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Jump In

Jun 23, 2014 01:15PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

Story and Photography by Ann Powell

“Hit it!” Head down, body tucked, ski-tip up, deep breath. The boat accelerates, water streams past your face, your ski planes, your body unfolds, and… you’re up! Sounds easy, right? It is, if you’re William Kutun (or Doc, among his friends). The 56-year-old pro doesn’t even need skis—he goes barefoot on the Severn and South rivers.

A new skier may fear it’s not humanly possible to skim across the water with two planks strapped to his or her feet— nevermind no skis at all—but it is actually easier than it looks. With a little grit and determination (along with a very patient boat crew), a beginner can be up on skis in one session.

Sometimes the hardest part is jumping into the cold, murky water, but once you’re in and you get your skis on, it’s time to call, “Hit it!” That signals the boat operator to take off. After you have mastered the start, you will soon be crossing the “V”- shaped boat wake to savor the smooth water.

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Many local water-skiers learned the sport as children. Chris Garvey, president of the local Associated Builders and Contractors chapter, was about six when he learned to ski on the Severn River. A slalom skier by age eight, Chris is nostalgic about his youth in the ’70s and ’80s in the Lakeland community on the Severn. “Long before the days of instant messaging, cell phones, and social media, the river provided a unique way to stay in touch with friends throughout the summer,” he says.

Chris’ dad taught his six children to ski behind a 14-foot Montgomery Ward aluminum rowboat powered by a 9.6 horsepower engine. The Severn’s narrow waters gave the kids access to a whole community of friends on both sides of the river.

Accomplished slalom skiers at early ages, the kids moved on to more challenging feats—from skiing in pyramid formation a la Cypress Gardens to performing trick moves, such as doing headstands while skim boarding on plywood and even riding on a chair on the skim board.

Chris recalls moving from the old wooden skis to the “sheer exhilaration and magic of the newer technology slalom skis as they became quicker and quicker. It was true magic going up to 36 mph with the rope getting shorter and shorter, and the abilities and athleticism becoming an inside competition among friends.” He now skis with his three children on the quieter waters behind Kent Island, but acknowledges that the younger generation mostly prefers wakeboarding to skiing.

For those looking to keep the waterskiing tradition alive, there are still options, although limited. Skiers need a quiet body of water (with no speed limit) out of the wind, with little boat wake and plenty of turning room. The South River Ski Club maintains a tournament-ready slalom course near the river’s headwaters. Local tournament skiing also takes place on slalom ski courses on nearby lakes, such as Lou’s Lake in Vienna and Lake Chaney in Waldorf.

The Severn is a little more congested nowadays, but the Severn River Ski Club continues to maintain two courses on the river. At 44, Ken Walker has been the club’s president for 10 years, and often skis three days a week from April until November. “We start at 6:30 a.m. and are usually done by 8 a.m. I’ve never been a morning person, but have no problem getting up at dawn to ski,” he says.

In a slalom course, the skier attempts to zigzag around six possible buoys, three on each side. After a skier completes a successful pass of all six buoys, the boat speed increases by 2 mph for each successive pass until the speed reaches 36 mph for men or 34 mph for women. The towrope is then shortened in pre-measured lengths or “loops” until the skier misses a buoy or falls. The winner is the athlete who can ski around the highest number of the six buoys at the shortest rope length without a miss or fall.

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The second number in competition scoring represents the number of feet that the towrope is shortened or “off ” from the standard full rope length of 75 feet, called a “longline.” Shortening the rope makes skiing around the buoys much more difficult because the six buoys are 37.5 feet from the center of the course down which the boat travels. At 38 feet off, the rope no longer reaches to these buoys, and the skier must round the buoy by leaning over it with his or her body. At 43 off, the rope is 32 feet long, and thus 5.5 feet short of reaching the buoy, and yet the most competitive athletes ski at this rope length or shorter.

The three events of traditional water ski competition are slalom, tricks, and jumping. There are tournament variations of these events for barefoot, kneeboard, wakeboard, and disabled athlete competitors.

In tricks, each trick has an assigned point value, and the most difficult tricks include wake flips and multiple turns performed with the towrope attached to the contestant’s foot. In jumping, the objective is distance. Male competitive jumpers can approach speeds of more than 60 mph at the ramp base and jump more than 230 feet off a 6-foot-high ramp. Women competitors can jump more than 170 feet off a 5-foot-high ramp.

The sport of waterskiing has been around since 1922, when the first brave skiers strapped boards to their feet, grabbed a towrope, and took off behind their classic wooden lake boats. It wasn’t long after the advent of the boat engine that athletes were competing and performing. Water skiing became an exhibition sport in the late 1920s, and developed into an official competitive sport when the first annual National Water Ski Championships took place in 1939. Modern-day sports participation surveys show that there are approximately 11 million water skiers in the United States today.

Whether they ski competitively or for fun, water skiers love the beauty of being on the water and the thrill and exhilaration of working to exceed their own achievements at whatever level they can perform. Skiing is great family fun, especially for the lucky kids who learn to ski early, but anyone can learn at any age. With the Bay’s quiet creeks so close to our doorsteps, there’s no excuse—find a friend with a boat, borrow a ski, jump in, and “Hit it!” You definitely will not regret trying.

The author enjoys slalom skiing with her family on freshwater lakes and on creeks near Annapolis.

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Before you head out know that:

  • Only those vessels with Department of Natural Resource inspection decals may enter the slalom courses.
  • Skiing, tubing, and wakeboarding require three people on a boat: the skier wearing a personal flotation device, the boat operator, and the observer. The boat operator and the observer must be at least 12 years old. The observer’s job is to relay the condition of the skier to the boat driver, who in turn is responsible for keeping the skier safe.
  • The DNR requires that anyone born on or after July 1, 1972 must possess a certificate of boating safety education in order to operate a motorized vessel.
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