A new display showcasing the history of the Devils Lake Aquanauts will be unveiled Saturday, July 11, at the Lake Region Heritage Center in Devils Lake.
The display is being presented in conjunction with the first reunion of the Aquanauts, once hailed as “the Midwest’s hottest water ski show,” according to Steve “Zippy” Dahl, a Heritage Center Board member who organized the event.
The event begins at 4 p.m. at the Heritage Center, also known as the Old Post Office, at 502 Fourth St. N.E. It’s expected to last well into the evening, “as long as people want to hang around,” Dahl said.
The Devils Lake Aquanauts, a traveling water ski show active in the ‘60s and ‘70s, performed tricks and maneuvers, entertaining audiences in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Winnipeg for nearly 20 years.
“What a bunch of 12- to 23-year-old kids accomplished back then was amazing,” said Dahl, a Devils Lake native who owns Perch Patrol Guide Service.
“We gathered all kinds of mementos from former members,” he said of the display. “We put it all in a cool video."
The reunion organizers are asking anyone who has artifacts, photos or Aquanaut shirts, swimwear or jackets that could be reproduced or used in the display, to call Lisa Crosby at the Devils Lake Heritage Center, (701) 662-3701.
The display will be up "for quite a while," according to Dahl, who expects the exhibit to grow as people see it and realize they have items that could be added.
The story of the Aquanauts, began in 1965 on Wood Lake, southeast of Devils Lake. The group of water ski enthusiasts gave several performances on Wood and Devils lakes before taking the show to other locales.
The final performance was presented during Devils Lake’s centennial celebration in 1983.
The team was started by Wayne Will, Carl “Fritz” Smith and Ross Johnson at Wood Lake, where the trio had been doing a lot of water-skiing for a couple of summers. On July 4, 1966, they started what became the Devils Lake Aquanauts and recruited some female water skiers, Dahl said.
The three friends hatched the idea of putting two motors on one of their boats so they had enough power to pull multiple skiers simultaneously, he said.
The group perfected its stunts in organized practice sessions on water and land through hours of hard work, dedication and precision, Dahl said.
“A lot was learned through trial and error as well," he said.
“It’s amazing all the logistics that went into the stunts,” said Dahl, noting that the process included figuring out the proper rope length and the proper boat speed.
Taking the show on the road, the caravan pulled four or five boats, two jump ramps, a bus for the water-ski team, a trailer for the DJ equipment and sound system, and equipment trailers.
“One could say the Aquanauts were ambassadors to the sport of water skiing,” Dahl said. “Whenever they traveled to a new venue, this team would arrive a day or two in advance to not only practice, but they hosted ‘on the water’ ski clinics to teach locals how to water ski. Not only were they top-notch performers, they were as professional and accommodating as they could be.”
A representative of the group would often go to the destination a week ahead of the performance to hang posters in public places, talk on the local radio station and buy a newspaper ad -- all to promote the upcoming show.
Sponsorships paved the way for the purchase of boats, motors, assorted equipment, gasoline and oil, as well as liability insurance, Dahl said.
“Names and faces have changed many times,” he said about the team's nearly 20-year history. “There were many different ring leaders that kept the club together.”
Dahl cited Kelly Keating as one of the key organizers and a team leader in the mid- to late-‘70s.
“My experience in the Aquanauts at such a young age, organizing club activities, soliciting sponsors, recruiting new Aquanaut members, the list goes on and on, but all of those things have helped prepare all of us for being successful in life," Keating said.
Allen Thompson, owner of Devils Lake Glass and Paint, is credited as a key player in the team’s history. In the 1960s and ‘70s, his business was the local dealer for Glastron boats and Mercury motors, Dahl said.
“This club would not have existed if not for the efforts and dedication of this prominent Devils Lake businessman,” Dahl said. “(He) was instrumental in helping secure Mercury Motors as an Aquanaut sponsor.”
Everyone involved with the Aquanauts recognizes Thompson for “helping to grow the organization and handling the business of making the club successful,” he said.