I used to ride bendy buses without holding on to the poles, pretending I was in Point Break. Pathetic. Yet the fantasy returned recently, after I decided to stop taking life for granted and try something new every week. To kick off, I wondered if it was possible for a hapless urbanite to learn to surf, ideally in less than an hour. No, said a few professionals, suggesting I try wakeboarding instead. I didn’t know what that was. Neither did anyone I know. “Is that when they pour water over your face to extract information?” asked my girlfriend, with insufficient concern.
“No, but it is an extreme sport,” chuckles Dave Novell, the water sports manager at Liquid Leisure in Windsor, the largest aquapark in Europe. Banana boats zip around us at a large freshwater lake set in lush countryside. How so? Wakeboarding involves being strapped to a plank, then towed by what looks like a coat hanger, attached to either a speedboat or an overhead cable system that whips you around at 19mph (30km/h).
Panic rises. For me, a walk to the big shop is extreme. I picture the next hour as an alpha-male hazing, in which I get beasted for not “hanging 10” or being able to whoop with sincerity. “Wakeboarders are actually quite Zen,” Novell says. “So, are they like the surfers of the water?” I ask. There is a pause, the kind that happens when someone has said something extremely stupid.
The surface of the water is calm; my mind less so. After a spot of wetsuit bother, I strap myself into booties screwed on to the streamlined board. Having fixed legs is a claustrophobic feeling. Novell explains fins and grooves, talks rockers and flex. He is wasting his breath: I will be happy if my spine remains inside its sausage casing.
I’m introduced to a handsome cable operator, Denis, who drills a few moves on the astroturf jetty. I notice he has a tattoo of a UFO beaming a man up his calf. Denis tells a funny story about how he was knocked unconscious by his wakeboard last week while attempting a backwards rail, whatever that is. Floating on my back in the water, I feel out of my depth. Coming here was a mistake. I don’t believe man was meant to aquaplane, like a hubristic pond skater. Should have stuck to buses.
“He put his wetsuit on backwards, then he put his lifejacket on backwards, then he put his helmet on backwards,” I hear an awestruck Denis whisper to Novell. At this motivational moment, the cable jerks to life. I grip with all my strength as it rapidly accelerates, dragging me through the water on my buttocks. Remembering the drills, I draw my bottom to my heels, which brings me up into a crouch. The board is still horizontal, scudding against the water. But I’m on top of it. The feeling is unbelievable. I’m Johnny Utah, I’m Aquaman, I’m Marty McFly, hitching a hoverboard ride.
The board’s lip dips fractionally, breaching the surface. It instantly slams to a stop. My body stretches mid-air as the handle flies away, ripping off my fingernails and leaving me face down in the water.
In fact, the fingernails are present and correct. But that is how it feels each time. I hunch, fearful. I lean back, the board rearing like a cobra. I veer like a drunkard. My limbs ache and fail. Each mistake means swimming to the distant handlebar, using only my arms. The cable whips me relentlessly up and down the lake, tower to tower. It is exhausting.
Every faceplant, I take the opportunity to scream underwater. Unconnected thoughts bubble up as I float face down, in a kind of delirium. “Liquid Leisure at Windsor” is a very off-putting address, I think. Perhaps Prince Andrew is a patron. Back to the Future Part II was set in 2015 – how is that for disappointing? Luckily, every year since then has been a waking nightmare. A wakeboarding nightmare! Ha!
“What’s the most important skill in wakeboarding?” shouts Denis from the bank. A concrete head and a death wish? “Listening! That’s why you’re good.” I’m … good? Denis praises as frequently as he instructs – and is the sole reason I persevere. I learn to crouch. I learn to use my hips to pivot the board, lining it forwards, centring my weight. And finally – yes! – I stand. Poised yet relaxed, brain in my body. I have broken a horse in an aquatic rodeo and the horse is me. An hour ago, I didn’t know what wakeboarding was; now I’m the Peckham Poseidon. I fall over after six seconds, but what a six seconds.
“This last lap, take it one-handed!” I would walk to the gates of hell for Denis, but this sounds mad. He might as well have said: “This last lap, file your tax return.” Yet, miraculously, I find myself letting go – one hand flying behind, standing tall like Ben Hur. “It opens the chest, makes it easier to balance,” he says. I know what he is really saying. He is Bodhi to my Johnny Utah. Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
Is it possible to ride the water after less than an hour of teaching? Yes. Will I be going back? No. I believe in quitting while you are behind. Evolution favours the cowardly.
Who is this for?
Anyone surf-curious who lacks upper-body strength, vocal fry or the ability to get up early.
Whoop! There it is. 4/5