December 2010

Totally A Wake

By Brian Giebel

Cutting toward the wake, you pick up speed. One moment you’re floating, the next you’re flying. A soft landing and a boat-full of cheering friends welcome you to boating’s equivalent of snowboarding. Wakeboarding is the sport of big wakes, big bucks, and big changes.

For more than a decade, wakeboarding has been one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Athletes and wannabe’s of all ages try wakeboarding, and embrace it for the undeniable exhilaration and unique feelings. For some, it’s the adrenaline-boosting speed. Maybe it’s the cool mix of water and a summer breeze. It could be the simple thrill of rebelling against gravity, finding that elusive, weightless space between sinking and soaring. Whatever the attraction, the sport’s popularity is soaring. Wakeboarding camps and parks are spreading around the world. Spin-off sports such as wakeskating (wakeboarding without bindings) and wakesurfing are also growing fast, and wake-based watersports competitions appear on the cable network FuelTV and are included in the XGames.

Pioneering pro Shaun Murray started when he was 11. “It was like no other feeling,” he said. Anyone who’s tried wakeboarding probably agrees. Murray has been at it for over 20 years, traveled around the world competing, and has seen his sport go from obscure to extreme to mainstream.

As celebrities such as comedian Stephen Colbert, and actors Milo Ventimiglia and Hayden Panettieri make the sport more and more hip, wakeboarding’s ambassadors and top athletes, such as Murray, Scott Byerly, Jeff Weatherall, Dallas Friday, and Andrea Fountain, are becoming break-out stars in the general sports media — a phenomena in boating.

Wakeboarding’s surging popularity has had a tremendous impact on the powerboating industry. Designs, sales, accessories, and styling have shifted to accommodate and promote the sport that is significantly more popular than waterskiing. Water Sports Industry Association Executive Director Larry Meddock said, “Wakeboarding is by far the more dominant watersports activity.” According to Meddock, wakeboarding revenues, including sales of everything from boats to sport-specific accessories, are now four times greater than those of waterskiing.

The sport is so popular, and its influence so pervasive, that new companies such as Epic Wakeboats were established to build wakeboarding boats, or “wakeboats,” exclusively; at least 20 boat brands now include wakeboats in their fleets. They are inboards, outboards, stern drives, jet boats, and even modified jet skis.

Let The Games Begin

After 1996, when the XGames introduced wakeboarding to television audiences, manufacturers introduced new wakeboarding-influenced boat designs annually. Demand and sales grew steadily. Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin said; “It was around the year 2000 when wakeboard boat sales started to eclipse the ski-boat sales” for their Nautique brand. Like MasterCraft, Nautique established its brand with near wakeless boats built specifically for waterskiing. Both are now industry leaders in wakeboarding. According to representatives of both companies, wakeboats now account for more than 60 percent of their sales. “Those sales numbers are probably closer to 70 or 80 percent,” Meddock said.

Dedicated wakeboats are typically equipped with both a tower and onboard ballast bags that can be filled automatically with water to increase weight by up to 4,000 pounds in some models, and make a bigger wake. Other than anchor-shaking, ballast-boosted swells, a wakeboat’s most distinguishing feature is its tower, the sturdy, roll-bar-inspired steel arch that spans the boat’s beam. It first appeared on boats in the late 1990s, developed and patented by Nautique.

“All boat manufacturers are marketing something with a tower on it,” Meddock said. The sport is so popular with kids and adults today, even brands not primarily identified with towing athletes are obligated to offer options packages for wakeboarding. Extended swim platforms, towers, and other fittings are now offered throughout the powerboating industry. Sea Ray, Bayliner, and Regal, for example, all sell some wakeboarding options. Four Winns includes towers or tower-inspired “arches” on boats up to 30 feet. “For three or four years, all our boats have been built with the structural integrity to add a tower,” said Rick Fulmer, vice-president of marketing for Four Winns.

The tower provides a high point for rope attachment to make wakeboarding easier and safer. It increases leverage and helps wakeboarders soar off the wake and land softly. By keeping the tow rope out of the water and lifting and pulling simultaneously, towers actually enhance the safety and enjoyment of skiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.

But towers aren’t just for the kids and athletes. They’re also a new place to add storage and accessories. Manufacturers and aftermarket companies routinely mount high-performance speakers, lights, and video cameras across the top, while wakeboard racks fan out from the sides like wings. By giving boaters more space for electronics and luxury technologies, dealers can increase prices and profitability.

Tricked-Out For Doing Tricks

In 2009, luxury brand Cobalt also added wakeboats to their inventory. “Remember when GM used to sell Suburbans without bucket seats and video screens and all the aftermarket companies were adding them?” Cobalt’s vice-president of marketing, Gavin Hunt, said, explaining why the company paid attention to wakeboarding. “When we saw towers and speakers being added in the aftermarket, we did what they [GM] did, and started offering it to our customers directly.”

Luxury wakeboats such as MasterCraft’s 28-foot X80 retail for up to $170,000. The stereos alone can cost $15,000, including intercoms and four tower-mounted speakers. With those kinds of numbers it’s not surprising that sales revenues for wakeboarding equipment, ranging from boats to tow ropes, grew so quickly. According to Meddock, gross revenues grew 39 percent from 2004 to 2006, and 20 percent from 2006 to 2008.

Future sales can’t be predicted based on history, especially in this economy. Wakeboard-related revenues fell in 2009 along with sales throughout the boating industry. It’s possible that the sport’s rapid rise and sales of wakeboarding boats and accessories may have peaked, but probably not. The sport’s popularity and profitability was due partly to loose credit, television exposure, and home equity, growing in a freewheeling, free-spending era when consumers embraced all things “extreme.” Sports, snacks, drinks, and even deodorants wore the label proudly. When cable network “Fuel TV” was launched in 2003, extreme sports such as wakeboarding got exponentially more airtime, just as home prices soared. Flush with cash, shoppers eagerly fueled the growth of wakeboarding, and bought big boats with big wakes, boards, gear, and all the flashy accessories.

Observers and insiders have reason to believe wakeboarding will continue to influence boating, and feel positive about industry prospects. Sure, wakeboarding is extreme, but it‘s also a fun and relatively easy sport to enjoy with friends and family. Cobalt’s Hunt agrees: “For wakeboarding, boats only have to go 18 miles per hour instead of 35 for slalom skiing. Wakeboarding is easier to do and uses less fuel.” Meddock suggested that the sport’s social aspect will continue to increase popularity. “The more people in the boat, the larger the wake,” he said — a good thing for wakeboarding. All the added equipment, people, and accessories just make the wake better for launching athletes. “People like to show off,” Meddock added, “and therefore it’s a much more social activity than waterskiing. That’s part of why it’s so fun and successful.”

Part of the positive outlook for the wakesports market, and wakeboats specifically, comes from the fact that the sport has room to grow, and future boat buyers embrace the sport every season. “You can wakeboard behind anything,” said Eric Williford, Epic Wakeboats’ director of marketing. “I wakeboarded behind a pontoon boat!”

Kids don’t need smooth water or an expensive boat to get into the game. Actually, cable tow parks are popping up throughout the country, allowing anyone to learn to wakeboard without even seeing a boat. They barely need water. Sometimes it’s just a set of towers and cables pulling people around shallow puddles. Specialized schools and camps also offer kids more opportunities and bring more consumers to wakeboarding. Williford predicted, “Those kids are going to buy wakeboats when they get some money.”

“I think wakeboarding sales will continue to increase as more people get exposed to it,” said Meddock. “All the boat manufacturers are indicating increased sales activity in 2010.”

The sport’s influence and innovations appear to be here to stay. These days, modified tower designs are appearing on all types and sizes of recreational powerboats. Where a wakeboat might have board racks or speakers for example, other models have fishing-pole mounts, and an integrated bimini. But the innovations could reach far beyond options packages and styling. Epic Wakeboats introduced the industry’s first electric hybrid sport boat last year, and recently unveiled an electric model that runs for 10 hours and can go 40 miles per hour. A big wake in exchange for zero emissions may be a good trade. Regardless, in today’s powerboating world, extreme is mainstream.

Writer Brian Giebel spends summers wakeboarding along the Adirondack Coast of Lake Champlain.

Denise Crandall

This Californian artist and mother of two from Lake Arrowhead is 44 and has been wakeboarding for 25 years.

What’s your favorite wakeboarding memory? Getting whip lash! I was determined to land a 360 before my husband. I had the 180 mastered on both sides but desperately wanted to land a full 360 turn. I needed to pull the board around quicker before landing. I kept doing it, and doing it, and doing it, face plant after face plant, till I gave up. The vacation ended the next day and we drove home. I couldn't move my neck in either direction so I went to a sports-medicine treatment center. While lying face down on the table I felt my face swell. Apparently my lymphatic fluid drained into my face! I looked like I’d been stung by a swarm of bees! After a day of massage, I was good as new. Still a sore neck but at least my face was a normal size again. All that drama so I could master a wakeboarding trick before my husband. I know, I'm nuts. Get a life.

Why I love it: It's just me and the water. I love the sun on my back and the rush of water under my board. It's so peaceful riding behind the boat looking ahead to my family and friends cheering me on.”

Advice? Go to a big WARM lake that you can take your time learning in. It's always comforting to have someone in the water with you coaching you along.

Shaun Murray

Pro rider from Orlando, Florida, Shaun, 34, has been wakeboarding for 23 years. He’s a four-time World Champion, a feature character in a wakeboarding video game, and received the “Legend” award from Wakeboard Magazine.

Why I love wakeboarding: “I love gliding across the water or the air, and the feeling of being one with the board is awesome. Getting up for the first time can be really frustrating. But most people become addicted to wakeboarding the first day they get up. Either get someone who knows how to teach getting up well or find someone with an instructional video.” (Murray’s instructional video is “Detention 2012”)

How old were you when you started the sport? “I started waterskiing at 8 and started wakeboarding when I was 11. I loved the feeling of standing sideways similar to my skateboard or surfboard. Learning a new trick is one of the best feelings.”

Andrea Fountain

This 28-year-old two-time world and 10-time national champion from Lake Ohakuri and Greenhith, Auckland, New Zealand, has been wakeboarding for 16 years.

Why I love wakeboarding: There’s nothing like having friends and family out on the boat, creating memories you have for life!

How did you get started? I started riding at 12 with a directional skurfer (skurfboards eventually became wakeboards) behind an inflatable dinghy! But I started learning 180s at 17 once we’d bought a small boat and sacked it up and put a homemade pole on it!

Why do you love wakeboarding? There’s nothing like that feeling of landing a new trick for the first time. The adrenalin is so good!

Drew Sabella

A retired restaurateur and unapologetic adrenaline junkie, Drew, 67, from Lake Champlain, New York, has been wakeboarding for 20 years.

Why I love it: There’s nothing like the totally alive feeling that comes on a beautiful crisp sunny day, feeling the adrenalin rush, and the intense contact with the environment. The rainbows dancing off the water spray are just a bonus.

There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush on a sunny day, with rainbows dancing off the spray.

Your inspiration? At age 47 I was into trying anything that I could ride on behind a boat including kneeboards, trick skis, a canoe paddle (didn't work), and a contraption called a bonzi board, which was nearly impossible to get up on. My brother-in-law brought a real wakeboard to Lake Champlain one summer and let me try it. I soon made contact with Tommy's, a well-known surf-guitar store in Miami and bought my own board. I still remember the great pleasure when I got a feel for a deep-water start on the board and how effortless it could be.”

Favorite memory? Wakeboarding has just been a great sport to do with my family.

When we published this article in our December magazine, we caught many readers attentions: Some good, some less so. Here’s a cross section of the letters we received.
A Pox On Our Waterways?

I was sorry to see you glorify wakeboarding in your December issue without exploring the negative side of this “sport.” Over the years, I’ve run into every conceivable form of self-centered, destructive, unsafe, and obnoxious behavior on the water, but wakeboarders take the cake. The intent of these boats is to make the largest wake possible, and they do. These wakes capsize other boats, and ruin and destroy shorelines, and other people's property. They’re loud and obnoxious, blasting their music at levels that would get them arrested if they played it that loud on the street. They’re a pox on our waterways. These boats need to be used in specially designated areas, where they can play to their hearts content without ruining everything for everyone else.

It was interesting to read the vitriol spewed by one member about wakeboarding. As a 53-year-old father of two wakeboarding girls, I must disagree – I’ve seen far more wake damage caused by racing-style boats and larger cruisers, and I’d rather hear a loud stereo during the day than a generator running all night.

I go to the lake with my girls (22 and 17) and their friends, and I see strong, fit young people, more polite and outgoing than most, having a ball – and freely helping others get better instead of silently hoping they fail. I see them do amazing things – as a parent I worry every time my oldest goes for a front roll, but I also marvel at her skill and determination. I go home at night hoping they will always have the love of the water that I’ve enjoyed so much with them.

Are there boorish, ill-mannered, spoiled people on wakeboard boats? Sure – but I’d wager that the percentage is the same as on whatever style of vessel that the original writer owns. If he can’t see that, then perhaps he’s part of the problem. Instead of complaining about the bass-boater blasting through the only calm water around or the cruiser anchored in the middle of my turnaround, I’d rather count them as allies against those who work toward the elimination of boating by getting rid of one group at a time. With a little luck, my great-grandchildren will be able to love the water the way I have all my life.

As long time members of your wonderful organization, we must agree with the letter on page 4 of your Feb/Mar issue … to wit: “a Pox On Our Waterways?” The idea of wakeboarding sounds like a lot of fun – until one considers the consequences. We constantly lose shoreline to wakes – if that’s caused by neighbors with their ski boats, at least their own shores are the ones being destroyed. But when someone puts in at a nearby ramp and races up and down our creek – not even being aware that a wake can destroy carefully maintained shore grasses and erode all attempts to be responsible caretakers of the Chesapeake Bay… Well, then, I am horrified that you would promote this as a “fun” thing to do. Do any of these people realize (or even care) about the destruction they cause? (I doubt it!). So very many boaters are unaware of what damage a wake can do – “Huh? Wake? What is that?” Keep us posted! Thank you for a great magazine and service!

Hello, I am your Pox on the water. Yes I have a 22' Moomba wakeboard boat. (my first ski boat). My family has been boating for 50 years and I am only 50, so I can say I grew up boating. There are all kinds of idiots out there on the water: Fisherman who think the water belongs to them; jet skis that should be on a dirt track; sailors that will not give you an inch; tubers that don't see the danger in their actions. And yes, there can be a ski or wakeboard boat in the wrong place at the wrong time. Have you ever been to a state run boat ramp? Please, just one day and you will learn!

My trouble is with the editor that thinks putting boaters against each other is funny or a good idea. It’s not. There are so many issues that boaters need to be together on. Are you one of these guys that drive a 30-foot cruiser that does not want to spill his drink, so he drives at half-planing speed? The waves you make are twice the size of any wakeboard boat. Have you ever been near a Barge? If you have ever tried to wakeboard you would know that the boats make a defined wave, that is more then just size.

If you live on the water as I do, you should know it is not the boat waves, but the storms, and good old Mother Nature that can mess things up. If boat waves make a mess see your county shoreline manager they will help you put in the shoreline you need. If you find you’re mad at another boater, try to talk with them. Explain your side and listen to them, maybe you are not as right as you think?

All said and done most boaters are great people just trying to have a little fun, and relax. So please do your best to bring people together on issues not divide them in camps.