Philip Ronald Morden was born June 30, 1976, in Hamilton and grew up in the tight-knit suburb of Ancaster. He was the second child of Judy Morden, an office administrator at the school board, and her husband, Glen, who worked in construction. Philip was close to his older sister, Andrea, who “mothered him as her own,” as Judy puts it. Family and friends describe him as charismatic, with boundless curiosity for the inner workings of everything, be they machines, economics or people. Judy recalls a trip to Walt Disney World where the site’s famous roller coaster fired their young son’s imagination. “Philip was more interested in how they built Space Mountain than the ride itself,” she says. Philip and his dad were often bent over bicycles or cars. “I’d let him take things apart and then help him put them together,” says Glen. “Just so he had an understanding of it.”
He was a natural athlete, always eager to push the limit in any sport he embraced, from snowboarding to hockey to skateboarding, says Josh Doan, a childhood friend. “He didn’t really have any fears trying the newest trick on a skateboard or a snowboard,” says Josh, now head golf pro at the nearby Glen Abbey Golf Club. “I was always envious of that. He would push me definitely to do what he could do, to just take it over that edge.” Philip did not share Josh’s passion for golf, but when the two teens worked as “backshop boys” at Ancaster’s Heron Point Golf Course, Philip added excitement to the game by overriding the speed governor on the gas-powered carts. “He was a bit mischievous,” says Josh. “He made those golf carts go really fast.”
Mischievous is one description. Mike Hough, a friend from Philip’s days at the University of Western Ontario, says, “Let’s use this term, a real s–t disturber.” He recalls Philip being frustrated that the only person with cable television in his dormitory was the supervising resident adviser. “Phil climbed outside the three-storey building and scaled the ledge like Spider-Man and hooked up cable TV for himself,” says Mike. Then other students wanted in. “So there he was scaling the wall again, hooking up cable, stealing it from this RA. In no time the side of this building looked like Mexico City—there were wires everywhere,” he says. Philip studied finance and economics. Mike, an engineer, marvelled at his friend’s aptitude for mechanics. “He was a wonderful self-learner.”
Childhood friend Peter Felice, who shared a Hamilton apartment with Philip after university, recalls his interest in tropical fish (and the women they attracted). Philip turned an old two-metre-long aquarium into a complex ecosystem teeming with dozens of brilliant tropicals. “He was convinced that he could communicate with them. It was really an amazing fish tank, an example of how he sort of always took things to the extreme,” says Peter.
No one was surprised when Philip moved to Bracebridge in scenic Muskoka to work for RBC Dominion Securities, later transferring to Orillia. “He was never inclined to live in the city,” says Mike. He says Philip turned down a chance to work in Toronto. “It would probably have been quite favourable from many perspectives but he would have died.”
It was almost inevitable Philip would be smitten with the fastest thing on Lake Muskoka: tunnel-hulled racing boats. Over the next seven years he became expert in building and racing them, at speeds topping 190 km/h. “I hated it,” says his mother. Even Mike, who helped with the mechanics, preferred to stay ashore. “I don’t have the speed disease,” he says. Philip spent last winter building his fourth racer, an STV River Rocket. It had the potential to be his fastest boat yet and he was entered in two U.S. races at the end of August. The stormy, wet summer kept him off the water and unable to fine-tune the craft. His girlfriend, nursing student Olivia Flaherty, had likened him to a caged lion. Saturday, Aug. 8 was a rare ideal day. Philip donned his racing life jacket and set out at what the OPP called “a high rate of speed.” Members of the racing fraternity speculate he caught a rogue wave, perhaps generated by wakeboarders. The boat went airborne, flipped end over end and sank. Philip was pulled unconscious from the water; he died in hospital.
Words can’t describe taking an STV to the limit, he once wrote on an Internet forum. “It takes a lot of thought to hit the ‘UP’ button when you are going faster than you have ever gone before, and it takes even more thought about lifting off the gas when you have had enough of the stupid situation you have put yourself into,” he says. “But damn is it a rush.”