Technology propels Aqua Jays into powerhouse team
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Janesville's Rock Aqua Jays water ski team has been performing on the Rock River for 50 years.
JANESVILLE Over the past 50 years, the Rock Aqua Jays have propelled themselves into the powerhouse team of show skiing worldwide.
From one ski boat powered by a Chevrolet engine bought from a junkyard, the Aqua Jays fleet has cruised its way to more than a dozen boats—outboards, inboards, safety and pontoons--valued at an estimated $1 million, said Edd Rinehart, veteran volunteer boat maintenance coordinator.
“I never imagined the club would have (hundreds) of thousands of dollars worth of boats today,’’ said Don Snyder, one of the club’s founding fathers.
The Aqua Jays were among only five teams in the Midwest and one of just three to use triple rigs—three 150-horsepower outboard motors—in their shows the summer of 2001 for pulling power, not speed.
They replaced the twin rig, a boat with two motors, which at the time was a staple of every ski show team.
The Aqua Jays added a second triple rig to their show by 2003. Today, the Aqua Jays have two triple rigs--each with three 300 horsepower outboards, Rinehart said.
“That much power is needed to pull all those people (behind the boat),” he said.
This includes acts such as the team’s world record-breaking 44 skier, four-high pyramid; a 22-person barefoot line and a 24-person ballet line.
Like automobiles, Rinehart said boat fleet motors have become computerized over the years.
“I do less maintenance now and the motors are more dependable than they used to be due to technology. It has made my job easier,’’ he said.
Another advantage of technology is fuel efficiency, Rinehart said.
“I’d say they use half the fuel that the older engines used,” he said, before 2000.
According to Joel Shapiro, club president, the Aqua Jays use more than 2,500 gallons of gasoline each year.
Boat motors today also use less oil than before so there is less water pollution, Rinehart said.
Technology has come in waves of changes over the years for the Aqua Jays, who are celebrating the 50th anniversary this year.
The Aqua Jays still use two-way radios that have been around for years.
“It’s the most efficient and cost-effective way to communicate between the (people in) boats and people on shore and for the safety of everyone involved in the show,” Shapiro said.
Even though the Aqua Jays obtained a FCC license to have its own radio frequency, technology has resulted in a much clearer signal plus smaller and lighter radios, he said.
Computers, cell phones and other mobile devices with text messaging have eliminated the need for most snail mail among club members, Shapiro said.
“We typically only do one or two mailings per year to members. Everything else is primarily communicated by e-mail while text messaging is a secondary means of communication and for reminders and other urgent information,” he said.
The Aqua Jays e-mail system also is web based, “which certainly makes internal communicating much easier,” Shapiro said.
The club’s website provides everything there is to know about the Aqua Jays.
“It allows us to put so much information out there and we don’t have to spend money printing schedules. We can simply put it online, which makes it easier for me to manage, too,’’ he said.
Computers also have made Gerry Luiting’s life much easier. The veteran skier is the team’s pyramid captain and in charge of organizing all of the shows pyramid acts.
Until 2008, Luiting outlined plans on scratch paper and would rewrite. Now he uses a computer matrix to form the pyramids shape and can electronically move skiers around.
“We’ve gone so technology crazy the last few years,” he said.
“Most of it was the result of problems we incurred in 2008, due to flooding, but it also has made us much better at communicating and being organized,” Luiting said.
The computer also allows Luiting to send revisions to other club members for review and to provide information to skiers so they have it upon their arrival at practices and shows.
When Brad Springbrum joined the Aqua Jays sound crew 28 years ago music was produced from the top of a picnic table with cassette tapes and players.
“I used to record music from the turn table onto the cassette. We needed six to eight tape decks and carried up to 24 tapes in case holders,’’ he said.
When a sound booth was built in the corner of the bleachers, music was moved to four CD players.
Today the Aqua Jays use a database management system that allows the user to search ... the same way they would using an iPod® or similar portable music player to streamline music and work out of a sturdy, towering sound booth with a birds-eye view of the show front.
Dave Williams has created all the music files and does all the editing, Springbrum said.
The latest technology costs less and has made the sound booth crew’s job easier, he said.
“If you needed more music, you had to rewind the cassette tape and stop the music. Now you can just push cue and the music is back within two seconds,” Springbrum said.
The switch to cordless microphones also has given the Aqua Jays the ability to expand its show in addition to making the show more fun, he said.
Williams, who also is the Aqua Jays art director, promotes the show theme by creating props to hide the support staff/dock crew so fans aren’t watching them but what’s happening on the water.
So the journeyman millwright/handyman, who studied graphic design and minored in art history has made more and larger, sophisticated props that can withstand the sun, sand, wind and water by using technology to keep up or ahead of the competition.
“It used to be all hand drawn and hand painted with latex paints during long hours in a hot, sticky warehouse,” said Williams, who now creates show theme prop designs on a computer that are printed billboard size by a local sign company, with far superior results.
The computer also allows Williams to e-mail designs for approval instead of having to deliver and pick them up in person, which save both time and money, he said, for everyone involved in the process.
Technology also has added comfort, stability and improved performance of skiers over the years.
For example, skis used to perform tricks off the jump in the 1950 and 60s were made of wood with uncomfortable bindings. Today jumpers wear much lighter; high-performance skis made of fiberglass with a honeycomb aluminum interior and cushioned binding.
“The difference is astronomical and much more comfortable to wear,” Luiting said.
Skis for double and pyramid acts in the early years were narrow and difficult to perform on. That changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s and even more so in the 1980s through the turn of the century when skis were built wider and longer to provide more stability. Today’s carbon fiber aircraft aluminum and technology skis “hardly weigh anything,” he said.
Shock absorbers, on a $2,000 sky ski with a hydrofoil, break the impact for the skier who performs front and back flips up to 20 feet in the air, Luiting said.
And new aluminum swivel ski bindings that allow a swivel skier to make 360-degree turns like a ballerina have replaced tennis shoes screwed into a ski. Shock absorber bindings, similar to jogging shoes, lessen the impact of skiers landing on the water after jumping up to 25 feet in the air, he said.
Previous horseshoe life jackets that were cumbersome have been replaced with barely noticeable lightweight, nude-colored flotation devices inside wetsuits so they don’t show under costumes, Luiting said.
And hemp to polypropylene then polyethylene ropes with exterior flotation devices that caught on everything—the water, boats and skiers—are now made of Kevlar synthetic blends with interior flotation devices, Luiting said.
Wooden broomstick handles that would rot inside out have been substituted with modern aircraft aluminum and a rubber exterior grip to provide more comfort and longer wear, he said.