Water ski instructor spends his life in the water
SALISBURY — Kelly Churchill lives at the end of a winding dirt road, down several flights of wooden steps, in a house that practically floats over the edge of Lake Dunmore. Below the railings of its wooden deck, a dock juts out into water that most mornings is glassy, providing ideal conditions for Churchill’s Vermont Liquid Ski School.
Tied to the dock, his white Malibu Response water skiing boat bobs, filled with colorful life jackets, skis and wakeboards. The boat is well loved, each summer carrying more than 250 passengers — participants in Vermont Liquid Ski School — out onto the lake.
Churchill’s ski school is a one-man operation to which hundreds of young, old, new and veteran customers flock each summer to ski, wakeboard, kneeboard, tube and surf.
It’s probably no surprise Churchill runs such a business: He grew up on the water. His parents still live in the house next door to his, which he visited every summer to relax and water ski. Eventually, he learned the tricks of the trade.
“When we were kids, we would water ski behind a 9.9 horsepower boat,” he said. “We would even get tricky — we’d take my motor off my boat and put it on my buddy’s boat because his boat was shaped better, so it would go a little faster.”
Now, living on the lake year round, Churchill has made a successful venture out of his childhood pastime.
He launched the ski school 22 years ago after a meeting with Lake Dunmore resident, Blaney Blodgett, who also owned an ice cream store in Middlebury village (Calvi’s) and had long taught water skiing on the lake in the evenings. Churchill went along for several trips with Blodgett and decided that would be a good endeavor for him to pursue. Soon enough, he started bringing interested customers out on the water during the day.
“I put a little black and white poster that said ‘water skiing’ up at Kampersville,” he said. “My business just grew — word of mouth, word of mouth, word of mouth, bigger and bigger and bigger. So that’s how I got — well, lucky.”
But Churchill’s success didn’t come solely from luck. Many of his customers are returners, coming back year after year. One family, 22 years loyal to Churchill, says no one else compares.
“They said for some reason, there’s something about the way I drive and the way I set the boat up for them that makes it so there’s no one else that comes close to that type of wakeboarding,” he said. “It was really nice to hear that from them.”
That ‘something’ might be the automatic speed control he has in his boat. He uses it to make sure the boat runs at a one steady speed when the skier or boarder hits a sweet spot.
“It’s much nicer because it’s more consistent when you land, or when you cut across the wakes,” he said. “It does make a big difference.”
Churchill said he tailors each experience to fit his students’ needs. He can adjust the length of the rope, change the speed of the boat, or pull the skiers and boarders faster or slower out of the water.
“After spending a few minutes with someone, I can tell what they need,” he said.
He’s open to teaching any age group, as long as they’re eager to learn. For youngsters new to the sport, he instructs them to hold on to a fixed training bar (call a boom bar) that can swing out perpendicular to the boat across the water, allowing them to get the feel of skis on their feet and being close enough to the boat to hear helpful tips. A few years back, he taught a 70-year-old man — a memory he’s fond of.
“He’s probably the oldest person that I’ve taught,” Churchill said. “I told him, ‘The only way I know how to teach you this is as if you were a kid.’ (The man) said, ‘Well, we’re all just big kids anyway.’ Seventy years old — what an attitude.”
When Churchill isn’t on the water, he can be found hiking, biking, running, roller blading or diving. In the winter, he teaches skiing (on snow) at Sugarbush Resort, and in the fall and spring, he builds steel buildings for carports.
But the summer is his favorite season. Often booked solid from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Churchill can count on the many customers he gets each year to keep him coming back.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a really rewarding thing to see kids — or anyone — succeed, because it’s totally outside of their comfort zone. Once they master it, other things become easier, and they can really do anything.”
Note: Kelly Churchill charges $40 per half hour of instruction, with the occasional tubing ride afterward. Those who would like more information may call (802) 352-4226.
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