When golden water skis skimmed the slough | Guest editorial

A look back on life on the Sammamish River.

  • Friday, December 28, 2018 8:30am
  • Opinion

If you’ve lived here for awhile, you’ve heard about the boat races held yearly on the Sammamish Slough (Sammamish River) between 1934 and 1976. If you’ve lived here even longer, you may remember watching the races. But how many of you knew that there were water ski races on the slough, too? Not as big as the slough race but still a big spring event, the annual Golden Water Ski Race was a yearly happening between 1948 and 1963.

The idea for the race was spawned by the Olympic Water Ski Club, established in Seattle in 1941 by Don Ibsen. Ibsen was an avid water skier who’s considered one of the fathers of water skiing, especially for his efforts in promoting the sport. As early as 1934, he was selling pairs of water skis for $19.95 (the equivalent of about $375 today), and the ski club that he established seven years later was the first such club in the country. Its skiers happily skied local lakes for the club’s first few years but were soon looking for a bigger challenge. The Sammamish Slough, already popular with the boat races, seemed the natural answer.

To appreciate the race, you have to appreciate that before the mid-1960s the river was not the same river it is now. Instead it was a serpentine, narrow waterway with hazards galore lurking among 63 turns spread out along 13 miles between Redmond and Kenmore. Weeds and sandbars dotted the river, loose logs floated just below the surface, and the hazards changed depending on the water level. Tight passage underneath the Bothell Bridge and sharp curves near Bothell’s Wayne Golf Course presented more predictable problems. Still another obstacle was a persistent log jam in the river near Woodinville where a mill remained in operation; sometimes skiers had only a six-foot margin between the jam and the shoreline.

The first race, on May 2, 1948, started at Pete’s Place on Lake Sammamish and snaked through the slough to Kenmore and then down Lake Washington to Sand Point. (This excursion down the lake added five miles to this particular race, but it turned out to be a one-off. Later races were held just on the slough.) Out of roughly 11 contestants in that first race, Ibsen took top honors with a time of 40 minutes.

By the early 1950s, the race had become a two-way, 26-mile long race that consisted of two separate rounds — an initial race along the river from one lake to another, followed by a return race along the same route. There were two or three different classes of races held, based on the type of boat and the size of its engine, and anywhere between 20 and 50 rider-skier teams competed each year. The event was usually held in May, occasionally in April, within a week or a few weeks after the boat race, and it had many of the same participants that the boat race did.

Some of the early well-known names in the Golden Water Ski Race were Al Benson, Bob Jacobsen and Bill Schumacher. Some women participated, including Jannette Burr (later Jannette Johnson) and Ibsen’s kid sister Norma Lyons (later Norma Williams). Beginning in 1953 and continuing for most of the next decade, Ibsen’s sons Don Jr. and Ron teamed up and competed in the races, making it even more of a family affair.

The race wasn’t for lightweights. On some of the straightaways, skiers could hit speeds up to 65 mph, and the risks of a mishap were real. The Bothell Bridge was a particular menace. Just a slight miscalculation in aiming for the limited clearance between the bridge pillars meant crashing into the bridge. In one such accident in the 1958 race, Harry Wurster sailed into one of the bridge’s trestle pilings and knocked out a couple of teeth. Sometimes skiers simply slammed into each other when they were trying to pass, or they slammed into other obstacles. Other times, a boat ran aground and left the skier stranded onshore, forlornly watching his competitors speed by.

It’s hard to read newspaper accounts of the races from the 1950s and not be struck by the casual attitude that seemingly everyone had toward the chance of serious injury or even death. But casual they were, and racers kept zipping through the slough at increasing speeds. The final race in 1963 was won with a record time of 42 minutes and 23 seconds by Bud Sullivan (driver) and Lew West (skier), a pair who teamed up to win four races between 1959 and 1963. West was a character who was in plenty of ski competitions in those days, an aquatic artiste who loved playing for the crowd. A 1995 Seattle Times article describes him as “the entertainer who never shied away from a stunt if it got a good laugh.”

Not long after the 1963 race, the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a prodigious project to dredge, widen and straighten the Sammamish Slough. The reconstructed river opened in 1966, but it wasn’t the same, and in more ways than one. The river had changed, and people were changing, too. Skiing’s heyday was passing, and the Golden Water Ski Race didn’t come back to the new slough. The boats-only races continued (with declining interest) for another decade, but after 1976 they, too, were consigned to history.

There’s a terrific video of some of the races on YouTube under the title “Lake Washington Slu Waterski Races 1950s.”

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