Wakesurfing is the latest watersport craze to make its way across the Atlantic. Editor Hugo dons his wetsuit to give it a try
When Mark Mulholland, the European importer of Malibu boats, first rang to suggest I have a go at wakesurfing I can’t pretend I was wildly enthusiastic about the idea. I enjoy my watersports as much as anyone but I also know my limitations.
I’m a reasonably competent windsurfer and waterskier, having spent countless hours as a teenager floundering around in Poole harbour trying to master them, but learning new skills doesn’t come easily to me these days. I’m 51, I’ve suffered more than my fair share of slipped discs and ruptured tendons, and my brain’s capacity to absorb new skillsets feels worryingly close to the limit.
A few years back I made the mistake of trying to take up kite surfing and after several hours being dragged across the mud behind an airborne duvet, I chucked it in and went back to windsurfing.
Mark, however, wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. He assured me that not only was it relatively easy to get going but it was also a low impact watersport making it suitable for all ages and abilities. Apparently, this is one of the reasons it has become such a hit with families across the pond and is now sweeping through the UK and Europe with similar speed.
He has a point; I know what it feels like to wipeout on a monoski where the combined speed of the tow boat travelling at 30 knots and the ski accelerating from side to side means you can end up hitting the water at close to 50 knots.
Wakesurfing, on the other hand, only needs the boat to be travelling at 10-12 knots and because your feet aren’t strapped in, when you do take a tumble (and believe me you will) it’s no more painful than stepping off a paddleboard. The hardest part, Mark assures me, is getting to grips with the surfing lingo.
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He must be able to sense my resistance beginning to crack and sends me a link to a couple of wakesurfing videos. Other than all the participants looking at least 30 years younger than me with board shorts down to their ankles and more facial hair than I could muster across my entire body, it does look quite fun.
There is also a chance that learning to wakesurf might gain me a few cred points with my 17-year-old son Ned, who currently views me as a cross between a free cash point and his own personal Uber. If all else fails, the boats themselves look pretty cool with more gadgets than a Bond car, booming sound systems, and a thumping great V8 engine. I call Mark and tell him I’m in.
By the time I’ve finally found a date and a location that works, summer has marched off into the distance and autumn seems to be fighting a losing battle against the onset of winter. Mark has fixed up a lesson for us with Charlie Toogood, owner of the Camel Ski School in Rock, Cornwall, where we’re staying with my brother and his family for half term.
The timing fits in perfectly with our plans but it turns out there’s a reason those videos of 20-something wakesurfers wearing nothing but board shorts and bikinis were shot in Miami in June rather than Cornwall at the end of October. The conditions are so ‘gnarly’ on the day of our arrival that Charlie has to pull the boat out of the water to stop it getting trashed. Thankfully, a brief weather window appears a couple of days later and Charlie manages to squeeze us in.
With older brother Giles Andreae as a partner in crime and a couple of reluctant teenage sons in tow, hoping to witness their fathers’ humiliation, we rock up at the allotted hour to be greeted by an eternally enthusiastic Charlie. He assures us the conditions are ideal for wakesurfing and tosses us a couple of buoyancy aids to wear over our own summer wetsuits.
To be fair, the low afternoon sun is doing a passable impression of an Indian summer (without actually delivering any heat) but there’s no getting around a water temperature that’s alarmingly close to single figures. Concerned that I might end up with an entire feature about wakesurfing without a single photograph of someone actually riding a wake, I ask Charlie to bring his wetsuit too.
Fully kitted up with Dry Robes at the ready, we blast out into the estuary to the waterskiing zone. I’m quietly relieved to see that we are the only people brave (or foolish) enough to be out here today, partly to spare any further embarrassment and partly because the one thing serious monoskiers abhor is another boat churning up their water, especially one specifically designed to make the biggest, steepest wake possible.
A brief discussion about who’s going to take the first plunge ends predictably with yours truly pulling the short straw. Charlie talks me through the technique for getting started, which involves sitting in the water with the board lying flat on the surface at 90 degrees to the boat and your heels resting on the edge of it while you cling on to a short ski rope.
In theory, as the boat moves forward the pressure on your heels pops the board upright so you can then push against it and wait for the boat to pull you out of the water before swivelling round to face the direction of travel, like you would on a wakeboard.
Much to my surprise, and my son’s obvious disappointment, it all seems to happen exactly as described and before I know it I’m riding along behind the boat wondering what to do next. Don’t let on, but getting going really isn’t hard; the board is larger and more buoyant than a normal wakeboard so you barely need to be moving before you can stand up and the angle of the pull from the boat’s ski tower is such that you really have nowhere else to go but up.
The less good news is that getting up is the easy bit, it’s the transition from being pulled along behind the boat to letting go of the rope and surfing the wake that’s tricky. But before attempting that you’ve got to give the boat time to do its stuff.
The craft we’re using is an Axis T22. Axis is a sub brand of Malibu, the world’s largest manufacturer of specialised wake, ski and surf boats. Boasting all the same performance and wake-making technology as the Malibu range but with fewer frills and a lower price point, they’re ideal for ski schools and clubs where substance is more important than style. Not that this one looks too shabby to me – its helm seems to have more in common with the Starship Enterprise than my own 22ft sportsboat.
Charlie gave me a quick debrief on the way out here, explaining how the fore and aft ballast tanks swallow over a tonne of water to help generate a bigger wake, while engaging the Power Wedge (a kind of reverse foil) adds another 680kg of downforce.
Last but not least the Surf Gates (a pair giant side-hinged trim tabs) shape the wake on one side or the other depending on whether you favour a regular or goofy stance (left or right foot forward). Even by boating standards the lingo is pretty impenetrable to anyone over the age of 19 but I try my best to keep up.
I’m also rather relieved to hear that powering all this through the water is a good-old fashioned 360hp 5.3-litre Monsoon V8 engine on a V-drive shaft to keep the propeller well away from dangling legs.
And just in case you don’t trust your other half to get the set-up just how you like it, you can either programme it all into the boat’s cruise control system or adjust it from a remote surfband you wear on your wrist while surfing. “Sick!” I exclaim in my best surfspeak, provoking a look of utter disdain from the two teenagers.
No time to worry about any of that now, I’m too busy trying to stay upright and get a feel for the wake that has now built to around waist height courtesy of all those clever gadgets. Charlie gestures for me to move across onto the steeper face of the wave and let the board start to do the work rather than the rope.
I ease my way over and feel the rope start to go slack in my hands as gravity takes precedence over engine power. Instinctively I lean back, slowing the board down and feeling the familiar tug of the tow rope.
Too many years leaning hard against the rope to accelerate out of a turn on a monoski makes this my default comfort zone but with Charlie’s encouragement I learn to shift my weight forward, pushing the nose of the board down the wake then controlling my speed by easing back to stay on the wave.
It’s a precarious balancing act but after a few seconds with the rope trailing in the water and the board running nicely on the wake I drop the handle – and faceplant straight into the water.
It’s a decent first effort and even the youths seem moderately impressed, if putting down their phones for five seconds and proffering a quick thumbs up counts for anything. A few more runs and I’ve managed to extend my rope-free running time up to 30 seconds or so.
I won’t be performing a ‘switch backside air grab’ or challenging Malibu team rider Johnny Stieg to a ‘superman transfer’ shoot out any time soon but I have had a lot of fun, made a decent amount of progress in a short space of time and as far as I can tell no muscles have been pulled or bones broken, although that may just be the numbing effect of the temperature. According to my son, I am ‘stoked’ (euphoric) at my first wakesurfing experience.
Rather annoyingly my older brother also gets up first time, proving my own heroic efforts to be entirely unexceptional, while Charlie’s brief demonstration, involving a 360 spin and surfing back onto the bathing platform without even getting his beard wet, puts us all firmly back in our box.
But you know what, wakesurfing really is a fun, ageless, family friendly watersport that everyone can have a crack at. All it takes is the right boat, a ‘phat’ attitude and an up-to-date urban dictionary.
Axis T22 specification
LOA: 21ft 11in (6.68m)
Beam: 8ft 6in (2.59m)
Engine: 360hp 5.3-litre V8 Monsoon
Price from: £75,000
First published in the February 2020 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.