I suppose it all started in the summer 1987: Picture a young Joel Hughes bobbing around in an ill-fitting life vest with a pair of impossibly awkward wooden skis strapped to his feet. Nervously clinging to an old, yellow ski handle, he could hear the encouraging words of friends and family and smell the fuely exhaust bubbling out of the carbureted V8 as the boat idled away. In only a few moments, he would feel the power of a tournament inboard pull him out of the water on skis for the first time.
As I recall, it wasn't too "fun" to ski in those days. The prodding by parents and family friends to ski during those summer trips to the northwoods of Wisconsin made it feel like more of a task than anything else — an event to be preceded with trepidation and dread rather than anticipation. I vividly recall feeling relieved during the summer of 1993 when I was diagnosed with mono and could use the risk of injuring my spleen as an excuse for not skiing during our vacation that year. Although it never seemed like too much fun in those days, something must have stuck — I don't know if it was so much the enthusiasm for skiing as it was the admiration of the boat itself (a beautiful blue 1977 Ski Nautique owned by family friends), but something certainly stayed with me. One thing that never left me is the visual from me in the spotter seat of the '77, watching a family friend slalom during an early morning run on calm water. The skier would put up "walls" of water with every turn that seemed to tower hundreds of feet out of the water before showering back down to the glassy surface.
Fast forward to the new millennium. After skiing a few summers with my now-wife's family and learning how to get up on a slalom ski behind their old Sea Ray I/O, waterskiing became really fun. Skiing was turning into an addiction for first time in my life, and my mission was pure and simple: put up the biggest rooster tails possible, at all costs. We'd ask the observers in the boat if we "got any big sprays" as we clamored over the transom after every run. We had no idea what we were doing and nobody to teach us how to put up the "big spray," but it sure was fun.
During that fall season of 2002, I decided it was time to buy my own ski boat and once again feel the power and wake of a "real boat." I hadn't ridden in or been behind inboard since I was a kid, and we didn't even know anyone who had one. There was only one brand of choice for a boat in my mind: if it didn't say "water ski" in French on the side in giant letters, I didn't want any part of it. Our first Ski Nautique was a fire-engine-red 1990 model with 918 hours on it. We drove 1800 miles each way to pick up the boat in Phoenix, Arizona, a great story that I still bring up to almost anyone who hasn't heard it.
The following spring, the wife and I decided it was time for some real ski coaching, so we went to Bennett's ski school in Louisiana. We learned a little more about slalom there and, most importantly, had our first exposure to the course. My wife and I couldn't even remotely run the course at the time, but we certainly realized that we had to buy one at some point. I also met my friend Mark that year, a ski partner who would teach me the ins and outs (and out-the-fronts) of barefooting and eventually trade tips and critiques with me for slalom nearly every weekend morning on the water.
In the spring of 2004, we all split the cost of our EZ-Slalom portable slalom course. This would prove to be one of the greatest purchases we ever made relative to slalom skiing. We searched high and low for lakes that would allow for early skiing and dropped that course in the water at the crack of dawn for more weekend mornings than I can remember. We still didn't know what we were doing and had nobody to teach us, but somehow during the fall of 2004, I ran the course fairly consistently at about 26MPH at 15 off. We didn't have family or friends at that time to help us with our skiing. Keep in mind — we did this on our own, 100 percent. In order to ski behind an inboard, we had to buy one! In order to ski the course, we had to buy that, too! We read Waterski magazine and poured over the ski forums on the internet in an attempt to improve our course skiing, but that's all we had.
2005 and 2006 produced slight improvements to our skiing. We had a new boat for the summer of 2006, a 2000 Ski Nautique with Perfect Pass and all the other bells and whistles that come on the more modern boats. By the end of 2006, I could run the course at 15 off, 28MPH with my eyes closed, 30MPH fairly consistently, and occasionally at 32MPH.
As of 2010 I'm already getting into 22 off at 34MPH. I invite you come along and join me for the ride from "fifteenoff" to shortline!