”.

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