Always wished you could walk on water? Well, now you can
Wakeboarding is the fastest growing watersport in the world. And you don't have to have rippling muscles to do it. By Alister Morgan
Sunday 27 September 1998
Wakeboarding is a new watersport that offers the chance to try something different without needing superhuman strength, travelling to the ends of the Earth or buying hundreds of pounds' worth of expensive equipment that is destined to gather dust in your attic.
Wakeboarding combines elements of surfing, snowboarding and waterskiing. And when you're good at it you can perform tricks straight out of a Batman comic. The board measures around 4ft in length (it resembles a water- adapted snowboard), and protagonists slip their feet into rubber bindings before being towed, sideways-on, behind a speedboat.
The important difference between waterskiing and wakeboarding is that waterskiing boats have hulls designed to cause as little disturbance to the water as possible. The concept of wakeboarding is the reverse: hulls are specially designed so as to create as much disturbance, or "wakes", as possible.
While wakeboarding equipment is by no means cheap, it is possible to have a go at it for as little as pounds 15 a session. Best of all, wakeboarding tuition is available at thousands of reservoirs and lakes around the UK.
Like all good sports, wakeboarding is fun for beginners and experts alike but as a complete novice, the first and most important lesson I learned was to keep my mouth closed when wiping-out (crashing) at speed - reservoir water isn't too tasty.
Starting on a training bar attached to the side of the boat you begin in a stationary crouched position with your knees pressed to your chest. As the boat slowly gains speed the water presses against the board forcing you to stand. Once in an upright position you turn sideways and try not to fall. I'm pleased to report that it's not as difficult as it first appears.
From inside the boat the instructors told me to try to stand upright. With knees slightly bent and my weight spread evenly between both feet I finally managed to do so - and maintained a relaxed position.
It's an incredible feeling to look down and see your board gliding over the water - you feel triumphant, indestructible ... until you become complacent and wipe out.
Soon, I was ready to ride on a rope behind the boat. The process remains the same, apart from the small matter of riding the wakes. With the correct posture there is little jerk while riding and as a constant thin film of spray hits your face your senses are alert and you can feel the water passing underneath.
You can increase your speed by steering wide of the boat before "carving" (as in carving turns in the water) back in, but hitting the wakes at speed is a heart-in-mouth experience. When you fall it's usually because you tensed up. You need to be loose and flexible to ride over the turbulent water.
Turning is smoother than snowboarding as you don't have to worry about catching an edge, but riding (and later jumping) off the wakes requires considerable skill and training.
The feeling of carving through the water is second to none and as my confidence grew I became more adept at making turns across the wakes, bending my knees to absorb the turbulence.
Advanced riders use the wakes to launch themselves into the air, performing a host of exotically named manoeuvres such as "raleys", "hoochie-glides", "tantrums" and "s-bends". Most people who have tried wakeboarding (it's now the world's fastest-growing watersport) describe the experience in glowing terms.
Nick and Julz Heaney are both former waterskiing champions who switched to wakeboarding a few years ago. The brothers are among the best in the world at their chosen event. "There is a lot more free riding, compared with waterskiing," Julz, 20, told me. "In waterskiing you have to be very controlled and perform tricks in a certain way. Wakeboarding is about going out there and doing what you want. In competition you get points for style and creativity so you're encouraged to ride against the norm and try something new."
The brothers' success means that they rarely see their native Newcastle upon Tyne and regularly have to suffer extended trips to sun-kissed locations such as Orlando, in Florida.
"You feel so free out there," said Nick, 22. "It feels like you can actually walk on water. When you're on the edge of your board, it's an amazing rush. The more you do it, the better you want to get."
Wakeboarding is growing rapidly in the UK with many retailers currently selling five wakeboards (costing between pounds 200 and pounds 600 each) for every pair of waterskis.
But many clubs offer tuition and equipment hire at reasonable prices and, considering the price of equipment, it's by far the best way to begin.
Wakeboarding is tiring on the arms and after a few minutes riding you can understand why top riders train every day. But while gasping for breath on the bank, it's one of those activities that you'll be desperate to try again and again and again.
Lea Valley Watersports Centre, Banbury Reservoir, Harbet Road, Chingford, London E4 (tel: 0181-531 1129), weekdays (before 3pm), pounds 8 for first timers, pounds 11 for others. After 3pm and weekends pounds 11 first timers, pounds 14 others for 15 minutes' boat tow. Prices include tuition and equipment hire; sessions must be booked in advance. The British Waterskiing Federation (tel: 0171- 833 2855) has more information on wakeboarding and details of where to find your nearest club.
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