Jun 30, 2009

The Granite Quarry and the Midthun School of Water-skiing

Down towards Shakoppee, Minnesota, across from Canterbury Downs and tucked between Raceway Park and Valley Fair amusement park is the Quarry - a lake for water-skiing only. I was headed there for my first official slalom ski course experience with neighbors and accomplished father and son water-ski duo Steve and Jens Midthun. Both have skied competed extensively and Jens at one point went on a ski spree turned world record lasting for 186 consecutive days - pretty tough to do in Minnesota with the changing seasons. He said he had his cold water starts down to about five seconds. The Quarry previously used to yield copious amounts of granite until they let it fill and it became home to the Prior Lake Ski Club. Situated near a power station and a mining area, it was referred to me as “industrial skiing.” There are many beautiful lakes in Minnesota. While this may not be topping the list in the ten-thousand we have, it was the perfect size to house a few water-ski slalom courses.

I grew up skiing learning first on two skis behind the old Boston Whaler and soon progressing to dropping one ski.  We are partial to water-skiing here in Minnesota as the sport was born on Lake Pepin in 1922. Ralph Samuleson put two boards on his feet for skis and used a clothesline for a rope. Katherine Lomerson of Union Lake, Michigan has been credited as the first woman to water ski, in 1924.

Putting the boat in at the Quarry

One day when I was about ten my childhood friend, myself and her older sister took out their Mastercraft, grabbed her double boot ski with high wrap bindings and decided to teach me to get up on one ski. They both skied competitively, it was summer and we had time on our hands.

The ski was given to her by her father (also a competitive water skier) and was top of the line. He was not pleased when he learned a rookie like me gave it a whirl, “Sweetie we don’t just let anyone ski on those skis, they could scratch them.” If he saw me rapidly deflate from my after-ski high, he certainly didn’t show it. Not sure how one scratches skis in water.

Example of current women’s ski and bindings by HO Sports

Rookie that I was, the high wrap binding took a good five minutes to get my feet in with two of us prying it apart. Feet anchored in one in front of the other with the stronger foot back (my right foot so I am regular as they say, not goofy), it was an HO Sports ski made back in the day. Some people use soap to ease their feet in (but necessary to get the soap out by giving the ski a good shake or result in slippery bindings). While sitting in the water my friend explained all the lingo to me, “hit it” meant you were ready to get pulled up, thumbs up meant faster, thumbs down slower, patting your head meant you were done with your ski and ready to drop.

With her patient sister at the helm I yelled. “Hit it!” at least ten times until I actually got up. My nasal passage was clear from numerous facial enimas and legs tired from balancing against the drag and force of the boat, but I was hooked with the feeling of flying across the water. Once I got up, I never forgot how, but sometimes I do have to think about which foot goes in the back boot and cross my fingers hoping I can still hang on to the handle and get up with each passing year. In fact I have told my brother-in-law to just remember what foot I am so after the eleven months that pass in between my ski experiences I wont be confused.

Lyndsay free-skiing on Christmas Lake

This year was no different. I stood on the back platform of our Malibu and hesitated. “Right foot back Lyndsay,” Derek said. I dipped the ski in the water to lubricate the bindings and slid in. I have an ancient HO Extreme from way back in the 80’s. I got it when I was seventeen and at the time loved the florescent yellow and pink combo. I have tried newer skis, but I am sticking with my 80’s stick for now, its an old friend. Year after year I get up and crank some turns, mostly hanging out at about 32mph and 22 feet off the rope length. My brother and I compete on who can make the biggest spray (even though much of it is determined by weight) and fly across the wake loving the feeling of cutting into the glassy water, accelerating across the wake and the constant pull of the rope.

However cool it may all look, there are the pretty free skiers - and then there are skiers who master the course. Our neighbors are slalom course super stars and I wanted a lesson. Sure, I had played in the course when I was younger and developed some skills thanks to endless days on the lake and an old boyfriend who was addicted to skiing, but I never really learned proper technique. I decided I wanted to learn and signed up for the Midthun School of Water-skiing.

Jens Midthun showing me how its done while watering the trees

“Well we have a time slot at the Quarry today from three to five if you want to join us.” Steve said to me as I rolled down the window while driving out of the driveway to say hello. I was a bit nervous but agreed. My last attempt in the course had landed me with an amazing wipe-out resulting in a punctured eardrum. I remembered losing my equilibrium and in the few minutes it took for the other ear to take over and equalize I could not swim straight to save my life and had to be pulled from the water. I told myself this time would be different. I packed up the old ski (which I am certain is the same age as Jens), grabbed my life vest and gloves and met them in the driveway. We trailered the boat about twenty minutes giving the rain time to back off. There were two courses on the lake and we chose the far one, it was more sheltered from the wind and had a longer approach on each side allowing the skier time to compose themselves after getting pulled up before having to navigate the course.

The course in perfect water

A little background on competition water-skiing is needed before I continue. In tournament slalom skiing, a course is set up with colored buoys and consists of a set of entrance gates, six target buoys (three on each side which the skier must ski around) and a set of exit gates. The buoys sit at a distance of 37.5 feet from the center of the wake and thankfully do move when you hit or ski over them! Competitions require official drivers and approved boats such as the Correct Craft we were using, MasterCraft, Malibu, and Moomba. These fancy boats are equipped with precision speed control, such as PerfectPass, in order to minimize speed variations to keep speed and safety consistent for all competitors. It is just this issue that keeps water-skiing out of the Olympic Games - how exactly does one keep the speed consistent for all competitors behind a motorized vehicle? PerfectPass may have solved this problems. In addition, times are measured from the entrance and exit gates to ensure exact speed, for example a pass at 34.2mph is 16.95 seconds from entrance to exit buoy.

Example of competition water-ski and wakeboard boats by Malibu

After successfully clearing the gates and all target buoys, the boat driver will increase the speed by 2 mph. With each successful pass, the speed is increased up to a maximum of 36 mph for men and 34.2 mph for women. At this point, the rope length is shortened with each completed pass. The rope is not rainbow colored for decoration, each color signifies a distance “off” the the original length of the rope which is 75 feet. Today I would make my attempt on the red part of the rope or at what is known as fifteen off (of 75). Between each color are knots and holes allowing the rope to be placed over the pylon in the center of the boat. Ski boats are inboards, meaning the engine is inside the boat allowing for a smaller wake.

Photo courtesy of Aquaskier.com
Competition water-ski rope. Photo courtesy of Aquaskier.com

Most professional competition events start at 28 or 32 off. When skiing at 38 off, the rope length is now shorter than the distance from the center of the boat to the target buoys. The skier must then use his/her body to stretch out around the target buoys, so height helps! The score is based on buoys cleared and a skier must make it back to the center of the wake before falling for the buoy to fully count. It is also possible to be awarded 1/2 or 1/4 of a buoy. A skier’s score is based upon the number of successful buoys cleared and the length of the rope and once they fall, their score is complete. Heaps more info on history and competition on USA Water Ski, they have all the goods. Currently, Chris Parrish (USA) holds the Men’s World Record with 1 and 1/2 buoys at 43 off. Kristi Overton Johnson (USA) and Karina Nowlan (AUS) both hold the Female World Record with 1 buoy at 41 off - that is some serious skiing!

Number one ranked Karina Nowlan
World record co-holder Karina Nowlan

For the first part of the session I watched as Jens and Steve cleared the course at 34mph and at 22 and 28 off. Steve even gave “lucky green” a whirl which is 32 off. In addition to the talented skiing, I was witness to some impressive boat handling. The length of the lake is not long and the driver needs to know what he is doing to prevent the boat from being driven up on shore (it has happened) as well as aim the bow through all the gates.

Steve Midthun at 28′ off

My turn next. Ski on I got in the water and was told that when the boat hits the first set of green gates I was to ski wide left. When the boat hit the next set of orange buoys I was to cut far right through the entrance gates across and and around the first buoy. Ok, I thought, no problem. I can do this. Just pretend the buoys are not there and ski like you normally would. Right. The first pass I made one buoy, so by my calculation I was 15 off and one. Hm. No so awesome a start. They had slowed the boat speed to 27mph to give me more time to get round the target buoys. Problem with more time and slower speed is it necessitated proper course technique which I realized I was lacking. After missing the gate I skied to the end to drop for a pep talk.

I’m up…

I listened as Steve explained to aim for the side of the buoy, not at it. The ski needed to be cutting into the wake, not flat across to carry speed. I turned much stronger on one side making it harder to get across the wake on my weak side and make the buoy in time. “Bend your knees and lean back,” he explained. “If you try to pull too hard and jam out of the turn you in fact are pulling against the boat and its gonna win. Try to pull when behind the boat. It’s not that different from the body positioning of downhill skiing.” he concluded. A light-bulb went on -  downhill ski talk I could understand.  A few more attempts and I managed two buoys. The most tiring part was getting up at each end and I signaled for a break.

Around the first buoy

This time I really studied Steve and Jens while they skied a second pass, seeing how they actually pulled when they were behind the boat and how effortless they made it seem. My turn again and I managed three and realized just like downhill skiing, when you “edged” the ski into the wake, it cut through easily and I could lean back and stand on it, getting across to the other side in time to make the turn, speed no longer an issue. Last effort before my hands felt like they were going to uncurl from the handle, I managed four buoys. In fact I was so surprised to make four I forgot to repeat what I had done right and missed the fifth. I decided this sport was extremely addicting.

Think I am getting the hang of it…

“You know,” Steve said, “Once you can do four, you can do six!” While this option was tempting, my arms were definitely sore (if not now longer) and I am pretty sure the skin on my hands was peeling off. Saved by the arrival of the next group on course we called it quits. For the time being though I have lots of new tricks to practice in my free skiing. Just need to find a driver….and spend more time near water. Thinking about giving it a whirl? Click Lakes/Oceans water-ski section for some sanctioned schools and hit it!

Shout out to my bro who can still rip and is a patient driver…

Jun 10, 2009

Forza Albenga and Finale

The last stop on our climbing road trip was Italy….aaahhhhhItaly! We set up camp at the Hotel Punta Est in Finale Ligure the Italian climbing mecca, home to over 2000 climbing routes. The hotel, an 18th century Genovese villa was situated high on a hill over looking the Mediterranean Sea.

Hotel Punta Est. Finale, Italy
Hotel Punta Est. Finale, Italy

Finale and its neighboring town Albenga are home to some of Europe’s best limestone climbing and in addition offers some of the region’s best road and mountain biking complete with a sandy white beach and great food to greet you at the end of a long day recreating. Finale also boasts the beautiful old Medieval town of Finalborgo perfect to wander around while enjoying coffee and gelato. It is also home to the famous climbing shop Rockstore where one can find the two guidebooks for the area, Finale 007 and Oltrofinale 007. Next door is the bike shop Riviera Outdoor, ground zero for the Italian bike mecca. Town was crowded not only due to the Italian Independence holidays, but also packed with bikers for the tenth annual bike race The 24 Hours of Finale.

Michelle climbing at Telematica. Castelbianco, Italy

The first day we headed to a an area called Telematica in Castelbianco, a small village just outside of Albenga. This area is comprised of five different valleys with endless areas most of them bolted in the last five years. Telematica and its computer-themed routes (MP3, Download, Outlook) was bolted around 2004 has a variety of routes ranging from 4c to 7a, great for both beginners and experts with a nice area to belay and have lunch. The approach is only ten minutes and definitely do-able in flip flops. We spent a full day climbing the routes on beautiful drip limestone starting from right to left until finally the heat of the direct Italian sun drove us back to the beach.

Enchanted rock at Basura (Witch’s Rock)
Lyndsay on Kazaa

Day two we headed back to Castelbianco and hiked up around half an hour to two areas (three are accessible by the same trail)  Basura which means Witch’s Rock, and Colosseo. The story tells of Ninetta, an old local woman who lived alone in the caves at the base of this cliff. Living alone served as classification of whitchery, hence the name witch’s rock. The name also suits due to the funky and cool-stratified limestone.

Michelle at Rocca del Perti. Finale, Italy
View of Finale from above

The last day we climbed closer to home in Finale itself. Finale is notoriously hard with its ratings and at certain areas a 5c can easily seem like a 6a. The limestone is famous for its small pockets and finger holes than can destroy fingers in minimal time. We were all pleased that solid callouses had finally appeared on our fingers! Another easy approach and a weekend day meant for a handful of people at the crag but after a few words of hello and pleasantries we merged into one large climbing group sharing ropes and beta on each climb. We ended our road trip on the beach followed by a grilled fish dinner over which we decided to reunite in the fall to check out the climbs of Mallorca, Spain. Until then, climb on…