On May 2, 1948, the first annual Golden Water Ski Race is held on the 13-mile-long Sammamish Slough (also known as the Sammamish River), which flows from Redmond on Lake Sammamish to Kenmore on Lake Washington in northern King County. Something of an offshoot to the Sammamish Slough boat races that are held earlier in the spring, the Golden Water Ski Race features one big difference -- the speedboats are towing skiers. Though the ski race doesn't attract the number of racers or spectators as the boats-only slough race, it has every bit of the thrills and spills. The ski races will be run for 15 years before coming to an end in 1963.
Don Ibsen's Skis
The Sammamish Slough boat races were first held in 1934 and caught on fast, becoming such a big event by the late 1940s that Seattle's most avid water skiers decided to have a slough race of their own. Seattle's Olympic Water Ski Club sponsored the event, first held on Sunday, May 2, 1948. There were some 11 participants in the 18-mile, one-way race, which started at Pete's Place on Lake Sammamish and ended at the Sand Point Yacht Club on Seattle's Lake Washington waterfront. The jaunt down the lake to Sand Point added five miles to the course, and subsequent races didn't include it.
Appropriately, skier Don Ibsen (1910-1993), towed by Jim Harland, was the winner of the first race, finishing the course in 40 minutes. While Ibsen didn't invent water skiing, he's credited with being the chief pioneer of the sport in the Northwest and for later promoting it all over the country. In the summer of 1928, fresh out of Seattle's Roosevelt High School, Ibsen took a pair of seven-foot-long, eight-inch-wide cedar boards, which he bent, sanded, and shellacked. He then strapped a pair of tennis shoes to them and voila! -- Ibsen had the Northwest's first pair of water skis. He continued to make and improve skis and began selling them in 1934, initially charging $19.95 a pair (roughly $375 in 2018 dollars). He went on to establish the Olympic Water Ski Club in 1941, the first such club in the country, and in 1983 his pioneering role was recognized with his induction into the Water Skiing Hall of Fame.
A Spring Tradition
The Golden Water Ski Race was usually held in May, sometimes in April. It typically attracted between 20 and 50 drivers and an equal number of skiers, but it was common for fewer than half of them to finish the race, particularly after it became a two-way contest in later years. The event attracted many of the same names as the boats-only slough race, including Al Benson, Bob Jacobsen, and Bill Schumacher. Schumacher's son Billy skied the slough in the 1954 race at age 11, coming in second in the limited class.
One of the few women who competed was Don Ibsen's younger sister Norma Lyons (later Norma Williams), who skied in many of the early races. Jannette Burr (b. 1927), later Jannette Johnson, was another. Burr was the daughter of Wally Burr, a successful Seattle water-ski manufacturer. But she was more of a snow skier, so good that she competed in women's ski events at the 1952 Winter Olympics and later served as Lucille Ball's skiing double in "Lucy Goes to Sun Valley," a 1958 episode of the TV show The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.
Cavalier Attitudes, Consequential Risks
By the early 1950s the water-ski race had become a two-way contest: one heat from Lake Washington to Lake Sammamish and a return heat back along the same course. (In later years the order of the heats was reversed, with the first starting on Lake Sammamish.) Races were divided into various classes depending on the boat type and engine size, though there were never more than four classes (and usually only two or three), a far cry from the dozen classes of the boats-only races during their heyday.
The skiers, who sometimes reached speeds of 65 miles per hour, faced even more challenges than the drivers. On occasion two skiers' tow ropes would tangle, sending both flying into the water. A persistent log jam near Woodinville (the result of a mill in operation nearby) created other challenges. Sometimes the skiable clearance between the jam and the shore was only six feet, and shooting through the narrow chute was like speed-threading a needle. Sometimes a skier would miscalculate and smash into a pier or the notoriously dangerous Bothell Bridge, where a fraction of a second meant the difference between gliding safely through the narrow gaps between its pillars or crashing. The latter happened in the 1958 race when Harry Wurster smacked into a trestle piling at the bridge, cutting his face and losing several teeth. Yet despite the risk of serious, perhaps fatal, injuries, contemporary newspaper race accounts indicate that drivers, skiers, spectators, and reporters alike had an almost-cavalier attitude toward the perils.
As the race continued through the 1950s and into the 1960s, other names became prominent at the front of the pack. Dick Brunes (driver) and Ray Moore (skier) were a winning combo for three years in the mid and late 1950s, but they were subsequently topped by Bud Sullivan (driver) and Lew West (skier), who won three in a row between 1959 and 1961 and a fourth race in 1963, a feat unequalled by any other team. That last year the Sullivan and West duo also set the final two-way course record of 42 minutes, 23 seconds. West's victories were fitting. He was a longtime participant in the slough race, having signed up for the inaugural 1948 event (though he failed to place in the top three), and having participated in numerous other ski competitions throughout the Seattle area during water skiing's heyday between the 1940s and the 1960s. West was also a bit of a clown: A 1995 Seattle Times article describes him as "the entertainer who never shied away from a stunt if it got a good laugh" ("In Their Wake…"), and a picture of West in a 1959 issue of same paper, happily hamming it up on a pair of skis, confirms this.
Sullivan and West's records were a good way to end the ski-racing tradition, because the 1963 event was the last on the slough. Later that year the Army Corps of Engineers began a massive project to dredge, straighten, and widen the Sammamish River. When the altered river reopened for racing in 1966 the boats-only races resumed, but the Golden Water Ski Race did not, a casualty of changing times.