By Will Burgess
The year was 1985: a time of firsts. The first domain names came into use on the fledgling precursor to the internet. The first successful artificial heart transplant was performed. And in a bold move, Coca-Cola introduced the New Coke formula to the world.
While some of these trends weren’t meant to last (looking at you, Coke), 1985 was also the year the world was introduced to the first successful, remotely operated skiing craft: the Ski-Free, and the tale of its journey from a humble hobby project to a retail success championed by world-class athletes is a story of tragedy, government resistance, hurricane disasters, and a fateful Mountain Dew commercial.
GETTING OUR FEET WET: THE HISTORY OF PERSONAL SKI MACHINES
Before there was a Ski-Free, the appeal for a self-propelled watersports craft was already brewing. The earliest known concept came from a dentist in the 1960s who operated a ski-boat with hand controls driven by piano wires. Tragically, he died after he was tangled up in the piano wire menagerie. “And he was nearly decapitated,” said Robin Sells, President and Founder of Pacific Watercraft Group, the successor of the original company that produced the first commercial Ski-Free.
Sells said despite this, the desire to operate a self-driven ski-boat persisted, saying some enterprising thrill seekers would go on to use long electrical conduit to handle the controls onboard similar small watercraft, which still proved to be difficult and cumbersome to maneuver properly.
The first real, commercially available remote personal skiing machine was the Ski-WHEEE which used hydraulically operated controls to steer and power the craft. An August 1976 issue of Motorboating & Sailing Magazine profiling the Ski-WHEE explains an innovate handle system let the operator steer with a trigger on one paddle and accelerate with another using a centrifugal clutch that would disengage at the first sign a skier letting go of the controls.
The Ski-WHEEE relied on a substantial 40hp Kohler 440 snowmobile engine to power the ultralight craft, which showed real capability of deftly moving in the water.
Commercially overshadowed by the first Kawasaki Jet Skis distributed by the major Japanese powersports manufacturer, the small, Florida-based Ski-WHEE Distributors went out of business by the early 80s.
In the 80s, Vancouver, British Columbia inventor John Nichols designed the initial concept of the Ski-Free, but found difficulty in bringing the product to a larger audience of buyers. A team of investors stepped in and were able to bring the first truly remotely operated, 40hp craft to market in 1985 under Ski-Free Marine, Inc. in Calgary, Alberta.
The company released their first model, the VR440, featuring a tri-hull design to reduce drag on the operator. The owners then filed for a US patent in 1986 for both the craft and the proprietary handle, which Sells and company took over in 1989 as he worked to increase their presence in the marketplace.
In an August 1989 article, the New York Times described the craft controls:
“The right-hand grip swivels to steer the boat; the left-hand grip has a trigger that works as a throttle. When the skier eases off on the trigger, the boat slows to an idle. A backup safety switch shuts down the engine completely if the skier falls in the water.“-“ON YOUR OWN; Tow-Yourself Waterskis“, New York Times, Aug. 21, 1989
Heading into 1990, the company also patented a ride-on and ski-behind model called The Duet. Sells and his team reflected on this project and ultimately elected not to bring it to market because in writing provisions for a watercraft that had the ability to have an operator or spotter, it would bring a halt to the lobbying the company was doing for the Ski-Free’s legality of not requiring a spotter simply because the VR440 wasn’t a seated watercraft to begin with.
According to the 1989 Times article, the Ski-Free was legally permitted for operation in 20 states, with more work to be done to expand their territory.
In 1989 amid the ongoing legalization process, they managed to arrange a demonstration of the craft at the home of Sen. Leo Thorsness (R).
In 1988 Thorsness had just won his seat in an election to replace the late Sen. Avery Garrett (D) of Washington State’s 11th Legislative District. Thorsness was profiled just the year prior in the 1987 film “The Hanoi Hilton” dramatizing his time as a US Air Force Colonel and POW at the infamously nicknamed camp in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Having such a high-profiled politician show personal interest in the craft helped to fast track the legalization effort with more states gradually joining in permitting the Ski-Free nationally.
Then in 1990, the new SOLO Watersports company was set to unveil their redesigned craft with a new hull design, a 70hp engine, and new control handles. They brought their vehicle to the International Marine Trades Exhibit & Conference (IMTEC) in Orlando amid fanfare and eager interest in the unusual vehicle. Ski-Free was literally and figuratively beginning to make waves.
DOING IT WITH MOUNTAIN DEW
Ron Scarpa, the number one barefoot rider and four-time world champion (check out this awesome 1985 zine about barefoot waterskiing culture for more info) reached out to Pepsi Co. in 1988 to film a commercial with him water skiing behind a horse for their new “Dew it Country Cool” campaign, nodding to the cheeky country appeal of the Mountain Dew brand, by engaging young consumers with the flashy, modern appeal of waterskiing, mountain bikers, roller skaters and all manner of extreme sports in their campaign.
Then in 1989 Ski-Free Marine received a call that Pepsi Co. wanted to film something ‘new’ in their upcoming Mountain Dew and Diet Dew commercial. Scarpa would once again show off his skills, in their latest commercial, this time while barefoot riding a Ski-Free.
“We wound up following the hurricane up the coast.”
“We were in Orlando and heading up to Lake Lure in in North Carolina,” said Sells, recounting their trip up to the location of the shoot. “And that was right when hurricane Hugo was landing. So we were stuck in Orlando for a couple of days. But we wound up following the hurricane up the coast.”
Amid the devastation of the historical hurricane, Sells and his crew eventually made it, “They put us up at the Lake Lure Inn,” said Sells noting this was one of the filming locations for the movie Dirty Dancing, which Pepsi Co. used as an advertising platform by running their previous Mountain Dew commercial in the opening trailers portion on home-use VHS copies of the film.
The new commercial premiered in 1990, but Dew wasn’t the only benefactor from this ad. “Our phones didn’t stop ringing,” said Sells as waterskiing and watercraft magazines began highlighting the unique craft shown in the commercial.
GOING AT IT SOLO
In some regards, the 1990s might have been considered a wild west of watersports, with the release of such vehicles as the first foilboards, as well as the the Windjet and the Shuttlecraft which used PWCs to dock with a boat hull and power a much larger craft, and still, the little Ski-Free persevered.
Ski-Free Marine rebranded as SOLO Watersports in 1997 and soon billed itself as the “Water Toy of the New Millennium”. Produced out of a facility in S.C., the SOLO watercraft sold for less than $7,000 in the US.
Using a 3 cylinder, 2 Stroke, 683cc engine with 70hp, the SOLO SF 70 included new safety features, including a vehicle quick kill function and making use of an generally recognized downed-skier flag to signal when an operator let go of the controls.
Later in 1997, the annual, citywide Seattle Seafair approached SOLO about demonstrating their craft at a pond that was built on the grounds of the old Seattle Kingdome in Wash. during their annual August event. Amid the festivities which include a parade, fireworks, hydroplane races, and the return of the US Navy Blue Angels squadron after a three year hiatus, the SOLO became one of the more memorable demonstrations of the festival.
“I have the distinction of being the only human being to water ski on the grounds that are now occupied by the Seattle Mariners.”
The demonstration took place among a packed crowd of spectators outside the Kingdome. “They were building a three foot deep artificial lake in the parking lot to feature model radio controlled hydroplane races,” said Sells, noting the Seattle Mariners would break ground on their new ballpark (today T-Mobile Park) on that very spot in short order.
They asked if three feet was deep enough to demonstrate our Ski-Free… it was and, as a result, I have the distinction of being the only human being to water ski on the grounds that are now occupied by the Seattle Mariners.”
THE WAVE SWELLS
The success of the new SOLO has carried through to today. Now legal in 41 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam, as well as several more countries around the world, interest in these machines has continued growing steadily.
“We just find that this boat is in such massive, massive demand,” said Sells citing hundreds and thousands of inquiries a month. “We are the only craft like this in the world.”
Sells noted over time there are competitors who have infringed on their patents. “We have successfully defended our patents every time,” he said.
For a short time in the mid-2000s SOLO Watersports reached an agreement with a distributor in Sydney, Australia to license their products under the BOTO brand name. “It was a scam,” said Sells noting their partnership was swiftly concluded followed by litigation against BOTO to prevent any further fraud.
The SOLO stands out by using new, patented innovations such as an attachable “clamshell” device that operates wirelessly to control the unit and clips on to any manner of apparatus fixed to the tow rope meaning, “You can use your favorite handlebar,” said Sells.
Further, a wireless tether attaches to the operator’s arm or vest and, if disconnected from the unit, the engine will stop and then track and return to you at a safe idle speed.
“This new machine is very sophisticated,” said Sells, remarking about their newer SOLO SF 150 model, explaining in addition to the patented hull and twin skegs reducing the amount of pull on the skier, the craft’s jet nozzles can automatically adjust to rider handling and maneuvering, meaning they can easily control the craft up to the eye watering 55mph top end speed.
The SF 150 specs page also highlights an internal navigational computer (Micro-Electro-Mechanical System or MEMS) that perpetually calculates a smooth and direct course for the skier, accounting for their feedback in the remote control, in addition to cutting-edge collision detection systems.
Producing 150hp, the reliable and commonly-used 3-cylinder, 4-stroke BRP Rotax 4-TEC engine is found in thousands of models of popular watercraft and recreational vehicles worldwide, making it easy for retailing dealers and marinas to service the powertrain.
Sells notes that if you run into an issue while using your SOLO, just give them a call, “We will contract out to a dealer or marina within the vicinity of the dealer for repairs.”
So where do you buy these things?
“We actually have an interesting arrangement where we sell direct to consumer,” said Sells, directing interested buyers to the company’s website who are ready to go SOLO themselves.
“It’s a very, very varied market, everyone from beginners, to anyone who can’t afford a big boat,” said Sells, emphasizing one point for perspective owners: “It’s not designed to replace a boat, it’s just an alternative.”
Sells said the kind of people who buy SOLOs range from extreme sports enthusiasts like barefooters and wakeboarders, particularly those who love to take advantage of the early morning glass but can’t be bothered with all those other important hassles. “We find it’s popular with those who can’t get a boat, driver, and spotter, all lined up,” said Sells.
“I get out almost every morning, even in the winter I have a good dry suit,” said Sells who tells us he can go out, get set up and ride, and head off to work all in the span of an hour on his SOLO.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Sells, who has been with the company for 35 years through its various iterations let APS know there is more in store for the future of SOLO as they are set to expand their operation to a new 25,000 square-foot facility in Monroe, Wash., which he notes is only a two minute walk away from a manmade lake where they can perform product tests.
The new facility will accommodate more assembly lines and product research and development.
Stay tuned as the company releases a 170hp craft sometime this year. But for a vehicle that already hits 55mph, what’s the reason for the increase in horses?
“The reason for the higher HP is it gets you up and out of the water faster,” said Sells, which really matters, after all, when all you want is to get the most out of your day of skiing.
“One of the things we will always offer is a gas engine, but we are working on a 120 to 160hp electric engine.” he added, noting these would still be a few years out.
SOLO Watersports has also been playing with ultra-lightweight unmanned watercraft in various applications. Essentially these “drones” but for water can be controlled easily from the shore.
Currently the US Navy has tested one of these very unmanned surface vessels (USVs) in training exercises, while the Department of Homeland Security is seeking the eventual use of these as reconnaissance vehicles. Furthermore British oil company, BP, is exploring using similar craft to move oil containment booms, and first responders are already starting to get their hands on what Sells calls “mini fireboats” for a little extra help in situations with difficult marine fires.
“Our electronics engineers have engineered every conceivable contraption, so you can continue to build off the existing platform,” noted Sells on the configurability of these craft.
To learn more about SOLO, visit www.solowatersports.com .
Cover photo: The SOLO Duet concept showcased a seated craft with handlebars that a driver could operate, or via the skier’s remote control. The company scrapped this project before it could hit the market as it would hinder their effort to increase the number of states where the Ski-Free could be operated legally. | Courtesy of Robin Sells, additional editing by APS.
Will Burgess is a journalist with Adrenaline Powersports Mag
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