Let the Boat Do the Work
A young friend of mine recently told me, “I’m going to learn to ski this summer.” I told him I’d get in the water and teach him. It’s my legacy. In my memory, I can hear my father’s voice from the boat, shouting to the skier in the water, “Let the boat do the work.” My dad must have taught half my hometown how to ski, or at least most of the teenagers in our church youth group.
He sold his golf clubs and bought a ski boat after God gave him two girls and placed him in a town on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. From any direction entering or leaving Eufaula, Alabama, one has to cross a creek. It’s such an ordinary thing if you live there, the constant view of the water, that you take it for granted until you live somewhere that you can’t see water without driving for several miles.
That’s when you realize how much it’s in your cells, how many of your comforts, recreations, and rituals involve that backed up river known as Lake Eufaula.
My father’s first boat was an Evinrude Outboard. Soon after my sister learned to ski, he progressed to a Johnson 85 bow rider. These were the 1970’s of avocado green and harvest gold kitchen appliances and shag carpet. Our boat was harvest gold.
I was the last to learn to water ski, partly because I’m the youngest but also because I was a holdout. This was strange because my sister was the shy one, the conservative one, a shadow of my mother as a young girl, and not one to take risks. And I was the tomboy, or the closest thing our family had to one anyway. I fished with my father. I climbed trees and rode my bike constantly. I was outdoors while my sister was indoors. But she learned to ski at at 7. I didn’t learn until I was 10.
I just kept saying I didn’t want to, until one day while we were camping at Mill Creek. It was late afternoon, the water was “slick as glass’ Daddy liked to say, and he made me an offer a kid can’t refuse, “I’ll pay you $5 just to try it one time”. That was $5 in 1974 to a 10 year old and I only had to try one time.
I got on my life jacket, got in the water, put the skis on and listened to his instructions that he’d given in my presence hundreds of times already and would countless times again. “Put the rope between your skis. Keep your knees bent and your arms out straight. Don’t try to get up. Let the boat pull you. Once you get up, keep your knees limber. ” Basically, just sit there in position. He always repeated at the end, “Let the boat do the work.”
I must have followed his instructions exactly because I got up the first time and I went far enough to know I could do it. I’d earned my $5 but he’d accomplished his task, too, because when he circled me with the boat, instead of swimming to shore or getting in, I was ready to try again. He reminded me, “Let the boat do the work. Keep your knees limber.”
Trying to get up is the wrong move when learning to ski. If you straighten your legs and try to stand, you plunge forward. If you pull the rope toward you with bent elbows, you fall backwards. The boat’s power will pull you out of the water if your feet are in the skis, knees are bent and arms are straight.
Even as a kid, I must have known in my Chattahoochee-soaked cells that leaving the safety of the boat and learning to ski meant an act of surrender. “Let the boat do the work.”
It also meant taking risk and being flexible. “Keep you knees limber and a little slack in the rope.” The reward was the wind in your face, the ride of your life, on top of the slick, brown river water.
My sister came to faith easier and earlier than I did too. I pondered. I questioned my mom constantly, and I even talked to the minister with the beautiful Irish brogue before deciding I could own my family’s faith. In the forty-plus years since that conversation, I’ve lost sight of the title and deed of my ownership many times.
I learned to ski over four decades ago, but I still hear Daddy’s voice when I’m out paddling Lake Martin on my YOLO board. When a jet ski whizzes by and creates waves I have to navigate, “Keep your knees limber” floats up in my mind.
It’s only taken me almost half a century, but I see that my daddy’s words taught me how to navigate the waters of faith as well : "Don’t try to get up. Let the boat pull you. Once you get up, keep your knees limber.”