Water skiing began in 1922 when Ralph Samuelson strapped two pine boards to his feet and had a boat drag him across the surface of Lake Pepin in Lake City, Minnesota, with a tow-rope made out of a clothesline. This crazy stunt soon developed into a full-fledged sport. Crazy stunts sometimes lead to crazy accidents. According to the US Coast Guard, skiing mishaps for recreational skiing in 2015 accounted for 301 accidents, 12 deaths and 319 injuries. Some statistics tend to group all boat-towing sports the same, whether the skiier is a wakeboarder, a kneeboarder, or a tuber. In a 2010 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Science, for example, between 2000 and 2007 there were 52,399 water skiing accidents, with injury rates dropping from 3.32 to 1.51 per 100,000 in that period, but this number does not include barefoot skiing. That same study stated that the most common body area injured in water skiing is the hip and legs (mainly a strain or sprain), followed by the head and neck (mainly lacerations), the trunk (mainly strains/sprains), and the arms and shoulders (mainly strains/sprains).
What these statistics really mean is that every year, someone gets badly injured or killed in a water skiing accident. Safety equipment such as helmets and bodysuits can help minimize injury, but even the most experienced and suited-up skiier can be subject to freak accidents. Which accidents are “the worst” depends on definitions. Is dying worse than being a paraplegic? Is death by getting one’s head stuck inside the handlebar worse than death by propeller? Is a vaginal or anal tear caused by high-speed water worse than two broken hips? Or are the circumstances of the accident the key criteria? Below you will see what my criteria are based on my ranking.
15. Ski Tip In The Face
In February 2014, Mike Flynn of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had a novel experience. That is saying a great deal since, as an EMT technician and firefighter as well as a former agent for the FBI’s counterterrorism unit, Flynn had experienced a lot. The 48-year-old man was training for the Nautique Big Dawg tourney in Guadalajara, Mexico, when the binding for one of his skis popped open. Flynn fell forward in the water. Not only did he do a face plant in the water, he did a face plant into the tip of his water ski. At first he treated the fall as something he could shrug off. He went to the bathroom to wash the blood off his face. In the mirror he saw a gap where the bridge of his nose should be. He could see the grey matter of his brain in the gap. He had eight hours of surgery that required 84 microscrews along with webbing and mesh to repair the hole. He needed additional surgery to repair his newly deviated septum.
14. Faith Healer, Heal Thyself
A “boy evangelist,” reported the New York Times August 12, 1950, was “gravely injured” in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a water skiing accident. On the surface, the news report of a water skiing injury in 1950 reveals that this extreme sport was now gaining enough attention to be considered “fit to print” by the “Grey Lady.” The truth is, though, that Walker’s fame was what made his injury fit to print. Walker was a well-known Pentecostal child preacher and faith healer who traveled the world with his handler Raymond Hoekstra. From time to time Walker was allowed to take a break from his schedule and spend time with his parents. According to The Evening Independent, David Walker, 15, was skiing at Little Bayou, being pulled along by a boat driven by his father. He was waving at his mother while she was snapping photos of him. In a moment of inattention, the boy evangelist steered into a piling. He received a cerebral contusion, a fractured jaw, and facial lacerations. Little David lived to become Big David, who continued to preach as an adult.
13. Cross-Training Gone Wrong
Patricia McCormick was an Olympic diving champion who won two gold medals in women’s springboard and women’s platform at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. On October 10, 1953, a year after her wins, she took some time out to participate in the newly popular sport of water skiing at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, California. Marine Stadium was created by dredging part of Alamitos Bay for the 1932 Olympics rowing competitions in Los Angeles. As a native of nearby Seal Bay, McCormick likely found Marine Stadium irresistible. While her towing boat was making a sharp turn, McCormick ran into some rocks. She needed 34 stitches to sew up the lacerations on her shoulders and back. No harm done, apparently: she went to win two more gold medals at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.
12. Handle Injury
Who knew that the handle for the towrope could be a hazard? But when the boat and the skier are skimming across the water at high speed, a flying handle contains a great deal of force, and that is a force that can easily cause harm to the unprotected skier. The U-shaped handle is fairly substantial, since it must be able to stay in one piece both when being used and when hitting the water during a fall. Scott D. Worthington of Montgomery, Pennsylvania, died in July 2005 while water skiing on Palmer Lake near Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Worthington, a Pennsylvania state trooper, was a member of the American Water Ski Association and overall avid sports enthusiast. He was slaloming. For that variety of water skiing, sometimes the skier holds the handle with one hand. From what observers could surmise, Worthington was holding the handle with one hand when somehow he lost his grip. The handle hit him on the head and broke his neck.
11. Collateral Damage
Have you ever been sitting in your boat and see a boat and skier heading towards you? Possibly you said to yourself, “Please don’t come any closer.” Maybe you even yelled that out at the approaching boat and skier. There is a reason why boats with skiers should steer clear of other boats. An illustration of this reason comes from an incident in late July 1962. James Denomme, a fifteen-year-old from Tecumseh, Ontario, was sitting in his boat in the Detroit River when another boat and its skier careened toward him. The skier came quite near the boat, so near, in fact, that the skier’s tow rope went over Denomme boat. Denomme raised his arm, and the tow rope wrapped around his wrist. In a blink of an eye, Denomme wrist was shattered by the passing tow rope’s force. The rope also tore off the front of Denomme shirt and caused friction burns on his torso. Denomme was expected to require numerous surgeries to repair the damage.
10. Amputation By Propeller
To get a picture of the badness of a water skiing accident, leave the details to medical experts. Below is an excerpt from John V. Banta’s “Epidemiology of Waterskiing Injuries,” published in the Western Journal of Medicine in June 1979, about an unnamed woman brought to a San Diego hospital. She was sitting in the water behind the boat and waiting for her boat to move forward and pull her up to her feet. However, the boat was accidentally put into reverse.
As Banta wrote: “The left leg and thigh were amputated, and severe propeller lacerations of the right thigh occurred before the woman could be pulled into the boat….Physical examination showed complete avulsion of the left sacroiliac joint with the ilium lying free on a pedicle flap of the iliac muscle. The left femoral artery was stretched from its surrounding muscle and was in spasm with no active bleeding. The posterior aspect of the right thigh had a deep propeller laceration extending from the pectineal muscles posteriorly with transection of the medial hamstring and adductor musculature.” The good news was that there was “no injury of the femur, iliac vessels and sciatic nerve.” After some scares with infection, the woman was fitted with a prosthetic leg. There likely was more good news, for the good news lovers out there. The injury resembled what Sue Ehrhardt experienced in 1977. Whoever the person in Banta’s article was, Ehrhardt has recovered well enough from her injury to become an accomplished golfer.
9. Paralysis While Training
Amber Rangel began barefoot water skiing while still in grade school. She continued to progress in the sport throughout her teen years as a member of the Rockford Ski Broncos in the state of Illinois. In 2013 she was ranked 26th in the world. Just before she turned 20 years old, however, she had an accident. On July 27, 2014, she was training for a jump competition for the national barefoot championship. As she was approaching the ramp, she fell forward and hit the ramp head-first. She broke her right arm and many vertebrae. She also became paralyzed from the chest down. Since the accident she has regained some feeling in her torso and her legs, and she has been competing in adaptive sports.
8. Theme Park Horror
Floridian Ryan M. Bergeron began to water ski at age five because his family skied together. He joined the Sarasota Ski-A-Rees performance troupe in 1999 and participated in water ski competitions. Eventually he was hired at a Brazilian theme park for a one-month residency. In the theme park on July 2008, the 22-year-old Bergeron was in the middle of the show’s first act when the accident happened. He was supposed to ski barefoot in a circle and flip onto his back for a spin. Instead, he became stuck during the turn, and when he let go of the tow rope, he smashed into a sea wall. He spent a month in a Brazilian hospital getting spinal cord surgery and recovering. At first he thought he was simply numb due to swelling, but soon he realized that he was actually paralyzed from the waist down. He returned to the United States and adjusted to his new life. Through the organization Ucanski2, which specializes in teaching people with disabilities how to water ski, he has learned to use a sitski, a wakeboard with a grappling cage and sling that holds him in place. In the sitski, he is able to ski again.
7. Driver Death
A water skier cannot play alone. The sport requires someone to drive the boat that pulls the skier. Along with the pilot, an observer is also supposed to sit in the boat. In some ways, then, water skiing is by necessity a team sport. The skier might seem to be the team member most vulnerable to injury, but the drivers are at risk as well. For example, in July 1957, Richard T. Schek, aged 27, of Baltimore, Maryland, was behind the wheel of a boat that was pulling a 14-year-old skier, William Neutze, on the Magothy River near Arnold, Maryland. The mouth of the Magothy River is a cove in Chesapeake Bay. The river’s wide mouth makes it a desirable spot for water sports. Schek somehow fell overboard in 10 feet of water while the boat was 1000 feet from the shore. After four hours, the Annapolis Rescue Squad retrieved Schek’s body.
On a lake, a water skier may be the tallest object around. That appeared to be the case on July 23, 1963, at Seneca Lake, New York. Two brothers, George F. and John C. Jensen, were being towed in tandem behind the same boat. John was from Scottville while George, a highway worker, was from nearby Stanley. Tandem skiing requires particular care, since one skier’s fall or bad turn could trip up the other skier with serious consequences. Not only is the skier a potential missile, but the tow ropes themselves can grab on to a body part and transfer the rope’s energy to the fragile bones and flesh. Nevertheless, tandem water skiing is common enough. The brothers were part of a family reunion, and other family members, including George’s wife and two children, were watching on shore. The lightning bolt missed John, though the resulting crash injured him. The bolt hit George and killed him.
5. A Lowered Boom
In late July 2016, a barefoot skier died at Standley Lake in Colorado. Theodore “Ted” Radey was doing what barefoot skiers often do: hold on to a boom held over the water on one side of the boat. The idea behind the boom is that it helps beginners learn how to barefoot ski. Rather than feeling a forward pull from a toe rope’s handle, the newby feels a consistent upward pressure under the hands. As well, a coach can call out instructions from the boat. The boom can be from six to twelve feet away from the boat, which puts the skier closer to the boat than what a skier is supposed to be when pulled behind. Unfortunately for the Denver resident, the boom he was holding onto separated from the boat. The boom, now loose, struck the 43-year-old skier and fatally injured him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
4. Handle Death
John O’Neill lost much of one arm in a motorcycle accident. He still wanted to water ski, and he found a way to do it: by holding the handle in the crook of his good arm. While he was skiing in upstate New York in June 2009, he was the victim of another accident. He lost his balance, and somehow his head was pushed through the handle. This time, the accident proved fatal: his neck was broken. Enough serious injuries involving handles has worried water skiing safety experts. A barrier installed inside the handle’s gap could prevent a body part from easily getting wedged inside. A few skiers have rigged up ad-hoc protective barriers on the handles. Some manufacturers of water skiing equipment have begun manufacturing safety parts as a way to help prevent this kind of accident.
3. Down Under
The hazards of water skiing may not be as obvious as a body thrown against the rocks or a leg chopped off by a propeller. This injury has a cute nickname: the water skiing douche. Perhaps one of the first formal medical reports of the water skiing douche in North America was in an Oct 1973 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. A physician reported the case of a 32-year-old female skier who fell after crossing the wake of a boat. When she was pulled out of the water, immediately obvious was the blood pouring out of her vagina. At the hospital she required a blood transfusion to make up for the loss of blood. As Dr. Peter Tweedale remarked, “This patient sustained a vaginal laceration with associated bladder trauma as the result of the application of a sudden hydrostatic force to the vagina. It is likely that she hit water with the thighs slightly abducted.” Surgery repaired the artery ripped open by the force of the water jetting into her uterus, and subsequently she was released in good health. The injured woman was wearing a normal bathing suit, and as doctor and safety experts now recommend, some kind of protective suit may have prevented the injury. Men should not be so cocky, mind you: anal douches have also been reported in the scientific literature.
2. Death by Wake
Karl Brooks, also known as Karl Charles Harding, died on Lake Mead in Nevada in June 2007 when he and his mono-ski ran into the wake of another boat while training. When Brooks smashed into the wake, the impact was so severe that the helmet he had been wearing was lost to the lake and was never found. His team pulled him out of the water, but he was pronounced dead at the scene by the attending medical staff. At the time, Brooks was ranked third in the world in water-ski racing and was the European champion. He was from England but had been living in Las Vegas so that he could train at Lake Mead. A 2011 inquest revealed that the wake would have been travelling at 100 miles per hour.
1. Diving Board Danger
Freak accidents abound among stories of water skiing accidents. One of the freakiest involved a teenager water skiing in the St. Lawrence River in July 1962. Sixteen-year-old Verne Stale was from Ogdensburg, NY. He and his driver, Donald Voight, boated across the invisible border separating Canada and the United States. Once in Canadian waters, they were close to the town of Prescott, Ontario, noteworthy in part for a port that serviced the Canadian National Railway. Stale put on his skis. The boys were skiing off the waterfront and taking a wide turn when Stale struck his head on a diving board that projected from the dock of the Canadian Pacific Railway. A local boy, Gregory St. Louis, pulled Stale from the water, but Stale was pronounced dead a few hours later at Brockville General Hospital.