First lesson in water skiing - a personal epic

Every once in a while I get an urge to try some new athletic endeavor. Unfortunately, I never have enough sense at such times to follow the famous suggestion of educator Robert M. Hutchins and lie down until it goes away.

That's how one day I found myself crouched on the beach, hanging desperately onto a towline, and having very little idea what I was doing as I waited for a powerboat to yank me into the water.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, because this whole adventure really began an hour or so earlier when I wangled a ride in one of the boats during the famous ski show here. The idea was to get a close-up look at how it all happens - and the look I got was a lot closer than I'd bargained for!

Surprise No. 1 came as soon as I got seated in the boat, when driver Don Morris took off at what seemed like the speed of sound toward a grove of cypress trees growing in the water near the shore. Before I could say, ''This is where I get off,'' we blasted right between two trees with about an inch of clearance on each side of the boat, then wheeled around toward the show area.

''That's how we warm up,'' Morris smiled.

The rest of the boat ride, during the actual show, was a piece of cake for me - but hardly that for Morris. Out on the water, one sees the show from a totally different perspective, and gets a much better understanding of the skill , technique, and synchronization required to put it on. And while the onshore audience focuses almost exclusively on the skiers, the boat passenger quickly realizes what an immense role the drivers play - releasingthis group, picking up that one, and being in all the right places at the right times to keep the various ballet, acrobatic, and comedy acts moving smoothly.

Eventually the show was over, and now, while the audience filed out of the auditorium and the skiers took a welcome break until their next performance, I got my own personal introduction to the sport. I got into a safety vest and a wet suit (the water was sort of chilly that day), and was finally ready for my first lesson.

As a moderately accomplished skier on snow, I figured I had a bit of a head start for learning the water version - and on balance that's probably true. There's one very big difference in the two sports, though, and the novice learns it the hard way right at the beginning.

''Here we go,'' said an onlooker as the boat started up for my first try - and down I went in no time flat. Ditto in Attempt No. 2. All those years in the Alps and the Rockies listening to ski instructors saying, ''Forward, forward , forward!'' were working against me now, because in this sport you have to stand straight - or even lean back just a trifle - and let the boat pull you.

On the third try, I did get up for a moment before going under, and the fourth time I actually stayed up for a few seconds before hitting the wake from the boat and wiping out again.

My instructor was Jim Cassata, one of the skiers in the show, but considering what he had to work with and what he accomplished, I think maybe he was Prof. Henry Higgins in disguise.

''Keep your arms straight! Keep your knees bent,'' he repeated, and while it didn't have quite the lilt of ''The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,'' it had a similar result. For amazing as it seems, he actually had me skiing pretty well by the end of the lesson - even to the point where I got brave enough to ski through the wake on purpose in order to make things more exciting.

I must admit I did become a bit apprehensive, though, during a discussion about how much safer I felt here than I had in my first try at surfing in Hawaii.

''I was really scared out there off Waikiki Beach,'' I told Cassata.''It was right around the time everyone was reading 'Jaws,' and I kept looking around for fins and wondering what might be swimming around underneath me. At least there's nothing like that to worry about here.''

''Nothing but gators,'' he replied. ''But don't worry. If you fall into the water and we see one coming for you, we'll bring the boat up closer to you. That usually scares 'em away.''

I didn't like that word ''usually'' too much, and even though I figured he was exaggerating a bit, you'd better believe that I got up as quickly as I could the next time I went down.

It was all great fun, though - until the next morning, when my forearms, my thighs, and just about every other moving part reminded me that they weren't quite used to such activity. I'd gladly do it all again, too - though I think next time I might skip that opening boat ride through the trees and just try not to think too much about those gators!

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