Lake Fun in the Wake of a Bygone EraJul 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
A hundred years ago, on July 2, 1922, Ralph Samuelson at Lake Pepin, Minnesota, finally—after several days of experimenting with a pair of boards and a clothesline—became the first water-skier. It’s hard to imagine what made him think strapping barrel staves to his feet and dragging behind his brother’s boat at twenty miles per hour would be worth it, fun, or even possible, but it started a wave that crested in 1972 when waterskiing was included in the Olympics as an exhibition sport.
Many folks associate waterskiing with Florida, especially Cypress Gardens. The 1953 movie Easy to Love, “MGM’s spectacular outdoor musical,” introduced millions who lived nowhere near a lake to the sensational water-ski ballet” (the trailer is still available online). Mixed into the clichéd romantic plot were multiple boats pulling glamourous men and women through a slalom course of buoys, water geysers, and ramps, all the while dodging cypress trees. Sometimes the women were on the men’s shoulders. Always, Esther Williams, MGM’s “million dollar mermaid,” was dead center in her coral-colored classic sheath suit, doing all but one of her own stunts though she’d only recently learned to water-ski for this role—and was pregnant.
Now that Cypress Gardens, once the “water ski capital of the world,” has become LEGOLAND Florida Resort, where can you go to watch water-skiers and feel the glamour and thrill of those MGM-era days? Well, Keuka Lake is a good place to start.
“This is a hand-me-down sport,” Rick Gordon says. “You learn from your parents, and you teach your kids.” Rick grew up on Keuka Lake, moved away, met his wife, Kim, came back in 1987, and had a family. When his daughters were four or five, he started teaching them how to water-ski. It wasn’t long before they were acing slalom skiing, carving back and forth across the boat’s wake. They learned handle doubles—when two people are on one set of skis—and ballet skiing—when multiple skiers synchronize choreographed moves. Rick worked from home, a home that was the epicenter of waterskiing for his daughters Jen, Brooke, and Lori, and the neighbor sisters, Illyana and Samantha Tallo.
“It was thrilling. These kids would stay over at our house Friday nights, and we’d go out at 6:30 a.m. It was the time of my life,” recalls Rick. Saturday evenings the other parents would sit on the dock drinking cocktails, and he’d drive the boat past while the kids showed off what they’d learned that day.
Ah, lake life.
Looking for more challenge, one February Rick, Lou Tallo, and the girls went to a think tank at the Wisconsin Water Ski Federation to learn how to do pyramids. They came home, bought the right equipment—the proper skis, ropes, and trick releases—and started practicing on land. They’d tie ropes to a tree—three men with three girls on their shoulders—and worked on the climbing technique. Then they moved to the water, using a dock start. The men sat on the edge, skis in the water and girls on their shoulders, and Kim would tow them at 20–24 mph.
Speeds are faster for slalom skiing and barefooting (exactly what it sounds like and as hard as you imagine), reaching 60–70 mph. One reason Nick Xidis, who works at Keuka Watersports, thinks waterskiing has declined in popularity is because it’s harder to learn and hurts a lot more when you wipe out than if you’re wakeboarding or wake surfing—the newest trend. With wake surfing, you’re towed at 10–12 mph till you’re up on the boat’s wave. You drop the rope and carve a wave that doesn’t end till the boat slows down. Boat rentals, some of which include skis, are available at 7 Water Street in Hammondsport. You can also rent just the skis.
Or you can watch.
The Wine Country Classic Boat Show, back July 16 to 17 after a covid hiatus, gives you an opportunity to bring your lawn chairs or blankets to Depot Park in Hammondsport to watch water-skiers that Sunday morning starting at 9 a.m. The weekend will include boat rides, a boat parade, vendors, food, raffles, and other activities. What better place to watch novelty wooden boats and water-skiers than this no-stoplight town?
“Hammondsport is so Norman Rockwellish it’s ridiculous,” says Nick fondly.
Chris Galusha, who has a cottage on Keuka Lake and who can be seen towing as many as seven family members behind his boat, gets nostalgic when describing the early days of waterskiing and the gorgeous wooden boats that “were the cutting edge of engineering technology.”
“What a great time to be in post-war America, when people were building houses on the GI bill, making suburbs, taking to the open road,” he says. “A time of real possibility.”
Chris grew up going to Keuka Lake with buddies, and accepted pulls from anyone who had “a boat and a rope.” He proposed to his wife Beth on a ski raft wearing black shorts, a tuxedo top, and black bowtie. She thought they were doing a TV interview (they competed), but he went down on a knee. After she accepted, they did a celebratory ski. For lake communities, waterskiing can have the feel of old-fashioned promenades, where people go to see and be seen by those on the shore. They raised three daughters on water sports, and middle daughter, Emma, is ranked number two in the world as a semi-pro wake surfer.
Chris will captain the towboat in the show Sunday morning, pulling a party ski—the term for multiple people and ropes behind the boat. But you can often find him on a rope himself. “There’s really nothing quite like it—a great run on smooth water, cutting and leaning, carving and rocketing across the wake,” he explains, “because you have to be absolutely 100 percent clear-focused and in the moment. Going 30–50 mph, wipeouts have real consequences.”
These days, folks seem more interested in riding a tube behind a boat than learning a skill. But Chris thinks waterskiing will always have a place on Keuka Lake. With families like the Galushas and Gordons living there, waterskiing will be part of the lake way of life for generations to come. Maybe because, as Rick (whose kids still build pyramids when they get together) says, “You’re not going to grow up and tell your grandchildren about tubing.”
The Wine Country Classic Boat Show is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 16, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday, July 17. For more information or to register go to winecountryclassicboats.com or email [email protected]. You don’t need to register to enjoy the vendors, activities, and waterskiing exhibition.