On a warm, early summer morning, Lee Schmidt and a couple of employees are sitting at a picnic table under a tent, surrounded by wakeboards, wetsuits, life jackets and stand-up paddleboards. A few feet away, a fleet of brand-new Nautiques, ranging from top-of-the-line ski boats to shiny wakeboard and surf-specific boats, float in their slips at Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge patiently waiting for their Coast Guard-certified drivers to take them for a spin.
High Sierra Waterski School owner/operator Schmidt and the school’s wakeboard coach Shane Wright and I load our gear into a 2016 Super Air Nautique G23, parked next to a 2019 blue and white Ski Nautique. As we cruise out on the lake toward Tahoe City, it’s clear that Schmidt is loyal to the Correct Craft brand, makers of Nautique. The company was his main sponsor when he competed on the Pro Ski Tour in the 1970s. During that time, he won 10 national championships.
Schmidt grew up watching his father compete on the Pro Ski Tour in the summers and had roots in the Tahoe Sierra through his grandfather, who was part owner of Meeks Bay Resort & Marina from 1946 to 1962. In the winter of 1977-78, Schmidt got a job as a ski coach at Alpine Meadows when his friend Greg Felsch ran a sailing school out of Sunnyside in the summers. Felsch introduced Schmidt to the landlord and Schmidt launched the High Sierra Waterski School out of that same location the following summer.
For four decades, Schmidt and his staff have taught innumerable waterski, wakeboard and wake-surfing lessons; they have expanded to rent SUPs, kayaks, waterski boats, Jet Skis and more. According to Schmidt, he has taught three generations of many families watersports who keep coming back year after year: “We have a huge base of returning customers. We pride ourselves on providing the perfect equipment to learn on.”
He’s created an infallible learning system that helps people get up and out of the water quickly and efficiently and has a youthful, agile staff (including his son Jackson) that can teach kids as young as 2 years old how to waterski. He uses old trick skis with bindings on them with weights on the back, teaching them proper form and balance. A kid must weigh 35 to 50 lbs. to be able to control the skis in the water, but Schmidt and Wright say that kids these days are so athletic that they pick up whatever watersport they want to master quickly.
Some of Schmidt’s most memorable customers include late NFL football coach Bill Walsh, as well as the late Robin Williams.
“He was always pulling tricks on his kids. He was such a funny guy,” Schmidt says.
Anyone who has ever tried waterskiing, wakeboarding or wakesurfing knows that getting out of the water is the hardest part, but once you understand how gravity and the pull of the boat works then the possibilities of what you can do on Lake Tahoe is endless.
With his 26 Nautiques and USA Water Ski certified instructors, Schmidt has the ability to host several ski and wakeboard lessons a day. Consequently, High Sierra Waterski School is the largest volume watersports school in the United States. He has more than 7,000 hours on his 2006 Ski Nautique, which is an impressive number in the boating world — especially in Lake Tahoe’s high-altitude environment. There are two West Shore locations: at the Sunnyside Marina and Homewood High & Dry Marina.
Although inconsistent weather on Lake Tahoe in the afternoons can pose challenges to ski and wakeboard lessons, there’s no other place that Schmidt would rather be.
Meanwhile, Wright eagerly puts a neoprene top and straps into his wakeboard dipping into the cool glassy water with ease. This is Wright’s third season working at the High Sierra Waterski School and his enthusiasm on the boat is infectious.
“There’s positive, fun energy here at High Sierra Waterski School. My favorite thing about being here is everyone I work with and the people who come and visit us. It’s a unique lifestyle here; I’ve been in Lake Tahoe five years now, but it seems like it’s only been one,” Wright says.
After watching Wright’s spectacular set of effortless-looking backflips and grabs and then taking a wakeboard set myself, it’s easy to see how time flies when you’re having fun. Now I can’t wait to go back to the West Shore again to try out one of Schmidt’s other water toys.
“We’re really diverse in what we do. We’re a one-stop shop for all water needs,” he says. | highsierrawaterskiing.com