In the summer of 2015 I took an internship in rural Vermont. Living on my own for the first time, I made sure to bring all the essentials for a summer of learning and growth; lots of non-perishable food items, sunblock, and most importantly my waterski. The internship site resided 400 yards shy of placid Lake Fairlee, and I hoped there might be a generous boater willing to give me a pull.
Opportunity hit early in my stay. During an evening shoreline stroll I caught sight of a Mastercraft ripping through the slalom course. My initial feeling was disappointment, as I was unprepared: no ski, no suit, and no way of getting out on the water. However, after a moment of doubt, I decided to take my chance. I, sprinting back to my loft, pulled on my shorts and grabbed my ski. Five minutes later I was stripping off my shoes at the side of the road and wading into the murky evening water, pushing my ski out ahead of me. By now the lake was quiet and there was no sign of my quarry, the effort could be for naught.
There was a sandbar a few hundred feet off shore, which allowed me to stand about waist deep and catch my breath from the swim. Waterski in hand, I stared out at the empty ski course and waited hopefully. My heart leapt when I heard the sweet sound of the V8 fire up. The boat came around the corner, skier in tow. As it cleared the buoys, I raised my ski above my head and tried to look as casual as possible. The skier dropped, hopped aboard, and the boat drove over to see what I was about.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!” the driver exclaimed. “Are you hitchhiking?”
“Gotta do what ya gotta do!” I said with a grin and everyone burst out laughing.
I was welcomed aboard, provided a lifejacket, and given a run through the course. The ride couldn’t have been sweeter.
That summer I continued to bum rides as often as I could. I helped a neighbor unearth his old speed boat and was offered a ride. On my days off I would sit by the boat launch and help boaters back in their trailers, my ski perched against a tree close by, ready to go. I befriended the manager of the local summer camp and was invited to take runs with the counsellors after hours. I rode all sorts of watercraft. Twenty-eight foot cabin cruisers, ancient outboard clunkers, pontoon boats, and the occasional jetski with barely enough power to get me above the water.
To say that it was sloppy skiing is an understatement. My upbringing behind a Mastercraft 190 had me unprepared for some of these monsters, but beggars can’t be choosers. I nearly drowned waiting for an ancient Four Winns to get on plain and pull me out of the water. I spent my foray behind the cabin cruiser peering over the edge of a tsunami-sized wake that threatened to swallow me whole on every (very slow) pass. Once, I jumped in only to find that the rope I was using was over a hundred feet long (I was too polite to say anything about it, and did manage to get up, but decided to buy my own rope and bring it along with my ski thereafter).
My best rides were the ones I had to work for. I borrowed a friend’s kayak, wedged my ski between my legs, and paddled around listening for the good engines. When I managed to chase someone down, they would often welcome me aboard.
“What about the kayak?” they’d ask. Someone once offered to pull it onto the back platform and hold it while I skied.
“Just let it float,” I’d say. “It can’t get too far.”
Naturally, I always felt like I was imposing on other people’s fun. Some of the real skiers on the lake calculated their gas down to the pint in order to save on weight, yet even those folks would sacrifice a run of their own for the ski bum. In gratitude I started carrying a six-pack with me in the kayak, a gesture that certainly endeared me to the locals.
By the end of the summer I had hitchhiked a ride from over two dozen different watercraft. While I didn’t improve much as a skier, the people I met made the experience worth every minute. I met Justin, who invested his college fund in a ski boat and 20 years later didn’t regret it for a moment. I met 76-year-old Dave, who had been “skiing since Kennedy” and still got up a few times a year. I met Topher, who once skied in Vermont during every month of the year, even in February when half the lake was frozen over. For all of them, I was the first ski bum they’d come across, or at the very least, the first ski bum to be so damn persistent.
Waterskiing is a sport of habit. Skiers lock into the same routines, use the same equipment, and often do it with the same group of people. Breaking those routines won’t win any competitions, but it certainly makes the experience a bit more interesting. You’ll learn to schmooze, make new friends, and get some water up the nose. Best of all you’ll come away with a heck of a story and that inexplicable desire for another pull.