1 Day, 40+ Different Ski Rides to Celebrate Turning 40 Years Old
My big 4-0 birthday was coming up, and I was compelled to uphold the family’s skiing tradition with a “fun” event. My 86-year old grandmother Mary Murphy had already Sky Skied to Catalina Island and back every year on her birthday since turning 80. Fifty-two miles across the open ocean is no small feat for anyone, let alone an octogenarian. Grandma spent over four hours each trip, and yes there are shark sightings!
So what was I to do? I was hanging out with Roger Crocker, wondering what I should do for my birthday. He suggested 40 laps around Canyon Lake, a distance of about 80 miles. I took his 40 laps idea to the next level, wondering if I could do 40 laps on 40 different things.
He loved the idea, and volunteered me right away. I took out a piece of paper and we came up with 27 items that day.
Over the next few weeks I contacted friends all over the world to get suggestions for my list. It wasn’t long before it was over 40 items long, and included things like a snowboard, snow skis, grandma’s picnic table, and canoe paddle.
As the list grew to over 60 items, I picked out the items that I knew I could get up on and ride. Then my birthday idea grew into a real monster. Somewhere along the way I also decided to attempt every trick I have ever done in skiing. A quick rundown of my trick list made 400 individual tricks seem possible. With all that skiing I decided shorten the 40 laps to a much “easier” 40 miles, and the 40-40-400 was born; 40 miles on 40 different things and at least 400 different tricks.
I approached the Canyon Lake Ski Club to sponsor the event, and help me to get special permission from the city. The club agreed to help out and “Huge Al” Van took over to help me organize the 40-40-400 with the city. I also decided to turn the event into a fundraiser for our local YMCA group. It just made sense to me to have an event that helped the youth in our local community.
Over the next few months it was a mad dash to assemble all the equipment. Herb O’Brien, my long time sponsor, gave me everything I needed from HO Sports, Hyperlite, and Accurate ropes. Billy Meistral from Body Glove set me up with a wide array of wetsuits and headwear. My biggest concern would be cold weather (which turned out to be correct), and I knew that having the right gear would go a long way to keep me going strong. Chuck Sacks from California Skier agreed to provide ground support and all the MasterCraft boats.
With everything coming together it was time for some serious practice. I was having the time of my life recovering long lost tricks, and learning new skills almost every time I rode. Snow skiing on water was inspired by Ed Brazil, disc and ladder 360s came from my friend Doug Pierce, and riding on wood planks came from those crazy Aussies. On each set I took at least 10 items and spent well over an hour straight in the water.
The rain came in early November and also shut down our lake. It was time to switch practice sites to the Marine Stadium in Long Beach. Our family had a great time at our old skiing grounds hanging out and riding. My uncles Mike, Pat, or Nick usually drove, with grandma taking 10 or 12 laps and cousin Melissa or Charlie Saunders riding in between my marathon sets. My parents, sister, and friends stopped by most days for a couple months of the skiing days that were the stuff dreams were made of!
I was ready to ski my brains out, but the home lake was still touch and go. We got another freak storm that dumped rain and even snow. Now when it snows here in Southern California, it’s front-page news. We got a few inches of the white stuff here in Canyon Lake, enough for the kids to make snowmen and snow angels. The lake temperature also dropped another 8-10 degrees to about 58. Brrrr!
At about this time I also found out that Guinness World Records turned down my official request for a record attempt of “most skiing devices and most tricks in one day”. Guinness replied by email: “While we certainly do not underestimate your proposal, we do however think that this item is a little too specialised for a body of reference as general as ours. We receive many thousands of record claims every year and we think you will appreciate that we are bound to favour those which reflect the greatest interest.”
Oh yeah, guys sitting in tanks with scorpions is a general record. Talk about bad news!
On a side note…I have since skied on the actual book, and will apply again for a record in 2015. The only question is…will my 50-50 ride on the Guinness Book be one of celebration or protest?
I was depressed. Guinness turned me down and now it looked as if I would not be able to use Canyon Lake. Huge Al Van came to my rescue and worked wonders with the city. He was able to confirm my event with me as the lone rider, even if the lake was not open to the general public. I was much relieved that the lake opened to everyone on the Wednesday before the event. I was happy to have a chance at 4-generations riding and flipping on the Sky Ski with my 5 year-old son (I had been practicing gainers with a backpack full of 50 pounds of rocks).
The day of the event was cool and foggy. The lake was 58 and so was the air temperature. It took three trucks stuffed to the gills to cart all of my gear down to Sunset Beach. “Coach” Dave Spies took over as my equipment manager, carefully watching over the 80+ items that were lined up on the beach! With the 7:30 am start time come and gone it was nervous time. It was still too foggy to ride. Finally at 8:30 uncle Mike took the helm of the MasterCraft and I got suited up. It was still pretty overcast, but just clear enough to make the laps.
The guys from the Carter-Trigg Video crew took their spots and we were off and running at 8:45. The first few laps were exhilarating. It was tough to see, but not so bad for me just following the boat. I was trying to stay warm and conserve energy so my first few laps were “easy” rides. Shore starts and beach landings kept me snug and dry. I had also dressed warmly with 5/7 mm Body Glove wetsuit and 2 hoods. My first fall came on the Ski Skimmer. The crash was out the back after flying over our own boat rollers at about 20 mph. Surprise! The water didn’t seem that cold. Each lap was a mile long, so I spent a little time doing some tricks, and then just hung out behind the boat to conserve energy.
After about 10 laps, the fog lifted to gray skies. On each lap I heard a few groups around the lake cheering me on. We had several stories in the local papers and people were watching from the warmth and comfort of their waterfront homes!
A small but enthusiastic crowd gathered on the beach, giving hearty rounds of applause as I finished each lap. We had a PA set up and Al Van pumped up the curious spectators. The local YMCA had a table set up for donations, which eventually reached $1000. Coach Spies had each new device ready for me to ride, and the precision on shore and in the boat was fantastic! The 40-40-400 was a well-oiled machine.
The Sit-Ski was my first fun ride. It was about 20 years since I rode one, but how hard could it be? I sat down on a yellow cushion with two skis attached by a series of metal bars. I jammed my feet in the bindings and leaned back to start, just like on a Sky Ski. It was easy to pivot the skis and carve. The speed the maneuverability of the Sit-Ski was impressive. It was just a little disconcerting to not have a seat belt after years of riding a Sky Ski.
The race ski was a rush, once I got the bindings on. I needed a little help from my equipment assistant Kevin Morris, and a bottle of shaving cream to slip right in. Too bad the boat only did about 45 mph. I was thumbing them up the whole way on the fastest lap of the day.
The backwards-back slalom ski was suggested by Peter Nelson of Amphibian Stunts. I had never ridden one before preparing for this event, but it seemed simple enough. Eddie Roberts of HO Sports mounted a pair of bindings backwards on a slalom ski. Learning to start proved to be another trick. I ended up doing a forward start with the ski backwards. Once I got up I did a 180 front-to-back hop to get in position. It was surreal to be zooming backward at 27 mph and really carving. At least I didn’t have to ask how big my spray was. Mine was just over head-high.
My next “odd” act was double pailings. For this I used two pieces of wood that were each 1″x 4″ x 5′. They were just two pieces of wood with no bindings and no fins. I heard the Aussies have some crazy race that includes these, so I had to salute the skiers from Down Under. In the case of pailings, getting up on two boards was much harder than one. It took dozens of attempts before the event to figure out how to get started. The key was to keep my butt down deep in the water during the start and think of it as a giant rudder.
My demo kneeboard was a hand shaped foam and fiberglass kneeboard that I made for HO Sports in the 1980s. TO make this one I used a surfboard shaper who crafted the board to my specifications. It was a little different to ride without a sturdy strap and a taped on flat kneepad, but it was easy to get an idea of the general turning and spinning characteristics of a board. This one worked well enough for all of my basic surface turns.
My hot dog ski was another fun ride. I kicked it off with a helicopter dock start on my 63” inch ski out of the Vertical Air mold. My ski was a gift from Herb O’Brien who used special joker graphics for a one of a kind look. Hot-dogging became popular in the 1980s in part because of the widespread magazine and video coverage I received. Hot dogging was a short-lived ski style that faded as the simplicity of wakeboarding took over. I pulled off a few of the old moves and had a flashback to my moment in the sun.
Now the swivel ski isn’t normally a male act, but that didn’t stop me. Gary Thompson of Water Ski Shows, Inc. loaned me the big ol’ wooden ski. It had a size 3 binding that swiveled 180 degrees. I turned, but the ski stayed in the same direction. It was a lot harder than it looked. I had a lot of respect for the girls who pulled off a myriad of graceful gyrations. My big move was an ugly 180.
Oh, the stand-up hydrofoils. Did we actually think these things were fun to ride? These were the original water ski hydrofoils designed by Woodward in the 1960s. Once upon a time the stand-ups were fun, but not for my 40-40-400. It was a challenge to tame the bucking action of both the 3′ and 5′ pair.
Riding blindfolded came next. I got the idea for this after reading an article on blind skiers in The Water Skier. So I took an old pair of swim goggles and put duct tape on the inside so that I couldn’t see. A volunteer from the audience confirmed that I would not be able to see. I put a spotter in the boat with a whistle just in case I got close to anything dangerous. My idea was to blindfold myself on the beach, and not take them off until I returned to the same spot.
The feeling of riding without seeing was a bit unnerving. I’ve heard of skiers who closed their eyes for a few seconds during a run, but committing to not seeing for a whole ride was another story. At first I wanted to try and see. After a while I was able to let my body take over and feel the water. Slalom skiing was first. It was hard to tell exactly where I was behind the boat. I gauged my position with a slight cut to the right or left and a ride over the wakes.
Next, I rode the Sky Ski blindfolded. I was a whole new experience to switch from my single ski and strap into the Sky Ski; all in the blind. Riding the Sky Ski required control of not only right and left, but also up and down. The up and down part was a bit tricky without vision because it was hard to tell how much foil was in the water. I rode easily, crossed the wakes, and even did a few jumps. But making a back roll was my goal. Uncle Mike told me he had been riding one day, closed his eyes, and pulled off five rolls in a row without looking. I had a practice run like that too, but the feeling was different. There was a lot of comfort in knowing that I could open my eyes if I got in trouble. I didn’t have that chance with the taped up goggles. The timing for the pop was the hardest part. My first attempt was an under-rotation because of a bad takeoff. On the next try I decided to really go for it, and the air backside roll was perfect. It was a highlight of the day for me, and sure to be one flip I will remember for a long time. It’s really true that a flip on the Sky Ski is so easy that you can do it blindfolded!
Riding on 40 different devices required “out of the box” thinking. The snowboard was one such example. Chuck Sacks was bold enough to let me borrow his board. Riding the snowboard behind the boat required a lot of weight on my back foot. I really had to overemphasize the surface turns to ride switch stance. There was a moderate amount of drag too. I did get some air on the jumps, but the ride wasn’t really that fun. It just had to be done.
While I had on a waterlogged pair of snowboard boots, it was time to click into the air board (stand up hydrofoil wakeboard). The model I chose was the Convertible by Sky Ski. My 18th ride of the day included a few jumps across the wakes in both directions and a Method air Jump in the flats. The feeling of unease was always with me, and I still felt like I needed to take it easy. There was so much leverage on my lower body that I always worried about breaking and ankle.
Skip Gilkerson would have been proud of my next act, the shoe skis. I didn’t have a sequined jumpsuit, but certainly would have worn one in homage if it were available. The shoe skis I used were a homemade pair on loan from former back barefoot drag record holder Wayne Wilms. He used raw ¾″ wood with the original old-time white rubber bindings. My 19th act of the day was the first time I really got cold for a minute. I got a shot of water up my suit after the flying dock start. It was short lived however as I repeated my mantra for the day, “I am a monk in the snow wearing nothing but a robe. I am not cold.” Everyone on the beach kept saying how cold I must be, but I just smiled through my rubber hood. I got in all of the shoe skiing basics, plus a 2-wake daffy and wake 360. I’d like to try flips someday, like my shoe ski heroes Zane Schwenk and Matt May.
The next run was one of my toughest. Local barefooting star Bill von Zabern loaned me a pair of barefoot trainers. I laced into a pair of high top shoes with a soft foam bottoms just wider than the shoes. They were considerably smaller than shoe skiis, but offered more surface area than barefooting. I got to ride at 30 mph instead of the 40 mph required for barefooting. This is where my martial arts training carried the ride. My sensei, Ray Giaccomi, taught me how to develop internal energy, or chi. The “horse stance” was one pose we always trained with, and applying its principles was vital to my success for that ride and beyond. I had a few moments of wanting to let go, but blanked out the pain and finished the lap.
After such an exhausting lap, it was time for an easy one. The wakeskate was next. I had only been riding this for a couple months, and I could see why it had become fairly popular. The new board from Hyperlite worked great and I was able to pull off surface turns and the basic 2-wake backside jump.
The kneeboard runs deep in my family. Uncle Mike was the co-inventor of the first production kneeboard, the Knee Ski, in 1972. I rode that first board when I was 8 years old and was told to do a 360 or swim in. I made that 360 and went on to have great success in kneeboarding. My kneeboard run for the 40-40-400 was strong and coming into the beach I pulled a series of five different inverts. Unfortunately, the camera guy couldn’t keep up with me as he ran out of film.
My next run was one that I spent a lot of time agonizing over. Hot dogging on a standard slalom ski was my biggest claim to fame through the years. Again, this was passed down from uncle Mike who was the original hot dogger in the 1960s and 1970s. Out on Canyon Lake fatigue was definitely starting to set in. I tried a couple over overhead tick tocks, but wasn’t even close. The old show skier kicked back in and Mike drove the boat in a show pattern for the crowd on the beach. The one big trick I thought about the most for this event was my front flip. It was my breakthrough move in 1984, and it had to be done. I had only done a handful of front flips in the past 15 years. I made one about two months earlier at the River to prove I could still do it, and made a dozen or practicing for the Worlds Greatest Skier Contest. The front flip was brutal, and the landing often sent a serious jolt through my whole body, even when you I did it right. There was no getting around it, I just had to get through it. On my first try the boat speed was a bit slow and I landed back. The next one was perfect. I cleared my mind and thought of nothing except a riding away with a perfect landing. It worked. The feeling of landing that move was my most exciting moment of the day. I had planned on retiring the front flip at his event, and I was fortunate enough to do it on my own terms, knowing it was to be my last.
We pulled the boat and towed it over to the slalom course for some buoy chasing. Fortunately no one was crazy enough to be out in these conditions. I was going on 4 hours and more than halfway done. The water in the slalom course was about five degrees colder, so I didn’t dally. The camera guys went for sandwiches, but I couldn’t wait. With Chris O. at the helm and official judge Debbie Sacks riding shotgun, I pounded 22’ and 28’ off. I thought I had my 32’ pass after rounding the 5 ball, but my arms had other ideas.
Next was kneeboard slalom. I specialized in this back in the day and even once ran 35′ off at 24 mph to win a National Title. The trick was to get going fast across the wake and stay low. My first 22′ off pass produced one of my best falls of the day. The kneeboard I rode was a 20 year old foam-filled with a single locking Velcro strap. I had to roll the strap over and push it against my leg so the strap stayed on. I obviously did not roll it over enough because I ejected across the wake headfirst with a full cut. Things could have gone wrong, but fortunately I was o-kay. So I strapped in and started over, eventually running 28′ off at 24 mph.
My single trick ski run produced the best recovery of the day. I had been training with the rope tied high, but the boat we were in only had a low pylon. I went for the back roll three times, and the last one hung in the balance for at least ten seconds. He’s up, he’s down. I just gutted it out because I didn’t want to try another one. It was good enough for the day, but would have been a disaster in a 20 second trick run.
We pulled the boat again and the entourage headed for the jump lagoon. It was a half mile trip along a winding dirt road with lots of ups and downs. Half the trick was just getting there!
My mom brought me a turkey sandwich I ate it on the run. I also spent the day downing fruit, supplements, and a whole lot of water.
I strapped on jumpers for the first time in four years. It was no problem to do ride overs and the heli, but the gainer was another story. I really believed I would make this trick with just a few tries, but it wasn’t to be. I came close on a couple of my five or six attempts, but had to move on. It was my first big “miss” of the day.
What would clown skiing be without a clown outfit. I donned the Joker outfit my sister in law Connie made for me that appeared in the HO Joker ads in the 1980s. It was complete with jingling jester headgear. I told Chris O to hit it and did a front flip bail out of the skiis and off the dock. Even though it’s a move you’ve seen a few times, it still got everyone going for a good laugh. Next up was the ramp. I bailed out at the top and did a front flip long dive off the top. I was just glad everything came out in one piece because my last long dive was 20 years earlier at the Magic Mountain Ski Show in Southern California. I missed quite a few of the old standard clown moves because we were running late to get back to the main beach for the “big show”.
There wasn’t time for a break so I jumped in my car, the Ratmobile, and made my way back to the main lake in full skiing gear. My car was wet inside for two days after that. A hearty crowd of a few dozen souls braved the elements to witness what I had planned as the main show. Conditions were starting to turn windy, but spirits were high.
My first act started with a thud. I went for the single pailing, but grabbed the wrong one. I usually ride the one marked “T”, not the one with “K”. The “K” has developed a rocker that threw me off. I usually make the first start but this time it took me six tries. I thought that a piece of wood was just a piece of wood, but I learned otherwise that day.
Next up was a crowd favorite and another lesson learned. Don’t borrow a picnic table. I practiced this act at the Marine stadium with my grandmother’s picnic table. It was the red one she had in her back yard for 20 years, and our family shared many a meal on that table. Grandma’s picnic table worked perfectly and I was able to pull off 180s, 360s, and walk arounds, no problem. I was even able to ride her picnic bench and do 180s to switchstance. In the days leading up to the 40-40-400 I was having a hard time getting all my gear organized, so I figured a picnic table was a picnic table. Not so. Grandma’s was solid on top, and rode with very little drag. My borrowed table came for Craig Calabrese, had slats with wide gaps on top, and included the table and benches in one unit. The start was pretty easy, but the drag was intense. It was all I could do to hang on, and any surface turns were out of the question. The crowd seemed to like it though and there were laughs and cheers as I started and landed.
The next ride was the emotional highlight of my day, and I’m sure it moistened a few eyes in the crowd. 4-generations skiing was a beautiful experience. Great grandma Murphy (86), Uncle Mike (57), myself (40), and K2 (5). Uncle Mike and great grandma rode Sky Skis. I opted for the Kite Ski, and K2 picked his favorite, the wakeboard. It took a few minutes to get everyone settled. K2 was a real trooper in the cold water. We missed the first start, but he agreed to try it one more time. On the next attempt we rose in unison to the hoots and hollers of those on the beach behind us. I looked to my family on the the left and right and a tear came to my eye.
The big disc came next. After the standard surface turns I went for the big move, the disc headstand. I got the idea from picture in the book, Tommy Bartlett’s Guide to Water Skiing (Incidentally uncle Mike taught Tommy to ski on his 70th birthday). The picture shows the trick: double handles. In smooth water it was no problem to hold it for as long as I wanted, but the rough water made things tougher. I was able to get it up for a count five, and claim credit for the move.
Add a ladder to the disc and you have the disc and ladder. The ladder sat on the disc with no strings attached and I climbed up. I carefully put one foot on the fourth rung up, and my other foot on the paint step. Next I did a series of 180s and 360s. The hardest thing about this act was carting around the disc and ladder. Smoke and mirrors kicked in full swing. This was by far the most requested photo for magazine and newspaper articles. My deepest appreciation went to Doug Pearce, the master of disc, ladder, and dog. Yes, add a dog to any ski act and you can forget about the humans! The crowd was urging me on to go for the dog too, but “Old English” from the Canyon Lake Patrol got wind of it, and promptly informed me that there we no dog acts listed on my pre-approved schedule!
Let’s go surfin’ now. But this wasn’t just any surfboard. Local kahuna Ted Rupp had this board specially designed for inland surfing. He was one of the first guys ever to design a board specifically for surfing behind a boat, and the first one I know who tried to sell them. His “First Day Endless Surfboards” were a great idea, but cost too much for consumers because of the exorbitant shipping costs. His boards were wider and thicker than a regular surfboard, and had a lot of kick in the nose for riding the steep short waves behind the boat.
I was introduced to two-boat surfing by Mike Mack at the River. The technique involved getting up with as short rope and hanging out until the perfect bowl formed from the two boats. With a hip high endless wave it was possible to do many tricks. My 40-40-400 ride was another fun surf session, and the best part was I didn’t have to hang on to a rope!
A homemade kneeboard hydrofoil was next. I actually was the first person (guinea pig) to ride this device back in the 1980s for my uncle Mike. The big danger was ejecting from the board. I went sprawling once during a practice ride, but was lucky to only get a small cut on my shin from the free flying foil. For the 40-40-400 I used a Joker kneeboard bolted onto a two-foot hydrofoil. The ride was smooth, and it only took a couple of tries to stick a two-wake backside roll. The hydrofoil kneeboard was a cross between kneeboarding and Sky Skiing with a shot of fear thrown in. Wow!
With just a few rides to go conditions deteriorated rapidly. My arms were shot, but fortunately I never got cold. The wind and rain picked up. I strapped on my wakeboard with the help of some friends, and away I went behind the huge wake of the X-9. It was actually a little too big for me, as I usually did not ride behind a wakeboard boat. I made a Scarecrow regular and switch, along with a backside roll and Tantrum.
I thought the Sky Ski was going to be my last ride, and my body agreed. The rain came in droves, and it was near impossible to see going into the wind. I did manage to pull off a few good moves, but my gainer to roll combo became the gainer to head combo. My arms were screaming no more, and so was I. I was really planning on doing at least 50 moves on the Sky Ski but ended up with only 13.
Uncle Mike had brought his Solo for me to ride, but we had problems with it earlier in the day. He had gotten it up and running so there was one last ride. The Solo was a Personal Water Craft operated by the skier. I controlled the speed and direction with buttons in the ski handle. We revved it up, and away I went. There’s a lot to do to keep the Solo going, and being tired did not help. I rode a super wide kite boarding ski, but my arms abandoned me. They said no more, and let go on their own accord. That was the end of my 8-hour odyssey.