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THE RIVER RAT REMEMBERS Episode 19 Towboat Certification and the Egghead Ski Bum from Dartmouth


BKistler
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Episode 19 Towboat Certification and the Egghead Ski Bum from Dartmouth

During my tenure at AWSA, the number of tournament towboats proliferated. It seemed that every few months a new brand came on the market. More than one of them spun off from Mastercraft. The crowded field added ever more controversy and corporate politics into the ticklish business of determining who-got-to-pull-what at the Nationals. Arguments raged about which boats could and should pull the open divisions. Starting dock chatter often turned to ‘everyone knows’ platitudes. Everyone knows that boat X is the best for slalom. Everyone knows boat Y can’t cut it and should only pull junior divisions. So on and so on. It was clear that AWSA needed a way to determine what qualified as a legitimate towboat. It needed a set of objective standards that, to the extent possible, took opinion out of the equation. If a boat could be certified that it met the standards, it should have as much right as any other boat to pull any event at any sanctioned tournament, including the Nationals. Here also was a marvelous marketing tool. Boat companies would do anything to make sure their boats were AWSA certified.

The AWSA Technical Committee knew this was a job for the egghead from Dartmouth, Ed Brazil. Brazil was one of the biggest ‘characters’ I ever met in water skiing, and, with his laconic sense of humor, one of the most fun. A ski bum, he cared little about creature comforts and was happy living in a tent or trailer. He sometimes wore honest-to-God lederhosen at tournaments. He never sought fortune; as for fame, his life’s mission was to be the best at the technical aspects of water skiing. Long before there was a position called Technical Controller, Ed was innovating, thinking outside the wake, destroying convention. His Crosby twin rig had an outrageous rack made out of iron pipe that was bolted to the front deck. All of that plumbing was for the mundane purpose of holding the rearview mirror above the driver’s line of sight. Ed claimed it was easier for the driver to glance up rather than to the side, which in those days was where all mirrors were located on outboard towboats. His craziest experiment, however, was when he mounted snow ski bindings on his Saucier jumpers and jumped using Lange alpine ski boots. Anticipating hard-shell water ski boots by decades, he was convinced that the extra ankle support would translate into more distance, although it seemed to me that the limited ankle flexion of snow ski boots would make the skis hard to control in the air and therefore a little dangerous. That wasn’t the only danger. The Great Lange Experiment ended at Reading, PA when one of Ed’s bindings released as he was crossing the wake on his cut to the ramp. He went over the ramp with one ski and one snow ski boot, inverted in the air and suffered a punishing crash. When he surfaced, he looked toward shore, eyes wide, and let out a long, drawn-out “Whoa!” Classic Brazil.

As far as I know, Ed was the first person to apply microcomputers to solving the technical challenges facing water ski competitions. When I lived in suburban Philadelphia, Ed called me one time and asked if I would go to the Wang Laboratories office near me, pick up a loaner computer and bring it to a tournament that I was planning to attend in New England. I’m not sure, but I think Ed was experimenting with digitally computing jump distances at the time.

Ed’s application of computers to towboat certification was amazing to witness. With a centerline video camera on each end of the slalom or jump course and radar guns trained on a reflector on the deck, Ed was able to simultaneously graph variations in the boat’s speed and track. Given enough trials to statistically factor out differences in skier style and driver ability, the graphs provided hard data that showed which boats performed well and which did not. Analyzing trick wake and table was admittedly more subjective, but Ed helped the Technical Committee develop ranking scales that maximized skier/tester objectivity.

Thanks to Ed, each subsequent towboat test became more sophisticated. Towboat certification was a huge hit and, as we anticipated, manufacturers proudly advertised their AWSA Certified credentials. It helped sell boats and it helped sell AWSA. Certification assured that the towboats used in tournaments were legitimate and it kept any pretenders out. Towboat assignments for the Nationals were made by a draw—a rotating lottery—assuring a level playing field for all manufacturers. Skiers, of course, preferred their favorite models and groused when they didn’t perform as well behind other boats, but the system was fair and provided much-needed stability to an otherwise dog-eat-dog process.

The Nationals towboat draw experienced a crisis while I was Executive Director. Due to a medical emergency, I was unable to arrive at the DuQuoin, Illinois site the day before the tournament as I had planned. When I got there, I was shocked to learn that an assistant (who shall be unnamed) had taken it upon himself to assign Company A’s towboat to tow a certain event in place of Company B’s towboat per the official draw. I can’t remember how he justified doing what he did, but it amounted to the old ‘Everybody knows Boat A is better than Boat B’ bit that the system was designed to eliminate. Boat Company A was one of the biggest and best-known brands. Boat Company B was a relative newcomer. Hence the power play. I called a meeting of the boat reps involved so that I could hear both sides, and it nearly ended in a fist fight. My first inclination was to support my assistant’s action. He was new and just didn’t understand the sanctity of the process, I told myself. He was doing what he thought best. In retrospect, he had allowed himself to be sold a cheap bill of goods and I probably should have fired him on the spot. I took the matter to an emergency meeting of the AWSA Executive Committee which had no choice but to reverse the administrative decision and go back to the original towboat assignment. Of course, the partisans who wanted Boat Company A to pull the event were now up in arms. A boisterous crowd gathered outside my trailer. I went out, stood on top of a picnic table and explained to the group what had happened and why the original boat assignment must be respected. They weren’t particularly happy, but at least they had been given an explanation. They wanted to know who was responsible for the mix up and I refused to say. Again, I felt obligated to protect my staffer, even though he had made a very poor decision.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. The on-site representative of Boat Company A informed me that the president of the company had ordered him to pull their boats from the rest of the tournament. His boss was still on the phone. As trailers began pulling Boat Company A’s boats out of the water, he and I had a testy conversation. He swore that he would pull his boats and not let them be used. He was clearly trying to intimidate me. I told him to go ahead and pull his boats, there were other boat companies that would love to have those event assignments. I reminded him that he knew what the towboat assignments were beforehand; it was the luck of the draw and all manufacturers had to live with it. When our conversation ended, Boat Company A’s towboats were still being pulled out of the water.

A half hour later, the representative of Boat Company A came to me with the news that the company would agree to the original towboat assignment schedule. Boat Company A’s boats went back in the water and the crisis ended.

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