On boards: How a Minnesotan taught the world to water ski

Ralph Samuelson // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Lake City, Minnesota’s, Ralph Samuelson invented water skiing // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

The date is Saturday, July 22, 1922. The place is Lake City, Minnesota, on the waters of Lake Pepin, the largest naturally occurring lake on the Mississippi River. The time is 4pm. The scene is set for Lake City native Ralph Samuelson to carve his name into sporting history.

Samuelson, who is just one day away from his nineteenth birthday, is submerged up to his shoulders in Lake Pepin’s waters, the early summer sun shining down on him. Strapped to his feet are twin planks of pine, each 8 feet long and 9 inches wide. Ralph adjusts his grip on the end of the rope he’s holding, and glances 100 feet up the lake to where his brother, Ben, idles the 14 foot launch boat to which the rope is attached.

For the past five days, Ralph had tried and failed to get up on his homemade water skis. But today, he had a new idea: Instead of starting with the ski tips level with or underneath the water, he would lean back and raise his tips above the surface. Ralph takes a deep breath to collect himself, then yells to his brother at the top of his lungs: “Hit it!”

Ralph Samuelson with his original water skis // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

With that, the launch boat  takes off and Ralph braces for the inevitable as the slack of the line is quickly taken up. In mere seconds, the rope goes taut and Ralph rises from the waters of Lake Pepin until he’s standing upright, skimming across the lake’s surface as though it’s solid ground.

Such was the birth of water skiing.

Prior to that afternoon in 1922, Samuelson had been an “aquaplane” enthusiast, reveling in cruising atop Lake Pepin aboard a sled-like device that resembles the kneeboards of today. But the young Lake City native yearned to push the limits of what was possible on the surface of his watery habitat. He longed to achieve something new, something bold, and something that he would be able to hold up to his city and friends as uniquely his own.

Legend has it that after the 18-year-old Minnesotan of Swedish stock had tried wooden barrel staves and alpine skis to no avail, he spent a total of two dollars on pine boards he bought at the lumberyard. He boiled the boards and clamped them to create a revolutionary “tip rocker” bend on the top of each ski—a feature that allowed for him to rise up out of the water with only the aid of a motor craft.

To keep his feet in place, Samuelson fixed scrap leather from Henry Baester’s local harness store to the skis with wood screws to create bindings. Skis in hand, he gathered 100 feet of rope from Ruechert’s hardware store in Lake City, fixed it to a 4 inch iron ring from Pearson’s Blacksmith Shop, and secured everything to a launch boat, which he recruited his brother to drive.

The boat was equipped with a converted Saxon truck engine that could reach speeds of just around 14 knots (or 20 miles per hour). But if Samuelson’s theory was right, the launch’s engine, coupled with the unique shape of the pine skis, would allow him to not only rise up from under the surface, but cruise atop the waves of Lake Pepin. Later that afternoon, that theory proved true. And while his inaugural trip only lasted a short while, it was enough: a new summer sport and beloved pastime was born.

Next page: First Lake City, then the world

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