Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | Hal Elgin

Water skiing pioneer Hal Elgin

Hal Elgin, the lower-right person forming this pyramid, was a pioneering water skier. Among his legendary exploits, he skied for more than 1,600 miles from St. Petersburg to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Times File (1955)

Hal Elgin, the lower-right person forming this pyramid, was a pioneering water skier. Among his legendary exploits, he skied for more than 1,600 miles from St. Petersburg to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

ST. PETERSBURG — As delighted spectators watched on the beach, a man buckled into a harness and kite and flew 350 feet above St. Pete Beach.

Hal Elgin couldn't see them, however. By the time he was in the air he was stone cold unconscious.

Doctors would later tell him he had been flying with a broken neck, an injury sustained from a fall earlier the same day.

When his wife turned the boat, he failed to adjust and plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico.

A priest at Palms of Pasadena Hospital gave last rites. The hospital told Mr. Elgin's family that he had died.

That was 35 years ago. Since then, Mr. Elgin, the Tampa Bay area's pioneer of trick water skiing, hang gliding and parasailing, has been injured many more times and gotten back up.

On Sunday, Mr. Elgin , a St. Petersburg firefighter and daredevil, died for the second and final time. He was 75. His ripples of influence have spread as far as Europe and Japan.

"Basically anyone within a 150-mile radius of St. Petersburg who has skied professionally at Cypress Gardens, Sea World Orlando or any of the professional ski shows in the country at one time or another have learned from or skied with Hal in ski shows," said Gary Stout, a former top-tier water skier in California and Florida.

His legendary exploits include skiing 1,600 miles with nearly a dozen other skiers from St. Petersburg to the 1964 New York World's Fair. The St. Petersburg World's Fair Water Ski Team cut across the Cross Florida Barge Canal and up the coast. Skiers went over ocean swells higher than the boat, through fields of jellyfish and around debris that included floating logs.

After moving from Ohio in 1953, Mr. Elgin taught himself to ski. Following a stint in the Air Force, he opened a ski school in St. Pete Beach to help get through St. Petersburg Junior College. He founded an amateur team, the Aquamaniacs, and a business, Hal Elgin Holiday Water Sports.

He did what was then an amazing feat, orchestrating human pyramids of male and female skiers.

"In the late '50s and throughout the '60s, that was the high water mark," said Stout, 66, who now judges national ski competitions. "Water ski shows were still a gee-whiz, oh, my god, look at that, kind of thing."

Mr. Elgin's groups performed at tourist attractions around the state. In 1964 he went a step further by inventing a way to tow skiers across swimming pools by attaching the tow rope to the jacked-up wheels of a car.

The "car system," as he called the method, ranked among his proudest achievements, said his daughter, Linda Fox-Garland. Skiers sailed across shallow ponds in mall parking lots or at boat shows, usually as part of a promotion.

Increasingly, Mr. Elgin devoted himself to the emerging sport of hang gliding. He flew over and under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on a kite, the precursor to hang gliding. In 1975, he broke his neck falling into the gulf in an exhibition, but wasn't aware of the injury.

When the tow rope jerked taut on his next try, he lost consciousness — before the ascent. His fall of 350 feet stunned his family, which never lost hope.

"They came out and told us he had died," Fox-Garland said. "We said, 'Nope. My dad didn't die.' "

In 1981, a hang glider died at the Suncoast Tow-Launched Hang Glider Championships, which Mr. Elgin organized, after he was unable to steer away from a construction crane. Mr. Elgin attributed the accident to pilot error and defended his sport, telling the St. Petersburg Times: "A religious experience means a lot of things to a lot of people. I don't know that it can be called that. However, there is a great adrenal input. You can feel euphoria and exhilaration and a wonderful rush that is indescribable."

Following a diagnosis of lymphoma earlier this year, Mr. Elgin decided to throw himself a party.

Why wait?

At Tower Lake in Westchase in May, after the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team had practiced, a crowd gathered by covered picnic tables, where Mr. Elgin had bought the cold cuts and drinks.

If he was going to die, he would at least enjoy the party.

"He was joking about it," said Stout. "He said, 'Hey, I can try things now that maybe I wouldn't have tried when I was younger."

At his request, Mr. Elgin's family will scatter his ashes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

Harold William "Hal" Elgin

Born: Aug. 9, 1935.

Died: Aug. 15, 2010.

Survivors: Daughter Linda Fox-Garland; two grandsons.

Water skiing pioneer Hal Elgin 08/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 10:26pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Iconic Ballet Nacional de Cuba ballet will perform at Straz in May

    News

    Besides fine tobacco, Ballet Nacional de Cuba is considered by many to be the island nation's most distinctive export.

    Ballet Nacional de Cuba, one of the world's premiere ballet companies, will perform at the Straz Center in May.

 [Courtesy of Carlos Quezada]
  2. I-275 south closed in St. Pete heading towards Sunshine Skyway

    Accidents

    ST. PETERSBURG — All southbound lanes of Interstate 275 on the southern tip of Pinellas County were closed Wednesday afternoon due to a traffic crash with injuries, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

  3. Bucs-Jaguars: Five things to watch Thursday in Jacksonville

    Bucs

    JACKSONVILLE — The Bucs have their second preseason game here Friday against the Jaguars, and here are five things to keep an eye on as Tampa Bay moves closer to paring its roster from 90 players to 53 by Sept. 3.

    1. AVOIDING BIG PLAYS ON DEFENSE

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) participates in training camp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
  4. Former Rep. Corrine Brown denied new trial; to be sentenced in November

    Blogs

    JACKSONVILLE (AP)—A federal judge has denied a request for a new trial by former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, who was found guilty of taking money from a sham charity that was purported to be aiding poor students.

    Corrine Brown
  5. We knew Aguayo was a goner, and 'Hard Knocks' still delivers

    Bucs

    Tuesday night's second installment of Hard Knocks, the HBO show that is going behind the scenes at training camp with the Bucs, had plenty of interesting tidbits, revelations and insights.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo (19) kicks during training camp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times