Monday, July 23, 2012

History: Before Water-skiing, There Was Aquaplaning

Water-skiing was invented in Minnesota in 1922, coinciding generally with the surging popularity of motorboats. Since that time, it has been enjoyed by natives and visitors across the Adirondacks. Another water sport, wakeboarding, is cited as originating around 1980. But eight years before the birth of water-skiing, a sport strongly reminiscent of wakeboarding took the nation’s watery playgrounds by storm.

With hundreds of lakes and thousands of summer visitors wealthy enough to own motorboats, the Adirondack region did much to popularize the new sport.

Aquaplaning is sometimes cited as beginning around 1920, but it was a common component of boat shows in the US a decade earlier. In 1909 and 1910, participants attempted to ride a toboggan or an ironing-board-shaped plank, usually about five feet long and two feet wide, towed behind a boat. The boards often resembled the average house door.

Initially, the challenge was to complete a ride without literally being tossed overboard. The boat and board were directly connected by a rope. Modifications retained that connection, but added the ability of the rider to grip the rope and exert some control (see video).

Among the earliest appearances of aquaplaning in the North Country was in 1914 on the St. Regis Lakes, where the New York Sun reported that the Blagden brothers were “attracting much attention” plying the waters in their speedboat Buzzard, with Douglass at the wheel and Harry “standing upright on the board” while traveling at 20 mph.

Within a couple of years, the sport had caught on in a big way in the region. Advertisements for many of the popular resorts and summer camps regularly touted aquaplaning among the varied offerings, along with camping, cookouts, hiking, and mountain climbing.

Metropolitan newspapers, particularly those of New York City and Boston, reported regularly on the vacation exploits of thousands of wealthy residents. This included aquaplaning, which ultimately proved to be more than a passing fad.

In 1916, enthusiasts were speeding across the waters around Saranac Lake. Reports in the New York Sun of the goings-on at Paul Smiths confirmed that the Blagden brothers had been joined by many others in a sport “which has lost none of its interest for the spectators along the shores.”

At Lake George, already famous for its fast boats, a report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1917 described dozens of aquaplaners “skimming over the surface of the lake, being towed by fast speedboats.”

Its popularity never waned, even with the emergence of water-skiing. In 1932, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported: “At Silver Lake [near Wilmington], where a large colony of young people have gathered for the summer, aquaplaning is the sport of the hour. The Misses Virginia Gardner and Harriet Carter of New York are very adept at the sport.”

For decades, aquaplaners were everywhere on Lake Champlain. As a recreational activity, it enjoyed great popularity at the youth camps from Point Au Roche (north of Plattsburgh) to the lake’s southern end. The same remained true on inland waters.

Where at first just staying upright was considered an accomplishment, aquaplaning became a prime component of fun water competitions and stunt displays. Riders were soon standing on their heads, or sitting on a partner’s shoulders while racing at high speeds.

Distance riding, still a feature of contests today, was also popular. One trip of note was that of Rocky Point Inn guest William Soons, who―fully dressed because of cool weather―rode a board all the way from Inlet to Old Forge.

From the southern Adirondacks to Big Moose Lake and on to the St. Lawrence River, aquaplaning enjoyed sustained popularity. In fact, the board’s attachment directly to a boat is virtually identical to the setup used in tubing today.

Aquaplaning began in the early 1900s as an undertaking only for the strong, young, and fit, but by 1946, the sport had gone to the dogs―literally. A great headline in Albany’s Knickerbocker News proclaimed Mother of 100, but Still an Aquaplaning Bathing Beauty. Hmmm … maybe it wasn’t just for the kids after all.

Featured was Queenie, owned by Charles Miller of Burden Lake, east of Albany. Queenie was described as a 7-year-old police dog and the mother of “more than 100” puppies. She was photographed riding the board on Burden Lake alongside sixteen-year-old Joseph Scully of Rensselaer, who taught her the trick.

The ambitious youngster added that he was in the process of teaching Queenie to water-ski.

Photos: Top―1914 magazine cover; Middle Right―1914 headline from NY Sun and 1917 headline from Brooklyn Daily Eagle; Middle Left―Basic upright aquaplaning position; Bottom―1946, Queenie and Joe on Burden Lake.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Jack says:

    We use to aquaplane with my Great-Aunt’s aquaplane in the late fifties & sixties on Lower Saranac Lake. We used them with my nieces, nephews, and my children in the seventies and eighties. We still have one.
    I love the video. I noticed they weren’t wearing PFDs. My guess is that there were a few drownings related to them. I can’t imagine being accidentally hit in the head by one without a PFD on.

  2. Greg says:

    Back in the 60’s we had what we called a surfboard, basically a sheet of plywood about 6′ long rounded in the front, painted with a rope attached to it and then tied to the boat. we also had a handle attached to the plywood, started by laying on it in the water and as it came up on plane you would stand up on it. You could kind of surf the wake or go back and forth across it. We learned you had to slow the boat down after the rider fell, otherwise the board would dive and hit bottom, chewing up the front edge. Of course we also water skied a lot too. Based on what I now see on adirondack lakes it looks like most kids just sit on a tube and get towed around. Some of the “tubes” actually look like a living room couch. And the bulk of the boat now seem to be “party barges”. I guess it’s just the current wave of inactivity that seems to be prevalent nationwide. I just don’t get it, why don’t more people get involved in water sports, we litterally spent 6-8 hrs some days as kids enjoying it.

  3. […] ►Aquaplaning (page 117, Volume 3, Sea Gull Beach) Can you picture that imp, Ricky Hollister, attaching an ironing board to the back of a speed boat, just for kicks? An article about the history of waterskiing and wakeboarding by Lawrence P. Gooley included this description of aquaplaning, and it sounds like it was written with Ricky in mind:    “. . . participants attempted to ride a toboggan or an ironing-board-shaped plank, usually about five feet long and two feet wide, towed behind a boat. The boards often resembled the average house door.” Enjoy the whole article at:… […]

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