Their mission was simple – to provide on-site entertainment before, during and after the first international water-ski contest ever seen in Turkey. They are the Stars of Florida Water Ski Team, a water-ski entertainment production group that promotes and produces water-ski shows and exhibitions worldwide. From the U.S. to Japan to the Middle East, the Stars of Florida are billed as the world's top show skiers, and their performances thrill and delight spectators. Virtually all aspects of the sport – barefooting, jumping, swivel, adagio doubles, pyramids, delta-wing hang-gliders, personal hydrofoiling, wakeboarding and more – are choreographed into one grand performance. On this particular trip, I tagged along with the Barnum and Bailey of water skiing as it made a house call to the sands of Turkey.
What's in this box?” “It's a winch.” Blank stare. “A what?” “A winch.”
My first adventure with the Stars of Florida was not exactly what I expected. We hadn't even received our seat assignments to leave Tampa, Florida, and we were already being treated like a bunch of deranged animals. This is a typical scene at the Delta Airlines ticket counter for the Stars as they negotiate to get 25 oversized bags of water-ski equipment onto a plane bound for the opposite side of the world – in this case, Istanbul. “It weighs 140 pounds,” continued the ticket agent, aghast.
“I know,” said The Stars' fearless leader, Don Buffa. “It's a winch. For hang-gliding. You put it on a boat …”
Convincing the ticket agent that there was actually water skiing in Turkey was going to be about as easy as convincing the security squad gathering around us that a 3-foot-by-3-foot square box wasn't housing a bomb.
Fortunately, situations like this are all in the line of duty for Buffa, a cabinet-maker-by-day, show-skier-by-night kinda guy. When Cypress Gardens stopped doing overseas shows, Buffa picked up the slack. Since 1989, Stars of Florida have carried the show-skiing torch all around the globe, venturing to such far-flung destinations as Jordan, Japan, Egypt and French Guyana (“A nightmare,” according to Buffa, because “the ketchup
wasn't ketchup and food wasn't food”). Now, Turkey.
Expecting the Unexpected
If you're like most U.S. citizens, you're scratching your head at this point and grasping at the remnants of knowledge left from eighth-grade geography. Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, formerly Byzantium, is known worldwide as the “gateway to the Orient.” The name also conjures up visions of camels and desert and Muslims bowing toward Mecca. But unless I wasn't paying attention, my history books never mentioned water skiing as a favorite outdoor activity in Turkey.
Yet here I was, crossing the Atlantic, swilling Efes and turkish coffee with some of the best skiers on each side of the big pond. While Steve Welch, Linda Buffa, Shannon Welch, Cheri Orloff and Howard MacCalla fumbled through travel guides with no earthly clue of where they'd actually be skiing, John Kieckhafer, Zane Schwenk and Don Buffa bantered about the upcoming show.”I didn't even think they had boats in Turkey” got my attention. Who said it, I don't know.”We're not gonna try a jump show behind a 120-hp Johnson outboard, are we?” Howard joked.”No. But maybe a camel,” Zane responded.”Would that be one hump or two?” Howard shot back.
What are the conditions like? What's the jump like? What kind of boat? Will there be a crowd? What about wind conditions for the glider? On and on came the barrage of questions. All joking aside, within minutes of landing in Istanbul, the looks on the skiers' faces said, “This isn't where we'll be (gulp) performing … is it?”
The Bosphorous, Istanbul's famed gateway-to-the-Orient waterway, was mildly congested with seven or eight 1,000-foot freighters and some 50-60 hundred-foot “cruisers.” The chop rivaled El Niqo swells off the coast of California. No, thank goodness, this was not where the show would happen. But since we'd been in a plane for nine hours, Bosphorous was a sensible place to stop and look around.
After five hours devouring various Turkish delights, being cornered by Turkish carpet salesmen and wandering through the Blue Mosque, Hague Sophie and Grand Bazaar, we found out that we needed to hop on yet another plane bound for Dalaman and ultimately our final destination – Hillside Beach Club in Fethiye.
A Pleasant Surprise
Those of us who were expecting sand dunes and men with heads wrapped in swaddling cloths were sorely disappointed. Fethiye is a pretty little port town nestled among the hillsides of the Toros Mountain chain, and blessed with ample Mediterranean shorelines. That's right, Mediterranean, the climate known for summers that are dry, long and hot, and winters that are short, warm and rainy. The temperature hovers around 86-105 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer and is usually above 50 degrees in the winter.
To say we were mildly impressed wouldn't begin to do justice to Fethiye and Hillside. When we arrived we all turned into a slack-jawed meandering mass of tourists. Fortunately, our hosts were so glad to have the Stars in town that they didn't notice how dumbfounded the whole bunch was. I might as well have been traveling with Prince Charles and his entourage the way we were herded to a welcome dinner in our honor and treated to a smorgasbord of Turkish and international delicacies.
Going to bed with a full belly and waking up in paradise must be one of the perks of being a professional show skier. Maybe it doesn't happen all that often, but when it does you try not to oversleep. As a first-timer along for the ride, I know I didn't want to miss too many minutes of daylight.
Work doesn't seem such a burden so far from home, so unpacking the bags, fixing the jump, testing the sound system, organizing the running order and taking a practice session seemed to be the least of anyone's worries. The most pressing questions were, “Did you bring sunscreen?” and “What's that?” when food wrapped in some sort of seaweed appeared.”This place is amazing,” Zane said early on between purchases of leather goods (half the retail cost of the States) and aprhs-dinner drinks.”Hell, yeah,” Howard chimed in. “Sleep in, eat good food and ski whenever you want. It's great 'cause nothing really happens, 'til, oh, about 2:30.”
Ahhhh, all in a day's work.
It wasn't all that easy. The Stars worked every single day (or night) for a good cause – promoting the sport of water skiing. The event was sponsored by Swatch, Power 96 FM radio, Harley Davidson and Sea-Doo, but Hillside Beach Club and its staff actually organized the three-day water ski tournament. And they had no qualms about putting the boys and girls of Stars of Florida to work, whether show skiing, fixing the jump that almost sank, signing autographs or performing interviews. Show skiing might be old hat in the States, but to the citizens of Turkey, it was as unique as a lunar landing.
Showtime came and went without a hitch. Schwenk's Air Chair and wakeboard antics were wildly applauded. The girls' swivels and arabesques were stunning. Banana George Blair was probably the most popular guest on-site. And of course, Shannon Welch's unveiling of the Turkish flag on top of the seven-man pyramid was a raucous sensation. And all this was in addition to the actual athletic performances at Turkey's first international water ski contest, which featured wakeboarding, slalom and even a round of trick skiing. Most of the guests at Hillside that week participa
ted in water skiing at some level. And just looking at 'em, you wouldn't have a clue that a few miles away on the other side of the grandstand (OK, mountain) were those sand dunes, camels and men with clothing on their heads.
Categories: Site to Ski