LACONIA — The 2nd annual Water Ski Boat Classic held at Opechee Point on Saturday offered a chance for veteran water ski racers from the 1960s and 1970s to share their memories of those exciting high speed races.
''We used to race five weekends a summer on Lake Winnipesaukee on Saturdays and Lake Winnisquam on Sundays ,'' said Frank Cook, who brought along some vintage wood water skis to the event. ''We'd go out from the Weirs on Saturday morning and then race on Winnisquam on Sunday.''
He recalled that the first three races of the summer were 32 mile events, followed by a 50 mile race and a final 65-mile race.
''We used to make our own water skis,'' said Cook, who recalled that many of the skis used for racing were actually made right in Laconia at the Northland Ski factory on Fair Street.
The event was organized by Tom Scribner, who said that he's had a lifelong passion for boats and used to water ski all the time during the 1970s.
''In the 1950s water skiing was the fastest growing recreational sport in the entire country and the Lakes Region was right in the thick of it. The 1954 national water ski championships were held right at Opechee Point and thousands of people showed up to watch. This is really a big part of our local history,'' says Scribner.
There were two major water ski clubs at that time, the Weirs Ski Club and the Winnisquam Boat & Ski Club, which organized the events.
Larry Brown was the president and organizer of the Weirs Ski Club and ran Cove Craft, whose products included water skis.
A New Hampshire Profiles magazine article from 1953 said the club would put on 13 shows during the summer and attracted audiences of thousands to Weirs Bay, Alton Bay, and Meredith, where they staged exhibitions both during the daylight hours and at night.
Club members competed at Lake Placid in the 1952 nationals where Bill Goodhue won the Veterans' Class in jumping, for men over 35, and was third in the Veterans' Overall Championships. Jack Beattie and Dick Binette placed high in Junior Boys' jumping, and Bill Trudgeon jumped off a tie for third place with Dick Pope Jr., in the Senior Men's Division. One of the club's girl skiers, Colleen Gallant, was chosen Miss New Hampshire, and went to the Atlantic City Beauty Pageant where she demonstrated water-skiing in the talent division, by means of color movies taken on Lake Winnipesaukee.
In the 1960s the emphasis shifted to high speed long-distance races with skiers like Brad Thompson and Gretchen Schwartzwelder leading the pack and those kind of races remained popular into the late 1970s when the sport gradually died out.
Scribner says that the increasing boat traffic on the lakes and liability insurance concerns led to its demise.
But the boats which were used like Magnums, Sidewinders and a Hydrostreams are still around, mostly 16 footers with 150 horsepower engines, although some had 200 horsepower according to Scribner.
Ron Lien of Gilford, who was on the same race team as Frank Cook, says that he and Cook switched off on the Winnipesaukee and Winnisquam races from year to year and that he once reached 94 miles per hour on water skis while towed by a boat with a blown drag engine.
On July 20 this year about a dozen water skiers got together for a run which took them from the Winnipesaukee Yacht Club dock in Gilford and around Parker Island, a 15-mile run, and Gary Cook, also a water ski racer, who was out with his Black Magnum race boat, saw his boat sink in 47 feet of water between Diamond Island and Tuftonboro Neck.
''I was lucky. A passing boater picked me up and stayed with the sunken boat. We got a crew together from Lakeshore Park and I dove down with others and we recovered it. It only took 45 minutes after we got it out of the water before we had the engine running,'' said Cook.