100 Years of Water Skiing

This summer marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of modern watersports.

Ryan Dodd sets water ski jumping recordCanadian Ryan Dodd sets the world jump record for men in 2017. (Photo: USA Water Ski & Wake Sports)

Way back in 1922, Ralph Samuelson, an athletic 18-year-old Minnesotan, was the first person to get up on water skis. With natural ability combined with ingenuity (and some degree of bravery), he accomplished the feat, skiing upright on Lake Pepin, a picturesque 30-mile segment of the Mississippi River.

Young Samuelson was already comfortable with his feet strapped to a couple of wooden barrel staves to snow ski down the bluffs that lined Lake Pepin and envisioned doing the same on water. A few years earlier, a sport known as “aquaplaning” had taken the new and burgeoning recreational boating world by storm. A common component of early boat shows, aquaplaning featured a 5- by 2-foot plank of wood with a line from the boat attached directly to the board, similar to towing a tube. Riders would stand on the board and do tricks while being towed around a large pool.

For Samuelson, the combined skills required for both snow skiing and aquaplaning provided the foundation for his idea for water skiing. But the early 20th century was a different world; Samuelson had to design, then build, his own gear. Barrel staves didn’t work, and neither did 7-foot snow skis. He needed skis built for the water, so he purchased two 8-foot by 9-inch pine planks and shaped the front tips to have an upward curve. Crude leather straps to secure his feet were the first rudimentary bindings.

Ralph Samuelson with the first water skis he designed in 1922Ralph Samuelson with the first water skis he designed in 1922. (Photo: USA Water Ski & Wake Sports Foundation)

On June 28, 1922, Samuelson was ready to make his next attempt on his custom water skis with his brother, Ben, driving a 24-foot workboat powered with a 6-cylinder 24-hp inboard engine that topped out at 16 mph. They used a 100-foot sash cord as a towline. A single 4-inch iron ring cushioned with tape served as a crude handle. On that day, Samuelson got up one time for several hundred yards. Four days later, he decided to roll farther back in the water so that the ski tips were higher during the start. This worked, and the large surface of the skis helped him get up with the boat’s limited power. On July 2, a day before his 19th birthday, Ralph got up consistently and skied multiple times. He’d given birth to a new sport.


Click here to read the full article from Boat U.S. by Zenon Bilas