Celebrating the Birth of Water-Skiing

Commemorating the sport that started 100 years ago.

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Ralph Samuelson skiing fast
Ralph Samuelson popularized water-skiing with stunts such as skiing behind a flying boat. Courtesy USA Water Ski and Wake Sports Foundation

On July 2, 1922, an 18-year-old daredevil named Ralph Samuelson gave birth to the sport of water-skiing on Lake Pepin in Lake City, Minnesota.

His inspiration for water-skiing came in winter, when Samuelson would ski down the bluffs around Lake Pepin. Skiing on snow led him to wonder whether he could ski on water too. Samuelson built his first pair of water skis from 8-foot-long pine planks. His older brother, Ben, towed him behind a 20-foot workboat. Samuelson got on top of the water and started the sport loved by millions.

Samuelson went on to do one-man water-ski shows in Minnesota, Florida and Michigan. He did things such as water-ski over a 4-foot-high ramp, inventing water-ski jumping. What else did Samuelson do? He skied at 80 mph behind a World War I Curtiss flying boat. During a ski show in Palm Beach, Florida, in the 1920s, Samuelson was water-skiing and lost one of his skis. He kept skiing on a single ski, accidentally inventing slalom skiing.

Ralph Samuelson on the first skis
Ralph Samuelson built the first water skis and tested them on Lake Pepin in Minnesota. Courtesy USA Water Ski and Wake Sports Foundation

From there, the sport kept growing. In 1939, the first national championship for water-skiing was held at Jones Beach, New York. The trick ski came into being in 1941. It was shorter and finless, which allowed the water-skier to do 180- and 360-degree turns behind the boat.

During World War II, Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida, began staging water-ski shows to entertain servicemen. After the war, Cypress Gardens’ founder, Dick Pope Sr., made the show a daily event. This led to skiers inventing new tricks, such as doing a 360-degree helicopter spin from the jump ramp and skiing on small skis called shoe skis. Riding shoe skis behind faster boats led to the amazing feat of barefoot water-skiing in 1947. 

In 1959, the first boat built specifically for water-skiing, the Ski Nautique, made its debut. The Ski Nautique was made of fiberglass and featured a tow pylon, a mirror, and a hull design that created smaller wakes for smoother skiing. Fiberglass skis soon followed.

In the mid-1980s, the blending of water-skiing and surfing led to the Skurfer, a smaller surflike board with straps for your feet positioned for a sideways stance. The Skurfer evolved into the wakeboard in 1991, which made getting up and doing tricks easier. Ski-boat manufacturers started designing boats specifically for wakeboarding, with towers for an elevated tow point and hulls to cast a large wake.

Centurion then created boats that produced a tall wake resembling an ocean wave. As wakesurfing took off, Hyperlite debuted its Landlock wakesurfer in 2003, and the wakesurfing craze exploded.

So, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of water-skiing this summer, we celebrate not only Samuelson’s accomplishment, but also the innovators on the water and the manufacturing side who gave us these incredible ways to enjoy our boats. We look forward to what new innovations will come from the next generation.

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