Over Fifty Years on the Waterfront: Tom Roach and Adirondack Marine
Tom’s Water Ski School opened in the summer of 1958, led by a young Lake George High School basketball star named Tom Roach.
Fifty years later, you can still find Tom Roach on the waterfront, now as president of Adirondack Marine, the boat dealership specializing in ski and wakeboard boats that grew out of the ski school.
In fact, according to Roach, children who learned to water ski at his school have grown up to become Adirondack Marine customers.
“Water sports have always been a family activity on Lake George,” said Roach. “A lot of Adirondack Marine customers are families who skied with us. We were excited about the sport, and that rubbed off. We also had a very good success rate, helping people learn to ski. We brought the same attitude, experience and skills to boat sales. From day one, we were able to provide our customers with the same level of expertise and attention.”
As with teaching people to become proficient water skiers, “there’s great satisfaction in seeing young families really come to appreciate and enjoy their time on the water with our boats,” said Roach.
Before moving permanently to Bayfront Cottages, which Roach’s parents had bought in 1952 from Charley Wood, the water ski school was located at Depe Dene, where Roach and a changing cast of friends staged water ski shows.
“We learned by trial and error” Roach says of those days.“We picked up pointers from acrobatic ski teams and continually modified our skis” (even going so far as to sneaking a look into the Clay Island boat house of national water ski champion Warren Witherell to see what he had done to his skis).
Along the way, Roach and his friends helped introduce tricks like skiing barefoot and on canoe paddles to Lake George.
Wake surfing, now an increasingly popular water sport, was brought to Lake George by Roach and his friends in the early 1960s.
“Dick Wilmen saw an ad for wake surf boards in a magazine, and we sent away for one; it arrived without any instruction, so we had to teach ourselves how to use it,” said Roach. “Forty years later, it shows up as the latest thing in water sports. We also constructed and flew forerunners of parasails, ski kites.”
As a student in industrial arts at Oswego, Roach built a water toboggan, itself a forerunner of today’s banana boats.
“It could seat four people,” Roach recalls. “It introduced a lot of kids to water sports, just as tubing today does.”
The innovations that Roach takes the greatest pride in are, in fact, those which he introduced at the ski school as teaching aids.
Among his inventions was a stable aluminum boom attached to the side of the boat which the novice skier could hold until he learned to balance himself.
“The advantage of the pole is that it gets people up immediately, and away from the docks and people; it’s the best method of teaching water skiing,” he says.
The Roaches operated Tom’s Ski School until 1985, and diplomas from the ski school remain prized mementoes.
“We had a tremendous following,” Roach says. “We could get people up and skiing within a half an hour.”
Among their customers was Roaring Brook Ranch, which brought guests down to the lake every week, a Massachusetts childrens camp and a camp for the blind.
“Those campers were extremely successful,” recalls Roach. “We started them out on land, explaining what to expect; once they were on top of the water, one of us would ski beside them while talking to them. One student, who was not only blind but deaf
as well, could be communicated with only through his counselor, who would tap Braille messages into the palm of his hand.”
Tom’s Water Ski School was a family-run operation.
“Our kids grew up at the ski school; they helped on the docks until they were able to drive the boats,” Roach says.
Jeff, Cindi and Kim also became prize-winning water skiers; Tom himself was taking honors at water ski competitions as late as 1985, when he closed the Ski School.
The costs of insurance contributed to that decision, as did changing conditions on the lake.
“The lake had become hazardous,” Roach says. “In the 1950s, the lake was as quiet as a mill pond.”
But Roach had also become the Lake George dealer for Correct Craft, the maker of Nautiques ski boats.
Warren Witherell had sold a few every year, but by the 1980s, Roach says, “Correct Craft was looking for a full service dealership to take over the franchise. The first year we expected to sell four boats and we sold 15. It turned into something a bit more than we expected.”
Roach attributes Adirondack Marine’s success in part to the product.
“In our little niche, water sports is 2% of the boating market, but people who care about ski boats know the boats’ quality and that they hold their value,” he says.
But the fact that it’s a family-run operation, just as the water ski school was, also plays a role.
As Roach puts it, “People trust us; we’re skiers.” Which, to say the least, is an understatement.