SWS Continues to Make Waves in Muskoka

This article was originally published in the 2020 Spring issue of Invest In Style Magazine.

COVID-19 Update from SWS: “All 3 of our marina locations are open for the season! Bring our ski school/day camp right to your dock for a safe watersports experience, book a clinic today!”

For many, Muskoka is synonymous with tradition. It could be the burger shop you always hit on the highway north, the fishing lures your grandfather used, or staring at that map of the lake that’s been hung on the wall for decades. For many, these traditions are what make the area special.

Summer Water Sports (affectionately known as SWS by locals and cottagers) embodies that love of tradition.

For six decades, SWS has provided summer entertainment on the lakes, whether through their water ski schools or the ski shows that have thrilled guests for generations.

Now SWS has grown to include three marinas, several pop-up businesses at their Minett location and even a location on Grand Cayman Island. They still perform their annual ski shows at Clevelands House Resort in Minett, Windsor Park in Bala, and at the Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst, as well as operating their schools out of Clevelands House, the Lake Joseph Club and Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville.

“Everyone at SWS is like a huge family. It’s crazy how close we all are,” says Val Newlands, owner of SWS with her husband Geordie. “We’ve had multiple generations work here, and multiple siblings from the same family.”

The roots of SWS can be traced back to 1960 when a group of volunteers started Summer Ski. The event consisted of a group of talented young water skiers putting on a show for onlookers at Clevelands House, including guests of the resort and curious nearby cottagers.

The water show continued, more or less unchanged, until the mid-90s, when it was greatly expanded by Phil Harding (the current Mayor of Muskoka Lakes Township), and renamed Summer Water Sports.

Val, a fifth-generation Muskokan who grew up on Lake Rosseau, has watched the SWS shows since childhood. Geordie and Val met while he was skiing with SWS and she was a server at the former Pinecrest restaurant in Port Carling.

In 2005, the Newlands family purchased Summer Water Sports; with three children who learned to ski with SWS and then went on to work for the company, it was a perfect match. At the time, Geordie (the oldest of the three siblings), was just finishing his degree at the University of Guelph, so he became the operator of SWS. From there it’s been a slow but steady process of expansion.

The first move was to acquire Wallace Marina in Minett. “It was definitely a learning process for us but we gradually figured it out,” says Val. The business has expanded accordingly. From storing 45 boats in their first year to a current capacity of several hundred.

In 2018, they added the Boatworks marinas on both the Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau sides of Port Carling. Established in 1925, Boatworks (now renamed SWS Boatworks) offers everything from gas and boat servicing to a surf shop where you can buy swimsuits and wakeboards.

In total, SWS employs about 80 people during peak summer capacity. Val says the biggest growth areas of the business are their cottage clinics. The clinics bring the ski school right to your dock, with everything you need to get started, including a boat, equipment and an instructor.

The biggest trend in watersports these days is wake surfing, which requires a special type of boat to throw the ideal wake. Val says that’s been a major draw during recent summers, as few people have access to the right type of boat.

SWS also plays host to a number of pop-up shops out of the Minett location beside Clevelands House, including a yoga studio and a bakery. This year they plan to add an LCBO outlet to their location there.

As the business has grown, so has the Newlands family, and they now have two boys of their own. With summer rapidly approaching, a new generation of the Newlands family, and Muskokans, will have the chance to experience what’s made SWS a mainstay of cottage country for more than half a century.