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Barefoot and brave; Water skiers challenge lake surface sans skis.

Byline: Craig S. Semon

They can't walk on water but they certainly can ski it.

And by putting their best bare foot forward, they are keeping the spirit of an American tradition alive.

They are the Bay State Barefooters, who streak behind speeding motorboats without water skis. The 20-year-old group has 15 members from Charlton, Leicester, Spencer, Webster, Worcester, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

While some might conclude that this was a cruel marketing ploy invented by the Dr. Scholl's people, barefooting, which requires the skier to travel at higher speeds than conventional water skiing, started in 1947 and the first competition was in 1950.

Although he has been water skiing since he was 8, Kevin Keith, who set a water ski record with 2,650 points in the Men's 4 Trick Event at the 2006 National Barefoot Tournament, said he didn't start seriously barefooting until he was in his late 30s.

"For many years, it was just a matter of survival," said the 52-year-old barefooter from Charlton. "How long you could hang on and hold your breath because I would be sprayed to death with water. I can't say it was really much fun until these booms came out and then I could actually get a good position, see where I was going."

It didn't take Mr. Keith long to get hooked on the sport.

"I would ski four or five mornings a week," he said. "As soon as you could get into the water in March right up until November, I just hit it hard and learned all the different tricks. It was really my whole exercise program for the last 12 years."

Booms - poles - that extend horizontally from a boat's center and hang over its side help people learn barefooting and its tricks.

Mr. Keith's 12-year-old daughter, Monica, also barefoots and can do it backward, which isn't an easy feat, he said.

"I say a maximum of 50 women in the world can ski backwards," Mr. Keith said. "They can't take the falls."

After performing a one-footed slalom stunt on Buffumville Lake in Charlton, Mr. Keith , who owns Fall Prevention Alarms Inc. in Southbridge, explained that a barefoot water skier has two passes of 15 seconds to complete as many different tricks as possible. All the tricks have specific point values depending on the difficulty, he said.

"It's over quick," Mr. Keith said. "So you have to organize all of your tricks in 15 seconds."

All you need are padded shorts, a padded wetsuit, a speed boat and a 75-foot rope. Bigger feet do help.

"You're only on this much surface," Mr. Keith said, pointing at his foot which is accommodated in an 8-1/2-size shoe when he isn't barefooting. "You need a lot more speed to stay up on your feet. Regular skis, you could go 20-miles-per-hour if you wanted. This you have to go at least 40 with bare feet."

A five-time National Barefoot Tournament champion (Men's 4, twice; Men's 5, Men's 6 and Men's 7), Leonard Tremblay, 69, of Webster, is certainly the undisputed "big kahuna" of the Bay State Barefooters. Mr. Tremblay, who didn't start barefooting until he was 50, is credited with mentoring most of his fellow barefooters in the group.

"I was lucky. I never wanted to try this and one day I was with my wife and another guy on a lake and he said why don't you try barefooting?" Mr. Tremblay said. "So he took the blinders off. I stepped off the skis and went all away across the lake. That was it. I was hooked from that day on."

Mr. Tremblay, who is also president of Cam's Oil Service Inc. of Webster, said it's great to get together with the guys to barefoot.

"Our best deal was we ski every weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and I don't know if it was more to ski or more to drink," Mr. Tremblay recalled. "We just have fun. We go and have breakfast at a different house every week and then after we got done (barefooting) we have a couple of drinks and go home and sleep all afternoon."

John Bartkus, 57, of Leicester, president of the Bay State Barefooters, started barefooting about 30 years ago. The 57-year-old insurance consultant said barefooting is a very addictive sport.

"Every one of these guys I know that skis, actually love it to death," Mr. Bartkus said. "If they had a chance to go out with their wives or go skiing in the morning, they would go skiing."

Representing the young blood in the Bay State Barefooters are Kevin Williamson Jr., 24, of Spencer, and Andrew Trottier (Mr. Tremblay's grandson), 17, of Webster.

A former member of the Junior World Barefoot team, Mr. Williamson won 2003 and 2005 national championships overall and set the national record for the Open Men's Slalom in 2006. This past weekend, Mr. Williamson placed first in Open Men's Tricks and first in Open Men's Slalom (setting a pending national record) at the 2008 Eastern Regional Barefoot Championships in Vienna, Md.

Both Mr. Williamson and Mr. Trottier agree that barefooting is an addictive rush, no matter how old you are.

"It feels great. The glass calm water you feel when you're riding across," Mr. Williamson explained. "You get really comfortable being able to stand there and feel like you're not going to fall. It's just the coolest feeling."

While both also water ski and wakeboard, Mr. Williamson and Mr. Trottier agree barefooting is harder.

"There's less surface area so you go faster," Mr. Trottier said. "That's a big reason for less people doing it."

"On your feet you're more in touch with the water," said Doug Cusson, 43, of Worcester. "It's like you can feel it."

When it comes to barefooting, Mr. Keith said it's a thrilling sensation to be going fast on the water and learning the next trick.

"It takes a long time. The tricks don't come easy. You have to practice them over and over," he said. "It's like the ocean. You really have to respect the sport or it will beat you up. Many of my friends have breaks in their necks."

Mr. Keith, who suffered a groin injury that hurt for two years, is not the only one who knows the pain of the sport. "I've dislocated my shoulder five times. I had both knees fixed. That's about it.," said Mr. Tremblay, who wears a harness attached to his suit so his arm doesn't go out. "Oh, I broke my thumb."

"Broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a fractured bone in my neck," Mr. Barthus said, rattling off his injuries.

Although he suffered a torn cartilage in his right shoulder, it's a recurring callus on the same spot on his foot that has been the most cumbersome of his barefooting injuries.

"I had my feet burn," Mr. Williamson said. "The longer they go against the water, they burn up and I had this one spot when, every time I do an endurance tournament, it just comes right back."

Despite the injuries, the barefooters agree the benefits outweigh the negatives.

"I love it. I would never quit," Mr. Bartkus said. "Until they stop selling wetsuits, I won't quit skiing."

Contact Craig S. Semon by e-mail at

Barefoot water skiing competition events

Tricks: A skier has two passes of 15 seconds to complete as many different tricks as possible. All tricks have specific point values depending on difficulty. The skier also is awarded points for the start trick performed to get up.

Slalom: The skier has two passes of 15 seconds to cross the wake as many times are possible. The skier can cross the wake forward or backward and on two feet or one foot.

Jump: The skier travels over a small, fiberglass jump ramp. The skier has three jumps and the longest one he or she lands (hold on and later stand up) counts. Professionals can jump as far as 90 feet.

Some barefoot competitions feature endurance events

Figure 8: Two skiers on opposite sides of the wake ski while the boat drives in a figure 8. The skier who is the last one standing wins.

Team endurance: This is a race between a variety of teams. Each team has a boat and the skiers take turns skiing. This generally takes place on a long river, where race distances can be up to about 45 miles. The first team to cross the finish line wins.


CUTLINE: (1) Kevin Keith of Charlton, who set a record with 2,650 points in the Men's 4 Trick event at the 2006 National Barefoot Tournament, performs a one-footed, slalom stunt as he is towed at a speed of 46 mph across Buffumville Lake in Charlton. (2) Monica Keith, 12, daughter of barefoot water ski record holder Kevin Keith, skims across Buffumville Lake at a speed of 32 mph while hanging onto a tow rope attached to an 8-foot boom mounted on a speedboat.

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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 31, 2008
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