Teenage rite of passage

October 27, 2020

As any native Pacific Northwestener knows, boating is a top activity in this region. You can be forgiven if you think that the rainy, gray skies so common here might preclude water activities. But you would be wrong. Westsiders, particularly, are a hardy lot when it comes to aquatic sports. And no sport better epitomizes this than water skiing. It was on October 27, 1925 when the water ski was patented.

Ralph Samuelson, the inventor of water skis

The individual who first donned a pair of ‘skis’ and be pulled behind a boat on the water was one Ralph Samuelson who tried a variety of materials and designs for his devices. It was 1922 when the Minnesotan invented the sport. He spent the next 15 years performing and teaching people how to water ski. But he failed to patent his designs.

The Infallible Wikipedia, however, tells us:

“The first patent for water skis was issued to Fred Waller, of Huntington, NY, on 27 October 1925, for skis he developed independently and marketed as ‘Dolphin Akwa-Skees.’ Waller’s skis were constructed of kiln-dried mahogany, as were some boats at that time. Jack Andresen patented the first trick ski, a shorter, fin-less water ski, in 1940.”

The original Akwa-Skees

There must have been something in the water, so to speak, since on the opposite side of the United States, a Washingtonian had similar ideas. Also from the IW:

“In 1928, Don Ibsen developed his own water skis out in Bellevue, Washington, never having heard of Samuelson or Waller. In 1941, Ibsen founded The Olympic Water Ski Club in Seattle, Washington. It was the first such club in America. Ibsen, a showman and entrepreneur, was one of the earliest manufacturers of water skis and was a leading enthusiast and promoter of the sport. In 1983, he was inducted into the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Winter Haven, Florida.”

It wasn’t until the 1940’s and 50’s, however, before water skiing began to gain popularity with the average person, thanks to a Floridian who took advantage of his state’s abundance of sunshine and water:

“Water skiing gained international attention in the hands of famed promoter, Dick Pope, Sr., often referred to as the ‘Father of American Water Skiing’ and founder of Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida. Pope cultivated a distinct image for his theme-park, which included countless photographs of the water skiers featured at the park. These photographs began appearing in magazines worldwide in the 1940s and 1950s, helping to bring international attention to the sport for the first time. He was also the first person to complete a jump on water skis, jumping over a wooden ramp in 1928, for a distance of 25 feet. His son, Dick Pope, Jr., is the inventor of bare-foot skiing. Both men are in the Water Ski Hall of Fame. Today, Winter Haven, Florida, with its famous Chain of Lakes, remains an important city for water skiing, with several major ski schools operating there.”

As a teenager in the 1970’s it was likely one was friends with at least one other teenager whose Dad owned a boat. And, with any luck, you got the opportunity to try water skiing. My opportunity arrived in August of 1972 when a large contingent of fellow participants in the Masonic youth groups, descended upon Hood Park at the Snake River near Pasco, Washington.

It was a hot day, perfect for water sports. I watched as kid after kid donned the water skis and, with seemingly little effort, popped up out of the water on the skis and cut and angled their way across the glassy water. Sometime in the early afternoon, my opportunity arrived and one of the dads, as helper for beginners, tossed out instruction after instruction: “Get your tips out of the water… no, no, not that far. Less. Okay, that’s good.” “Lean back and relax… no, no, not that far. A little further forward… oh, NO! Too far.”

My first time ever on water skis… August 12, 1972. Not sure who had my camera but they immortalized that day for me.

And so it went until that moment when he declared I was in the correct position and all I had to do was yell “hit it.”

Which I did. And promptly lurched forward, ending up face down in the Snake River. This went on for hours… okay, probably not hours. It only FELT like hours. I could hear the exasperation in the spotter’s voice. Could hear the frustration of the boat’s motor as it circled back to get into position once more. I just knew that they were thinking ‘how uncoordinated can one teenage girl be.”

About to faceplant in the Snake River. Back of the photo says “try, try, again.’

But I persisted and, finally, after about a half hour of trying the rope grew taut, the ski tips glided up onto the water’s surface and then, miraculously, so did I. I would have jumped for joy except to do so would have landed my sorry behind in the water once again. I would have given thumbs up except to do so would mean I’d lose my already shaky and precarious hold on the tow rope. Instead I hung on for dear life and attempted to enjoy the ride.

In the ensuing years I did have some opportunities to water ski. The year I turned 16 I skied Crescent Lake. Crescent Lake, for those who do not know, is one of the deepest, glacier carved lakes in the United States. At its deepest it is nearly 600 feet. To say the water is cold is like saying Minnesota gets a little snow each winter.

But the real waterskiing adventure was the first year I was dating the hubby. He and his brother had purchased a boat in the spring of 1979 which was named “Beat Boat.” It was purple and it was sleek and fast. Every weekend that summer it was off to water ski, mostly on Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish, or camping and skiing further north at Lake Goodwin.

Beat Boat on Lake Tapps August 1979

While I was never as good as either my hubby or brother-in-law, it was a lot of fun. Mostly I served as the spotter when it wasn’t my turn.

All that fun came to a crashing – literally – halt on Memorial Day 1981. We had been down at Lake Tapps but the weather turned rainy and cold. The decision was made to pack it up and head back to West Seattle where everyone lived. The boat never made it. On a slick corner along West Marginal way, the vehicle and boat carrying trailer behind it jackknifed, sending the beloved purple beat boat skidding across the road, irreparably damaged.

“Hit It!” – the hubby before he was the hubby at Lake Goodwin, 1979

The hubby and I, a few years later, bought a boat for fishing and waterskiing… but it was never quite the same as beat boat. My hubby’s Wiley slalom water-ski has been carted from house to house whenever we moved since, perhaps, it would be used once again. But, alas, it has not; instead it is relegated to a corner of the garage to pay homage to the great American pastime of waterskiing, a reminder that waterskiing is best done when one is young and foolish.


Relegated to a corner of the garage

2 thoughts on “Akwa-Skees

  1. Very interesting article on the history of water skiing. I never learned to do that when I was young and foolish, due to a tricky knee. But it always looked like it might be fun!


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