The ups and downs of waterskiing

You too can learn to remain dignified as you're dragged from one side of a lake to the other - you may even have fun in the process
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Arms straight out in front, knees pressed up against my chest, skis pointing towards the sky: I had put myself in a difficult position. It was immediately obvious why, in this form of skiing, getting up is more of a worry than falling down.

This season's skiing coverage starts on these pages next Saturday, and my editor suggested that I should start on liquids before moving on to the more solid stuff. Which is why I found myself, earlier this week, sitting in a lake near Heathrow Airport, waiting for the rope I was holding to go taut and for a speedboat to drag me across the water.

The first sight of Princes Club's water-ski facilities is a heartening one for apprehensive snow-skiers. A dockside cargo-loader provided the inspiration for the world's first chair-lift, erected in 1936 at the Sun Valley resort in Utah; and here, around one of the club's five lakes, was what seemed to be the industrial precursor of the drag-lift. A cable supported by four pylons loops around the perimeter, the eight ropes attached to it making endless circuits, either dragging a water-skier or just flopping around the lake like a serpent.

But for my "guest lesson" I would not use the cable ski (the correct term for this bizarre contraption), because it is regarded by experts as offering a very inferior water-skiing experience - and because its sudden, standing-start heave is more likely to put a beginner under the water than onto it. Technically, I was not a beginner, having water-skied twice a couple of decades ago (and once so impressed an instructor in Corfu that she declared that she had "never seen anyone get so much wrong but still stay manage to stay upright"). But there was no doubt that 26- year-old Matt Southam, my instructor at Princes Club, was an expert: he has won two British water-skiing championships this year. He was in for a trying afternoon, I suspected, and might well regret claiming that "everyone makes swift progress at first".

My enthusiasm for the whole thing waned as I struggled into a clammy, cold wetsuit. Matt had said that many of his pupils - they range "from kids to pensioners" - came for tuition because they had tried and enjoyed water-skiing on holiday. In the Mediterranean, sure; but out on the jetty, a light drizzle falling from the grey sky, "enjoyment" wasn't a word that sprang to mind.

Matt coached me into the crouch position, hauling me up with a rope to simulate the effect of the speedboat's acceleration. Then he fitted me into the skis, about 5ft long and almost six inches across at the front (beginners get wider skis to help them out of the water), with galoshes attached. I stood there in my outfit of tight rubberwear and clowns' shoes. "Does that feel alright?" Matt enquired.

It felt much better in the water: I couldn't be seen, and I was suddenly glad to be in a wetsuit (although the clowns' shoes were still a problem, always popping up to the surface and tipping me off balance). Getting into the water was good; but what about getting up, and out of it?

For a first attempt, you do it the easy way, hanging on to a metal bar protruding from the side of the boat: there's no rope to snake and slacken, you keep out of the wash, and the instructor is close enough both to see what you are getting wrong and to be heard when he tells you what to do about it. Then, after a couple of successful bar exercises, I was ready - so Matt judged - for the rope trick.

In the water, listening for the boat's engine note to rise, the crouch position suddenly seems appropriate: it's a normal, animal instinct to roll up into a ball when in danger. The problem is the unrolling, as the rope hauls you out of the water and - "arms straight! arms straight!" - you endeavour to stand upright, legs slightly bent. But self-preservation comes into play again: standing, you at least feel further away from the angry turmoil beneath your feet.

Although it's only a warmer version of snow, water - particularly when a speedboat has just passed through it at more than 20mph - behaves completely differently: it keeps moving around. Matt could find no useful parallels between skiing on snow and water, because he has never skied down a mountain; but apart from the fact that in both cases weight-transference is what enables the skier to turn, there are precious few to be found (on water you have little control over your speed, for example, and the ski edges have only a marginal effect). And on a constantly changing surface, it's difficult to get the feedback from shifting your weight.

As we zoomed up and down the lake, a sort of dual carriageway with two slalom courses divided by a long traffic island, Matt gestured me to pass from side to side, across the wake. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not. And each time he did a U-turn at the end of a run, I struggled to stay upright while my skis bounced over the speedboat's wash. But I didn't fall - not even when I tried to follow Matt's instruction to lift one ski off the water. Flunking that test meant that I failed to improve my water-skiing status: I wasn't ready for the next step, to a monoski.

Perhaps it had something to do with the landscape: the wetlands of Middlesex aren't quite as awesome as the Alps. The weather might have been a factor, too. But twenty minutes was only enough to give me an ache in the lower back, not to convert me to water-skiing. A 42-year-old British Airways purser practising on the slalom course on the other side of the lake's traffic island told me that, after 19 years of water-skiing, she was now starting to do it competitively. She's been bitten by the bug; I suspect I'm immune.

Maybe I should have had a go on the cable ski. As I was leaving Princes Club, I stopped to watch the kids circling the lake, some on brightly coloured wave boards - which look like fat snowboards wearing Hawaiian shirts - and some just body-surfing, living figureheads with bow-waves breaking across their chests. That looked like fun, but not as much fun as real skiing. Roll on next week.

Princes Club is at Clockhouse Lane, Bedfont, Middlesex TW14 8QA (01784 256153). Primarily a membership club, it offers individual water-skiing guest lessons (pounds 20 for a 15-minute session on the water) only on weekdays, 9am-4pm. Courses of three sessions cost pounds 45 on weekdays, pounds 50 at weekends. Cable ski sessions of one hour are pounds 13 for non-members. Equipment hire is available.

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