Adventure Travel: Just stand sideways and jump

It's like high-performance waterskiing but without the boat. Eric Kendall tries to stay upright on a wake-board
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Kneeling on an oversized swimming-float towed by a cable to hurtle round a lake at 20mph, you're on the way to wake-boarding, the hippest thing you can do this summer - with or without clothes on. But there'll be lots of falling off and lungfuls of lake water before you can do tricks on a real board. And though performing is what it's all about, for now you just concentrate on staying upright.

Wake-boarding is to waterskiers what snowboarding is to snow skiers: the new kid on the block, standing sideways just to be different and, as it happens, to do all kinds of amazing stunts. It is irritatingly popular and can attract the kind of person who wears baggy shorts over a wetsuit. But rather than take over traditional waterskiing territory, it comes hand-in-hand with an alternative way to ski on water: the cable tow. This drag-lift-round-a-lake is the new, cost-effective way to go.

With a cable tow, not only can lots of people ski together on a small stretch of water; it has also changed the way you ride. There's no boat, so there's no wake to play on, but the upward pull of the overhead cable that tows you makes life easier and improves jumping potential for experts. It can run continuously, towing lots of people round a confined body of water, turning the sport into an all-day participation and spectator event, rather than now-you-see-it-now-you-don't boat skiing, where the action disappears over the horizon faster than you can say "How much? For 10 minutes?"

As you learn the basics on a kneeboard, there are a few things to get used to: launching and staying on, in that order. The starting procedure feels like a cross between ritual humiliation and execution. With the board on a launch-pad of wet plastic bristles, you adopt the kneeling Superman position, having fastened a broad Velcro strap across your knees. The slack tow line is out in front of you, with the handle clenched in your fists; your knuckles should have drained to white at this point. Despite the impression that you'll be pulled flat on your face, it's more likely that you'll go over backwards, so keeping this weight-forward position, you wait for your turn to come. If it sounds uncomfortable, that's because it is, but wait until you've done a couple of laps.

When the pull comes, it takes you by surprise, however ready you think you are. If your weight's not bang on, you instantly leave the kneeboard, flying through the air and enjoying the brisk acceleration and sensation of wingless flight - but aware that it will be a short ride and that the water will be cold.

Get it together the next time, and you wobble into the first straight, gaining confidence, even trying to slalom while aiming in the general direction of the two white buoys that indicate the first turn.

You don't really need to do anything to turn - you go where it tows you, which makes it sound easy. A gentle turn would be a cinch, but the sharper they come, the more you decelerate into them, allowing the rope to go slack, which can only mean you're in for a mini-repeat of the start, only somehow worse.

First time around the final, most aggressive corner, before you've learnt to absorb the pull and find the best line, you're bound to lose it, resulting in a high-speed ejection, landing smack on your face. But the most impressive bit is the yank itself; as I bobbed around afterwards in my life-jacket I was convinced I'd see my arms disappearing across the lake, still attached to the ski-line.

The next step is to try to stand, either on two skis or straightaway on a wake-board, which opens up the scope for going backwards and sideways, doing somersaults, jumps, and whatever takes your fancy. It's easy once you're up, I'm assured, but starting is a challenge. The fact that everyone else, eight-year-olds included, leaps from the jetty in a flamboyant, extravagant version of the humble launch you're struggling with is more a put-down than an inspiration. You can't expect to run before you can walk, they remind you. Never mind all that; a crawl would be nice, just to be going on with.

learning the ropes

Princes Club, Middlesex (01784 256153) is within 30 minutes of London by train and has the lot: four ski lakes and an 800-metre cable tow that can take eight skiers at once. Slalom skiing is still popular, but wake-boards are the thing, with unlimited scope for tricks and stunts or just an easy ride. All equipment - wetsuit, lifejacket, kneeboard, skis and wake-board - can be hired; a two-hour session costs pounds 15 plus pounds 1 each for wetsuit and lifejacket hire.

Cable tows are the future of the sport, putting more people on the water for less money. The Princes Club school scheme, sponsored by LH Supplies and SportsMatch (a government body) has put waterskiing and wake-boarding on to the curriculum for the first time and spawned the British junior wake-board champion and European Tour record holder, 11-year-old Ben Hitch. Other stars, such as Stuart Marston, British national champion, can be seen in action from the excellent lakeside club facilities.

There are four other cable tows around England: Thorpe Park (01932 561171), Aqua Active Cable Ski, Rother Valley, Sheffield (0114 251 1717), AquaskiSkegness (01754 761025), and the National Training Centre, Nottingham (0115 981 1316). Details are also available from the British Water-Ski Federation (0171 833 2855). Within easy reach of the cross-channel ferry is Noeux les Mines, near Arras in northern France (Pas de Calais tourist board, 0033 2183 3259), which has a lake with a cable tow, to complement the plastic ski slope that has been built on one of its slag heaps.