Out of My Element – The Need for Speed: Ruston shines as host for the world’s fastest

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It’s not easy to admit, but there are sports out there that I’m not crazy about. There are usually a variety of reasons involved, but most come down to either my ignorance of the sport, or my previous, utter failure at taking a crack at it myself. The world of water skiing falls squarely into the second category. If they were to give out awards for water skiing in my youth, I would have easily received the “abject failure” prize, and that’s not stretching the truth one iota.

Speaking of stretching, have you ever felt like a wishbone at Thanksgiving? That was the overriding theme one sunny day, a little over 30 years ago. It was a gorgeous day on the water in Olympia, and I was hell-bent on learning how to water ski. While I had already mastered the fine art of inner-tubing, it was time to put on my big boy trunks and step up my game.

My first attempt to get up on the pair of skies resulted in my legs being pulled in opposite directions. Let me tell you, the wipeout wasn’t nearly as painful as performing the splits, entirely unplanned. I tried again and again, and the results weren’t any better. I was beginning to feel defeated, and the embarrassment was turning my sunburnt cheeks even redder.

It was at this moment in my life that I began to feel nothing but disdain for the sport of water skiing. Gone were my visions of jumping over shark pens, while wearing a leather jacket like Arthur Fonzarelli did way back when. No, I would stick to rocking the inner-tube, or an occasional run on a knee board. Other than that, this kid was not getting out of the boat.

When it was announced that the World Water Ski Racing Championships were coming to Point Ruston a few months back, I wasn’t exactly waving the pom poms around. However, once I got past my initial bitterness, I dug in and researched what it was that was about to go down on the waters of Commencement Bay.

My attention was quickly piqued when I saw that there would be boats with 1,600 horsepower engines. Okay, this is some serious business right here. What about the poor souls being dragged behind the boat? These men, women and juniors get up on a single ski, with the tow line wrapped around their waste and hind-end.

They are then whipped around a course while topping out around 100 miles per hour. With this knowledge, I was now sold on the event. When they noted that the men would be out on the water, at top speed, for a whole hour, I was completely dumbstruck. I was now convinced that these folks were absolutely nuts, and there was nothing that was going to stop me from taking this in first hand.

Day one of the races coincided with Ruston’s very first two-weekend Sun Fest Watersports Festival on Saturday, July 29. Two more races would take place during the following week, with the finals taking place on the following Saturday, Aug. 5.

My partner for the day was photojournalist Glen Casebeer. We got dropped off down at 11th and A St. to catch the free shuttle down the hill to Point Ruston. Not only was the trip there and back free, it was also air conditioned. Folks should make a note of this, as the service was lightly used the entire day.

The boardwalk down at Ruston was filled with beer gardens, sponsor tents offering all sorts of wares, and a variety of food trucks that seemed to cover a large swath of the palate. Prices were even respectable, especially the Fischer Scones truck, where I enjoyed the best strawberry shortcake that I have had in years.

As it often happens, things were running a little behind on opening day. It gave us an opportunity to chat with some of the folks that were making their first-ever trip to Tacoma. A couple of young Australians gave us a quick rundown of how the races would go off. Both were ski racers themselves, but for this event, they were there to cheer on one of their brothers.

Of course, when I think of saltwater, I immediately think of sharks. It’s a curse, and I blame it all on my parents for letting me see “Jaws” at such a young age. I took this opportunity to inform the Aussies about the huge, but friendly basking sharks that roam the Puget Sound waters. One of them responded that the next race on the circuit was the run to Catalina Island. Being a shark buff, I said “Great White City,” and he responded that they’ve already spotted several down there along the course this week.

My basking sharks just weren’t that impressive now, so I slipped off toward the sort of viewing area you can only get by getting to an event early. Of course, once I had rested my tail on my chosen rock, I remembered the orcas. How could I have forgotten about the orcas? I’m sure that would have impressed the Aussies a bit more. I’ll take an orca over a great white shark any day of the week. It was a moment lost.

At 11:39 a.m. the horn sounded and the engines roared to life. Sitting on the rocks on the shoreline, the front stretch of the action was right there in front of us. Organizers certainly picked a prime spot for the folks on shore to witness as much of the action, close-up, as possible. As the boats and the women racers whizzed by, I was already amazed at how fast they were moving.

As the boats tore up the water, skipping and jumping along, the skiers trailing them looked entirely different. It was if they were shooshing along on a sea of ice or glass. They’d bob up or down a little bit, but for the most part they were surprisingly smooth, considering the water flying about. When the boats and racers made their way, side by side, down the water, it instantly reminded me of something out of “Mad Max” or maybe even “Waterworld.”

The women rolled through the course for a full 45 minutes and it was nothing but fun. When the boats and skiers would navigate a turn, it was almost heart-stopping sometimes. I couldn’t believe how close the boats and racers got to each other. Did I mention that I think these folks are just a little bit nuts?

After the women’s race had ended, it was time to grab some fish and chips and prepare for the teenagers. In between the races, hot dog and water-skiing legend Tony Klarich made passes next to the shore doing all sorts of tricks and riding all sorts of novelties. Skydiver Luke Aikins dropped perfectly onto the water fountain area above the music stage. It was impressive, but still not up to par with these crazy skiers out there, blazing a path on the water.

The boys and girls races kicked off and while they weren’t going as fast as the women before them, they were still tearing it up considerably. Midway through the 30-minute run, the race was red flagged when Team Australia’s Cooper Robertson took a nasty spill on the far side of the course. The ambulance boat came out and carted the youngster off. Later, we would find out that he suffered a broken leg and an injured back. We hope the kid heals up proper and quickly.

After the ambulance action, all the boats and skiers headed back to the pits, as too much time had been eaten up to continue the junior’s race. They would be back in the water the following Monday and Wednesday though.

As one might expect, the men’s race was the fastest of the day. Videos on Youtube do not come close to showing the viewer just how fast these athletes are going. I’m pretty sure that one must have a level of fearlessness that is off the charts to attempt this sort of venture.

It only took one day for this guy to become a huge fan of this sport. No, you will never see me getting up on a ski or skis, that bird flew off a long time ago. However, I’m absolutely looking forward to the finals on Saturday, Aug. 5. The first race of the day will go off at 11:15 a.m. Plan on grabbing some sunscreen and then a shuttle down to Point Ruston. Bring the kids, they were having one heck of a time down there. Best of all, it’s a free event.

Did I mention that these folks are a little bit nuts?

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