Jimmy Roundtree floats on Lake Santa Fe, his bare feet peeking out from the warm water. About 20 yards of rope separate him from a small boat piloted by his friend, Mike Shipman. He flashes a thumbs up.
The engine thrums to life, tightening the rope and pulling Roundtree through the water. At 35 knots, he bends his knees, stands up and glides along the surface. No skis, no shoes, no problem.
For 66-year-old Shipman, who grew up with Roundtree, barefoot water skiing has been his favorite activity to do on the lake since the 1960s.
Life in the small town of Earleton revolves around Lake Santa Fe. The only reason for someone not to have a boat in their yard is if it’s already out on the water.
Old married couples share kayaks when the water is calm. When the wind is right, sailors and windsurfers set sail. At dawn, fishermen wait patiently for a nibble from their boats or one of the lake’s many small docks. And, for some, barefoot water skiing is the ultimate leisure activity.
Roundtree and Shipman both own water skis but prefer the extra challenges of barefooting.
“I don’t know,” Roundtree said with a half-smile. “It’s just more fun I guess.”
The two have made the lake their skiing sanctuary for decades. Each time, Roundtree pulls his American flag-colored MasterCraft boat up to the dock near Shipman’s home. The MasterCraft is designed for competition water skiing and can easily reach the 35-40 mph required for barefooting.
With about a hundred years of barefooting experience between them, Shipman and Roundtree make the sport look easy. But it wasn’t always that way.
When they first started, they learned by starting off on a slalom ski and taking one foot out at a time.
“There’s a moment you’re on one foot but don’t know how to barefoot,” said Shipman. “If you’re not confident when you’re stepping off, that ski is coming right out from under you.”
Shipman and Roundtree together have taught about 50 people how to barefoot, and hundreds how to water ski.
When teaching new barefooters, they use a “boom,” which is a thick metal pole that juts out about 10 feet from the port (left) side of Roundtree’s boat. Booms are commonly used to make water skiing easier, as gripping one allows the skier more stability than they would get with a rope towed behind the boat.
“The boom is a great learning tool for all the stuff that we do,” said Roundtree. “We used to just jump out of the boat; we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Boom or not, Roundtree and Shipman contend that barefooting is easier than it appears to be. They say the biggest difference between it and traditional skiing is the boat’s speed, which needs to be faster to account for the reduced surface area of bare feet versus water skis. The key to getting better is practice, just like any other sport.
Though injuries while barefooting are uncommon, they do happen. In fact, one of Shipman and Roundtree’s barefooting buddies injured himself while attempting a trick a few months ago.
His foot got caught in the rope, slamming his head into the water at a high speed, blowing out his eardrum. Shipman said his friend is healing well, but he still can’t barefoot for a couple months.
“We used to just jump out of the boat; we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Shipman’s good friend and neighbor, Dan Eiland, 73, quit barefooting when he turned 50 in part because of the risks. Eiland loved his time barefooting — Shipman taught him how — but he felt 50 was a good time to stop.
Though his time barefooting is over, Eiland still enjoys Lake Santa Fe with his wife, children and grandchildren. He takes his boat out on the water a few times a week and goes water skiing — with skis — on occasion, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“This is paradise out here,” he said.
Shipman and Roundtree continue to make it out to paradise every Saturday at 7:30 a.m.
“It’s our Saturday morning ritual,” Shipman said.
Both Shipman and Roundtree plan on barefooting as long as they’re physically able. Although they avoid dangerous tricks, they do like to challenge themselves with backward barefooting. They attempt the trick mostly on a short cable attached to the boom, where it’s easier.
Instead of starting face-up with toes pointed to the sky, backward barefooting consists of starting face-down in the water with toes pointed at the bottom of the lake. Once the boat is going fast enough, the skier grips the handle with his arms at length behind him and balances on the balls of his feet.
Shipman knows it’s almost time to pass the torch. His daughter is pregnant with a boy and is due in December. A potential protege.
Sharing his passion with his future grandson is a dream come true, and he’s itching to get him out on the lake.
“I’ll take him out there when he turns 2,” he laughed. “Definitely 1 or 2.”