How It All Began: The History Of Waterskiing

By Ted Sensenbrenner

Let's get ahead of the history of being pulled behind a boat.

Being dragged behind a perfectly good boat may not sound like fun to everyone, but waterskiing undoubtedly got its start, thanks to certain thrill seekers who made it their mission to walk on water. The unofficial history of waterskiing goes something like this: Guy buys boat. Friends want to go with him. One friend in particular asks how fast it goes. A second friend bets a not-so- good third friend that if he were pulled behind the boat holding a rope while standing on a barn door, it would be cool.

After many failed attempts by would-be inventors, it was adventurer Ralph Samuelson who was the first to attach two 8" x 9" boards to his feet with leather straps and successfully ski on Lake Pepin, Minnesota, in 1922. And so it was. But to make things even more interesting, in 1925, Samuelson crafted a makeshift ramp and asked the boat driver to head for it, reserving a place in history as the first person to ever jump a ramp on waterskis.

In 1932, the first two "official" ski shows were hosted at the Atlantic City, New Jersey, Steel Pier and at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. Although learning to waterski has been likened to swimming upstream, salmon style, the fad started to gain interest with recreational boaters and sports enthusiasts alike, and by 1949, the first World Water Ski Championship was held in France. In 1968, the MasterCraft ski boat company was born and in 1972, waterskiing was included in the summer Olympics as an exhibition sport in Munich, Germany, which helped grow the popularity of the sport.

No Skis? No Problem

What could be better than waterskiing with skis? Waterskiing with no skis, of course. Come on, you know you've been tempted to try it all these years. Just think of all the money you'd save on equipment. Although the origins of barefoot skiing are not entirely clear, it is suspected that waterskiing without skis was discovered quite literally by accident. A quick YouTube search of "funny waterskiing wipeouts" reveals many creative ways to exit your waterskis, all captured on video for your amusement.

Fortunately, committed individuals pushed the envelope to accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of barefoot skiing. The late Dick Pope, Jr. is largely credited as the first man to successfully ski on his bare feet, which he did in Cypress Gardens, Florida, in 1947. In 1962, Pope became the president of Cypress Gardens, succeeding his father, Dick Pope, Sr. During this period, the sport evolved to include slalom, jump, and trick disciplines, all without waterskis, at national and world level competitions.

To learn to barefoot, there are online videos and chat-room discussions to share tips and lend support. There is even a hands-on barefoot-specific camp for children and adults called The Footer's Edge. Specialized equipment is suggested, such as extra-thick wetsuit pants with pads in strategic places. In general, there are two ways to go about learning to barefoot ski: You can drop one ski, like you do for slalom skiing, and then drop the remaining one. Or you can purchase a barefoot boom, which is highly recommended, that allows you to stabilize and shift your weight over your feet while using your arms and an overhead bar for support.

Boarding For The Masses

Wakeboarding has roots in surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding, so it tends to attract a crowd that goes against convention. The sport also allows for vast physical and personal self-expression. Going inverted, ramping over obstacles, and baggy shorts are all part of the culture, which explains the appeal of X-Games coordinators and sold-out venues featuring national champions, many of whom are only in their teens. Though the true origin of wakeboarding is unclear, it made its debut sometime in the 1980s. Patents from around the world for several products including the Skurfboard, a Skiboard, and Skurfer were submitted to protect and promote new designs. It wasn't until about 1990 when the general term for the activity became known as wakeboarding. To reflect this new trend, the World Skiboard Association changed its name to the World Wakeboard Association and updated its focus.

Today's wakeboard designs feature fixed-mount bindings that keep the rider's feet perpendicular to the axis of the board. Wakeboards use small fins on the bottom of the board that help with tracking but are small enough to allow for the rider to switch which foot goes forward in mid-ride by performing a 180-degree twist on the surface of the water. Deciding which foot goes forward is largely a personal preference, but the best riders are adept at riding with either foot forward and can switch direction either on the water or in the air.

Which foot goes forward? In tandem waterskiing and barefoot skiing, both feet are pointing forward. In slalom skiing and wakeboarding, you have a choice. Essentially, you should lead with the foot that feels most natural. However, most people feel more comfortable with their dominant foot back, which is typically the right foot. According to, 70-90 percent of people are right hand/right foot dominant. In wakeboarding jargon, that's considered "regular foot." The opposite of this (dominant foot forward) is considered "goofy foot." 

This article was published in Fall 2011 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Did You Know?

  • The average boat speed for towing a wakeboarder is about 20 miles per hour, a waterskier about 30 miles per hour, but for a barefoot skier, it is faster than 40 miles an hour.
  • On March 7, 2011, Fernando Reina Iglesias set the new barefoot speed record of 153 miles an hour, while being towed by a low-flying helicopter in Acapulco, Mexico.
  • World Record! The most waterskiers pulled behind a boat at once was 114 people in Strahan, Tasmania, Australia, on March 28, 2010.

Where to Learn More:

Visit or for more information about the pioneers of the sport, the rules that govern the sport, and even how to get a college scholarship.

Quiz Yourself:

What's the purpose of an "observer" aboard a tow boat?

A. To look for other boats ahead

B. To monitor the boat engine's rpm

C. To relay skier status to the driver

D. To watch for wind and wave patterns

Answer: "C"



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