United States, Waterskiing

May 1, 2010
2010 / May 2010

I did not take to waterskiing like a duck to water. The mistake I made was basic; and if I were to try again, I am sure I would soon be gliding across the water with ease. But in order to try again I would have to overcome the humiliation and pain of my first attempt. Twenty-five years on, I don’t think I’m ready yet.

It took thousands of years for humans to master the seemingly miraculous feat of standing on water. The sport’s beginnings were far removed from the modern incarnation, with its fiberglass skis, neoprene wetsuits, purpose-made towlines and expensive speedboats.

The world’s first documented waterskier was 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson of Minnesota. In 1922, in the wake of a motorboat steered by his brother, he skimmed across the surface of Lake Pepin on a pair of staves from a wooden barrel. He was holding onto a curtain sash attached to a towrope.

From these humble, homespun origins, waterskiing advanced rapidly. Ralph set about customizing his equipment, and by 1925 he was skiing over jumps and was even pulled at 80 mph behind a Curtiss Flying Boat. By then, the waterskiing craze was rapidly spreading across America.

The spirit of amateur improvisation was soon overtaken by formal rules and regulations. The International Water Ski Federation was established in 1946, followed by the first World Championship in 1949. So it was, in 1985, that the baton of waterskiing history was briefly passed to me. I dropped it.

The setting was a lake on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea. Aged 18, I was there with my family, two friends, their father and glamorous stepmother. We had a picnic on the shore, and then, at a pre-arranged time, we all walked to the rickety jetty that served as the local waterskiing center.

I volunteered to go first. It was a sweltering summer’s day, and I was eager to cool off in the lake. I refused to wear a wetsuit, but the lifejacket was mandatory. The chore of clipping myself into it was made worthwhile by an offer of help from my friends’ stepmother.

I dropped off the jetty into the soothing water and put on the skis. “Keep your knees bent, don’t try to stand,” said the American instructor. “The boat will pull you up. If you straighten up too soon, you’ll fall on your face.”

I gripped the towline. The gurgling speedboat choked into life. The line tightened. “Go, Richard,” shouted the blonde stepmother. As I rose out of the water, I straightened my legs. The lake instantly rushed up to meet my face. The skis came off. For a few seconds I scudded across the surface on my stomach before releasing my grip. The din of the speedboat faded into the distance. I could hear the laughter of the spectators on the jetty.

Returning to shore, I discovered that during my ill-fated attempt the towline had rubbed across both of my thighs, burning them. I would bear the scars for the rest of the summer. The psychological scars still haven’t healed.

If only I had known then about barefoot skiing. Dragged behind the boat without my skis, I was perfectly set up to swing myself into a sitting position. Then — once the speedboat exceeded the minimum speed of 28 mph — I could have raised myself onto my soles. I would truly have been walking on water. The attractive stepmother would have been awestruck.

Instead, for days afterwards, she ribbed me mercilessly about my undignified failure. Thus, through waterskiing, I discovered that life is not a fairytale.

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