unrecognizable tourist practicing water skiing on lake with motor boat

Learning to Water Ski & Other Lessons Learned Through Failure

It was 1995 when my wife, Carrie and I bought a house on the Fox River. We didn’t know the first thing about boating so we signed up for Coast Guard Safety Training at the local community college. Thirteen Friday evenings later, we were certified and knew enough about boating to know it is damn serious business. Ironically, you won’t meet many boaters that treat it like that. There is a fun sense of adventure, sunny days, ice cold beers and water sports to keep the most genuine boater smiling all day long. Safety doesn’t always make the list. But it’s true, boats are fun! Less than 10% of the captains are certified.

With certificate in hand and no boat to speak of, we had a slow start to our new boating life. It was our first summer on the river and I planned on purchasing a boat the following spring, you know, when the prices are higher. Like I said, I’m new at this, not a smart shopper yet. It was still late summer, speeding towards September, when our good friends, Brenda & Allen decided to pay us a visit. With big handshakes and hearty hugs, they congratulated us on our new life and new home with a nice bottle of wine to boot. We settled in on our back porch overlooking the river and our dilapidated pier (we would replace it within a year, when my father-in-law almost fell off our pier). Conversation between the four of us quickly turned towards boating and our prospects for obtaining one. Well, with a purchase well off into next spring, the other option was to rent. I took the action item to heart and promised to research it and get back to the group.

The following week I had found a couple of boat rental places on a few lakes on the Chain-O’-Lakes. One looked promising, so I scheduled a rental for the next Saturday morning and contacted Al to confirm they could make it. They could. That following Saturday the four of us loaded up our car with boat-things (coolers, towels, etc.) and we headed out for the rental place. We all admitted that we had little to no experience in boating so we should be exercising extra-caution today so no one gets hurt. “Let’s just get out there and have some fun!” Al said. So we did. Well… mostly.

After putting down our deposit, the attendant walked us out to our rental boat for a quick inspection. Everything looked great. He was clear to point out that the prop on this baby was “brand new”. “Got it.” I offered to drive the boat out of the rental marina and Al was fine with that. We loaded up the boat with possessions and crew and carefully exited the marina out into Fox Lake. There were surprisingly few boats out that early morning and for that I think all four of us were glad. We needed to learn how to operate a boat, get some cross-training in and, here’s the good part, we intended on doing some tubing and skiing. I will reemphasize the scant amount of experience the four of us combined had to even been out there. I found the operation of the boat to be straightforward and Al agreed. We ran a few circles around Fox Lake then down to Pistakee Lake to get a feel for how no-wake zones worked. Another boat approaching warned us that we needed to slow down a bit and we did.

After about an hour we were feeling a little more comfortable and relaxed so we decided to try our hand at some tubing. I had learned a thing or two about this fun pastime and knew it was essential for the tuber to be able to communicate with the crew on instructions like, faster, slower, stop, etc. “Hand signals, is the way to do it” I said to Brenda who picked the short straw and was volunteered to go first. “A thumbs up for faster, thumbs down for slower, and a horizontal wave for stop. That’s all there is to it” I instructed her while showing the hand movements myself. Easy enough. Let’s go. She disembarked off the back of the boat onto a nice slip-free swim platform and hopped into the water with her life jacket, complaining just a little about the temperature. Carrie threw her the inflated tube which was attached to the boat with a ski rope. I sat back in the captain’s seat, ready to take my first tuber for a ride. “Here we go!” I said after spotting her thumbs-up. I brought the boat up and on plane. Even though Al and Carrie were seated at the back of the boat watching closely (called spotting), I would glance back several times too. Funny, no hand signals at all. Maybe I’m pretty good at this after all. Finally, Carrie said, “I think she has had enough” Ok, so I slowed to a stop as Al and Carrie brought her back in. “Michael!” That was louder than I expected. “You were going too fast!” Brenda announced with some fear leftover in her eyes. “You should have used the hand signals!” I suggested. “I couldn’t. I would have flown off the back of the tube if I let go of even one hand” Ok, lesson one learned. Sorry.

Carrie volunteered next and I’m happy to say that things went much smoother. I reduced the pace to a safer speed. We exchanged signals and she had a great ride. Brenda and Al were the spotters and they laughed through the whole experience. After a few minutes, Carrie called for me to stop and I did. She climbed back onto the boat with a big grin. “We’re boaters now”, I thought, smiling to myself.

“I think I’ll give it a try” Al offered up. “Absolutely” I said. And so it went, Brenda & Carrie at the stern of the boat spotting, me behind the wheel, and Al in the water on the tube with thumb high in the air. Al seemed to be a real tubing natural. Communication continued to work better at a momentum more conducive to water tubing. Al was out there for a full circle around Fox Lake, which is a good size lake and the largest one on the chain. As we rounded his final turn, he threw the thumb up three times. He really was putting it on for the big finish. I noticed that he had jumped the wake and was coming up on my side of the boat. I looked over at him and he was almost aligned with my seat, the line was taunt and holding him way out there. He looked over at me just as I looked over at him. He was brandishing a wide smile. With my eyes on where I was driving and then another look to him, I noticed he was still smiling but he was a full ten feet closer and more forward to the boat and coming in more! Wait, what! What am I to do? I don’t know! I’m not captain… yet! I eased the throttle back out of instinct and his line loosened and fell to the water. At the same time, he let go of the tube handles and slid back into a large cascading splash of lake water, laughing the whole time. Back at the wheel, with little idea of what to do next, I eased the throttle forward again and I could see the rope began to rise out of the water and tighten. This should have been a good thing with the exception that rope had somehow wrapped around his legs (and in between). Before I could do anything to save my good friend, the rope had pulled through with threatening strength and sliced up his leg, past his knee and beyond! I threw the boat into neutral, but it was too late. He had suffered skin rash-like scrape from ankle to the Netherlands. It was time for a break and check on Al. Brenda was not happy, I felt horrible, but Al dismissed the whole business. We threw anchor for a bit to have a bite to eat and a beer.

More serious talk turned toward the next activity, skiing. Since we were all essentially beginners, we had lots of questions but fewer answers. The girls had declined right off, leaving the skiing to the men. I would drive and pull Al, and he would do the same for me. With a lunch break now over, we set out to get the skiing underway. Al went first. He was equipped with a well-fitted life jacket and climbed back out onto the swim platform. Carrie handed him the skis while I slid behind the wheel again. I eased the boat forward until we had a taunt ski rope. Another thumbs-up and I hit the gas.

Now here’s the thing about water skiing, you have to have an experienced driver to get it right and none were to be found on our little rental in the middle of Fox Lake, so we just had to make do. On first attempt, I jammed the throttle too hard and pulled the rope handle right out of my skier’s hands. Second attempt, I was too slow only to get Al half way up and then watch him swamp himself into the lake. But third attempt was better. I managed to get him up enough for him to feel the water under his feet and begin to make adjustments. Beginners have a lot of adjustments to make and Al was ticking those checkboxes, one after another. I said to myself, “I’ve got my first skier up!” Al said to himself, “My first time up! I did it” And so it went. He rode well and settled into a nice groove. I watched him tackle his first wake-crossing and came up along side the boat a bit. Then he returned to center and took a shot at the other side. He came over that second wake strong and with great speed. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him coming round and forward like a professional does. This was exhilarating!

When he had had enough, he dropped the ski handle and slid into the summer-warm Fox Lake. Now it was my turn. I gave my buddy a beer and sat him down in the driver’s seat. “You know how this works, right?” I asked. “Yea, I think so. I’ve been watching you. I think I can do it. Just got to find the sweet spot on the throttle to get you up and going.” Again Al showed his natural ability when he had me up on my skis on the second try. I have skied a few times and was by no means very good, but I could hold my balance enough to go for a while. Being a new boat driver, Al relied on the spotters (Carrie & Brenda) to keep him informed as to how his skier was performing. He was not yet comfortable with turning around to check for himself. So here I am, in the middle of Fox Lake on a fantastic sunny day with two of my closest friends and my lovely wife doing what boaters do! God, I felt alive!

Skiing can wear you out quickly if you are new to the sport. I did feel the fatigue settling in but I fought it. I wanted this to last forever. At some point I thought I had used up my quarter. The ride was great, but time to call it quits. And yet, no hand signaling was getting the boat to stop. I was really getting tired. More hand signals given but no change. On and on, the boat just kept pulling me. The obvious alternative was to let go and settle down into the water. At this point we had made it almost all the way around Fox Lake and on our second time, we were turning away from the entry to Petite Lake and west back to the middle of Fox. I could hold on no longer and completely given up on hand signals. I let the nylon rope fly. I settled into the drink and surfaced nicely with my life jacket supporting me. This was a bad place to let go though, because morning boats were beginning to appear from Petite Lake and I was right in their way. I remembered from my Coast Guard classes that a skier in this situation should remove a ski and hold it high in the air to draw attention, so I did.

As I turned to locate my rental boat and crew from water-surface level, I could see them way off in the distance and getting smaller. Oh no. Al won’t look back so he doesn’t no I’m gone. Where were my spotters?!? Now gone, out of site and me in the water with a ski raised high is not where I wanted to end up today. I floated there for what seemed like forever when finally I seen Al driving straight towards me, standing and waving in an act to assure me he was back. Thank goodness. I boarded the back of the floating rental with many questions in mind. I started with “How?” and “Why?”

Speaking in a slightly frustrating tone, Al informed me that girls were spotting you for a while but then fell into a very interesting conversation that must have distracted them from their duties. I only assumed the conversation was very good, due to the sheer length of it. Then almost reluctantly he added, “Once I finally decided I better look, you were gone. We would have been here sooner but on the way back Carrie’s sun hat blew off and she insisted that I get it. ‘I’m sorry.’ I told her, ‘Mike first’” I wasn’t mad at him. He was doing remarkably well as a new boat driver and a great friend! I was struggling with my wife’s decision process, me versus the sunhat. For more sunhat fun with my wife, read “Two Weeks Does Not a Marriage Make”. After I was back on the boat, we drove over to where the sunhat was floating and snagged it out of the drink. It was fine, not so sure I could say that for my shipmates and me.

We all decided that we had had enough boating fun for one day and packed things up and headed back to the rental marina. Once we arrived and docked the boat we had to wait for the attendant to come out and raise the boat for inspection. I noted the boat looked fine, except the stickers on the new prop had washed off. That cost me $75.

Next week I bought a boat.

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