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THE RIVER RAT REMEMBERS Episode 18 Water Ski Journalism


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Episode 18 Water Ski Journalism

I never set out to be a writer, but throughout my adult life the urge to scribble has been a key job skill, a creative outlet and an intellectual challenge. Although I have written on many subjects (check me out on Amazon), water skiing has been the constant theme. It began with limericks, progressed to brochures, manuals, newsletters and magazine articles, and peaked with a book that sold over 10,000 copies.

As a teenager, I won a limerick contest sponsored by The Water Skier. (I found out later that Bill Clifford was a huge limerick fan.) My little ditty went like this:

There once was a skier named LouieWho could only make the first buoy.He’d loaf through the gateAnd always be lateAnd therefore he never made two-ie.

Encouraged by that effort, I also wrote an ode to trick skiing that The Water Skier published. I had a taste of blood and wanted to write more. Fortunately, a few years later, I came to work for the American Water Ski Association and found a place where I could combine my penchant for writing with my love of water skiing.

My mentor was Tom Hardman. Born in Georgia, Tom was the quintessential Southern gentleman. Softspoken, polite and diplomatic, he was an interesting contrast to the acerbic Bill Clifford. Hardman had come to AWSA as a veteran editor and writer. Having been an associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, he got into the boating and water sports field as the editor and publisher of Outboard Magazine and at one time served as president of Boating Writers International. Before the advent of computerized publishing, Tom produced The Water Skier by hand, meticulously pasting up the blue-tinted mechanicals for each issue with his trusty scissors and glue pot. It was a vanishing art form. Tom would drive the paste-ups to the printer in Jacksonville and stay overnight to approve the proofs before heading home.

Tom improved my writing and helped me find a conversational voice. It took a while to unburden myself from the stilted academic tone that I had learned in graduate school. I wrote promotional copy. I wrote and revised pamphlets. I wrote a newsletter for the American Barefoot Club and another one for ski clubs. I wrote feature articles for The Water Skier and covered major tournaments. I wrote how-to articles including how to install a slalom course and a feature on man-made water ski lakes featuring some of the first ever constructed, including Jack Horton’s, Jud Spencer’s and Jim McCormick’s lakes. I co-wrote a pamphlet for the Coast Guard that was distributed nationwide.

I enjoyed writing instructional materials. It was a challenge trying to find the best way to teach someone how to perform a physical skill using words, pictures and drawings. As a trick skier, I was frustrated with the dated instruction pamphlets that AWSA was still selling. My frustration led to a new trick instruction series in collaboration with Cory Pickos. To illustrate the series, professional photographer Glenn Kirkpatrick, Bill Clifford’s old mentor at Florida Southern, modified a 35-mm Army surplus Eyemo movie camera. This was before SLR motor drives were readily available. Glenn geared down the film speed of the Eyemo so that a sequence of stills could be selected from the burst without chewing up miles of film. I planned the tricks we wanted to cover and arranged for Cory to ski several sessions. I drove, Cory’s father Ron pinned and Glenn did the camera work. For each trick to be illustrated, I selected the negatives that would make up the instructional sequence and wrote the text with Cory’s expert assistance.

Tom Hardman also taught me how to tell a story. It was a skill that I honed covering major tournaments for The Water Skier. I was sometimes the only AWSA emissary to these events and it made sense that I would cover the story for the magazine. I covered the First National Barefoot Championships in Waco, Texas; the Second World Barefoot Championships at Marine World California; the Third World Barefoot Championships in Acapulco, Mexico; the World Water Ski Championships in Toulouse, France and other events.

I also served as a photographer and enjoyed the challenge of capturing intriguing and well-composed shots. My press pass provided access to some places that were otherwise off limits at tournaments, such as the starting dock at pro tournaments or the roof of the Robin Lake pavilion at the Masters. One time on top of the pavilion, I laid on my belly, leaned my head over the edge and took a picture of the crowd upside down. The resulting photo, published in the magazine ‘flipped’ so that it appeared right-side up, gave a drone’s-eye view of the stands in the days before drones. My only cover shot was at the World Barefoot Championships in Marineland. The site had a curved shoreline and during the jump event I found a spot directly in front of the barefoot ramp. The jumpers were coming straight at me as if shot out of a cannon. I caught a full-frame shot of winner Brett Wing looking as if he was going to land in the viewer’s lap.

While still at AWSA, I ventured into freelancing and wrote an occasional water ski article for outside magazines such as Trailer Boats and Powerboat. Clifford and Hardman weren’t exactly thrilled at this. However, they didn’t dissuade me; they cautioned me to be careful and asked that I OK the content with them before I wrote any outside articles. When I left the employ of AWSA, I relied on freelancing during the period between jobs and became a regular contributor to BOAT Pennsylvania, the magazine of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. It was during this period that I realized that there were no up-to-date books on water skiing available in book stores. I felt I was the right person to change that.

The biggest challenge in writing a first-rate water ski instruction book was how to illustrate it. The book was going to require a lot of photographs and a lot of specialized expertise to shoot them—most professional photographers would be out of their league. I knew who I wanted and paid a visit to Tom King, literally and figuratively the king of water ski photographers at that time. Tom’s photo archive alone was a valuable resource. Tom gave me a price to do the job. It was a sum that I could not afford to front myself.

My next step was to peddle my book concept to manufacturers. I offered to prominently feature their products in the book if they fronted a share for the photography. It worked. Mastercraft agreed to pony up and loaned me an outboard model to be used in the photos and an inboard to be used as a photo boat. Once I had Mastercraft, it was relatively easy to attract other partners. O’Brien Skis agreed to send me all the skis I needed. Casad Manufacturing provided towropes, wetsuits and accessories. Chuck Dees let me use his ski school as a photography location and served as a model boat driver. I lined up some hotshot local teenagers to be skier models. I paid them in skis and equipment.

The photo shoot was not without its oh sh.t moments. As the day of the shoot approached, the promised skis had not arrived. I called the O’Brien factory and they agreed to expedite a shipment. The skis arrived just in time—and then, few days after the shoot, the original shipment arrived. I ended up with two of everything. On the day before the shoot, I went to Cypress Gardens to pick up the Mastercraft inboard that we were going to use as a photo boat. The hitch was one size larger than my trailer ball, so we put an old towel over the ball and lowered the hitch on top of it. Seemed nice and tight. Should be fine for the short run up to Dee’s Ski School, we figured. However, on the way I hit a huge unseen dip in the road at an intersection. (It turned out that the side street was a former railroad right-of-way, hence the big trough.) The trailer bucked loudly and I thought I was going to lose the boat. Luckily, the trailer stayed connected. During the shoot, Tom King tied a step ladder to the pylon of the photo boat to get the high angle he wanted for many of the photos. I was driving the photo boat and at some point, a skier fell. I throttled down and turned, but as soon as I did, I realized that a big roller from the ski boat was going to come over our bow. Instinctively, I juiced the engine a little to keep the boat from getting swamped. Unfortunately, Tom wasn’t expecting the sudden acceleration and lost his grip on the ladder. I heard a cry and looked over to see Tom hanging upside down, clutching his camera, and holding on by one leg. I had nearly dumped him overboard.

I took a long shot and wrote to my old friend Bruce Jenner (aka Caitlyn) to see if he would be willing to do a foreword for my book. I hadn’t seen him in many years. He was a big celebrity and didn’t owe me a thing, so I didn’t expect to get an answer. To my amazement, he agreed to do it.

With the photos in the can and the foreword received, I worked on finalizing the layout and went shopping for a publisher. Months went by. Just when it seemed that no one was interested, I got an acceptance letter. With no other offers in hand, I negotiated a standard ‘trade book’ contract with them. However, as soon as I signed the contract, I got a breathless communication from a much larger publisher. They apologized profusely, explaining that a junior editor had misplaced my book query. They wanted to publish my book. It was too late.

It was a lot of fun seeing my book show up in book stores and libraries. Sales were steady. Years afterward, I was taking a bath one night when I heard the phone ring. My wife came up the stairs and said, “It’s a guy from Korea. He wants the rights to publish your book in Korean.” She handed me the phone. There I was sitting in my bathtub talking to a man on the other side of the world about a water skiing book. He was a university professor who was heavily involved in the Korean water ski community. His broken English made it difficult to communicate but I got his email address and over the next month we negotiated a deal by email. I settled on about half what the contract was probably worth, but he pleaded poverty and I was just happy to see the book get published in another language and help out another federation. What a hoot to see my book set in Korean typeface.

In retirement, my urge to scribble continues unabated.

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  • Baller

Great story @BKistler ! If possible can you post the article about the first man made lakes? I skied and stayed at Jud and Dave’s place over the years. When I was going to school and skiing in the Bay Area back in the 90’s, Al Frosini (Berkeley WSC) and Mike Syderhoud told me some funny stories about the tournament times they had at Spencer’s too.

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