Father of the of Akwa-Skee
Father of the Akwa-Skee
Published Summer 1993.
“Flashing over the foam, gliding on the wave-tops—Akwa-Skeeing is at once the safest and most thrilling of water sports.” Thus began Fred Waller’s first advertisement for the water skis he patented in 1925. Dolphin Akwa-Skees were said to “glide on the surface of the water behind a power-boat.… You toss the skees overside and step on them while the boat is in motion.” They were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch and Marshall Field and at shipyards.
Fred Waller, father of the water ski, worked at Paramount Pictures in Astoria, New York, where he contrived special effects. In his spare time he invented the first automatic photographic printer and timer. During World War II he invented a gunnery trainer used by American and British armed forces, and in the early 1950s he developed the ultrawide-screen movie system called Cinerama.
Waller lived in Huntington, New York, on Long Island Sound. His first skis were eight feet long and made of the same straight-grain, kiln-dried mahogany used in yachts. There were no rubber slippers for the feet; instead the skier stood on flat rubber treads and gripped a rope attached to the tip of the skis. Each ski tip, in turn, was attached by rope to the back of the boat. The design was based on the aquaplane, a wooden slab towed behind a motorboat, which had been introduced in 1913.
Although he was the first to patent water skis, Waller was not the first to invent them. They may have appeared in France in the early 1920s; they were definitely introduced in America in 1922 by Ralph W. Samuelson, a nineteen-year-old who skied on two huge planks of wood on Lake Pepin in Minnesota. Samuelson put on one-man skiing exhibitions for fifteen years and never accepted money for them. In 1925 he began jumping over lard-greased five-foot-high floats, and he sometimes covered as much as sixty feet.
In Seattle, Washington, a high school student named Don Ibsen thought he invented the water ski in 1928. “My first pair of water skis was made of boxwood with a small block of wood fastened to each ski,” he later said. “Over these blocks was placed the arch of each foot and in this way the ski was controlled.” After a little time, perhaps time spent slipping off the skis, he decided to attach tennis shoes to them. In 1932 he started the world’s first water-skiing school, but he found that most people just wanted to ride in his speedboat.
Water-skiing gained slowly in popularity in the 1930s, and the American Water Ski Association began annual championships in 1939, but as late as 1946 a Life magazine story still had to explain how water-skiing worked. At that time the skis were still flat boards curved upward at the front. They were easy to stand on but difficult to maneuver. When a skier tried to turn, they tended to slide away, break, or pop backward, hitting him or her in the head.
This annoyed Jannette Burr of Seattle, an active tournament water skier during the 1940s. Like many early devotees of the sport (including Fred Waller), Burr was a snow skier first. She spent 1951 in Austria, where she met a manufacturer of snow skis. For her wedding the following year, he sent her a pair of his new banana-shaped skis, which were tapered, allowing more speed and sharper turns. Jannette’s father, Wally Burr, a woodworker, copied the Austrian ski in his basement. That was the end of flat water skis. Other ski makers came to Burr’s shop to learn from him; eventually his apprentices went out on their own, beginning Seattle’s dominance in waterski manufacture, which continues to this day.
As worldwide water-ski tournaments became more competitive, athletes became impatient with wooden skis, which often broke when skiers jumped and did tricks. The first water skis molded completely of fiberglass were offered to the public in the 1960s. The skis did not dent, warp, or splinter, and they never needed painting. By the 1970s major ski companies were producing glass skis. From nailed-down tennis shoes, better bindings slowly developed. Now bindings can be adjusted and are lined with foam for comfort and secured with stainless steel, brass, or marine aluminum.
Yet today a water skier setting out on the waves still experiences the same thrill that Waller did on Long Island Sound back in 1925. Only today’s skier is not inventing a sport but participating in a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry.
This piece appeared in American Heritage, summer, 1993 and there's a great photo on the page but it didn't reproduce here. It shows the first waterskis which were big planks of wood.