By Steven Bull
Wakeboarding isn’t new. It’s not that much younger than I am, actually. It being born in the mid 1980s and me in 1981. Much like you would barely recognize me back then, the early adopters and innovators of wakeboarding would barely recognize the sport now had they not watched its growth.
Jake Thomas, a contributor to Boats&Places and Editor of PowerBoat Television has been around for all of it, getting his first board in 1988.
“The board started plastic then evolved to fibreglass, then the twin-tips came out, then the asymmetrical board, then the three-stage board,” he explained to me, tapping into his vast wealth of wake-knowledge. “Then came the metamorphosis of the bindings. When I started, they were just rubber, then it was EVA foam, and now they’re fully enclosed boots, like moon boots or winter boots, that click into the bindings.”
The first boarders, like Thomas, who competed from the early 1990s until 2000, came directly from the waterski world. More specifically, the three-event waterski tournament world which is: slalom, jump and trick.
The latter of which really gave birth to wakeboarding.
“When those guys first got on a wakeboard they could do all those trick ski tricks just way bigger,” he says.
That’s when boats started to adapt.
He explained to me that Nautique introduced – and patented – the tower. That was the first game changer. Soon after, towers were on everything from 18-foot bowriders to fishing boats.
The key advantage to wakeboarding that helped spur the growth was that it could be done just about anywhere, anytime. In contrast to slalom skiing or barefoot riding, where you need pretty ideal conditions. The cool factor also helped.
“Everyone always wants to be a surfer. It’s the quintessential cool guy sport,” Thomas said. “But not everyone has waves. And even if you do, it can be a hard sport to get the hang of. Now with towers pulling you up and out of the water, and being able to do it behind basically any boat, it blew up.”
Boats started added integrated ballast along with the towers. Then came the PerfectPass GPS systems which allowed you to maintain a precise speed. Something that was hard to do before.
“The driver had to be an expert because a traditional inboard/outboard is falling on or off plane right around 18-20 miles per hour,” he explained. “But while 20 miles per hour is ideal, 18 might be awful.”
In a smaller V-bottom bowrider, a strong rider cutting a strong wake creates enough force to drag the boat back off plane or, even worse, over to the side.
Hence the evolution of the performance monsters that remain the mainstays and “big boys” of the surf world: Malibu and Nautique.
Constantly trying to one-up themselves (and each other) has led to boats that are more advanced than most cars, a dazzling – if not dizzying – display screen to consolidate the plethora of technology, and new under-water gadgets to make the wake that much better.
That comes at a cost, though, and the big boys have big price tags.
If you’re ok with that, what you can get these days is staggering. The Malibu 22 MKZ, for example has the second-generation power wedge which helps everything from minimizing wake for skiing (when fully extended it acts as a hydrofoil to raise the stern) or to maximize wake (when partially lowered it drags the stern now and shoots water up).
Maybe you’re more into something like the Super Air Nautique GS22, which takes the best of Nautique’s Ski- and G-Series boats and combined them to live happily ever after in tournament-ready ability for any sport.
To the layman with no knowledge of the sport, you may not see a difference between the boats. That’s like saying to a pick-up truck person that Chevys and Fords are the same. Nope! It’s not just arbitrary brand loyalty. When you’re dialed in, the similar gadgets and systems can be make-or-break.
For Jane and Joe Average, who have waterfront property and want a general runabout boat, but who also have kids that want in on the surf- and wake-world, there’s a range here, too.
Sticking with the dedicated boats, Heyday was born from the frustration a lot of consumers have. The constant rising bar of technology and performance of the big boys has priced some people out of the sport. Heyday boiled it down to the basics. They got rid of the complicated computer touchscreens, and instead introduced an app to control the boat’s systems from a tablet. Better yet, there are toggle switches on board. They designed the hull to create the wake versus add on plates and gates. It doesn’t have the high-end look, but it’s great value.
Sea Ray got back in the tow sports game in a serious way when they unveiled the SLX-W 230 in 2017. Using the big-water capable 21-degree deadrise hull and building onto it some serious, but subtle, features like transom board storage, on-board heaters and Mercury’s Joystick Piloting for Inboards, this may not be a tournament-ready boat but the pros enjoy the wake. Trust me, I rode it.
Starcraft took a similar approach, but with an even more affordable boat. I’ve tested a few years of SCX deck boats and am a fan of the family-friendly layout, handling of the hull and the sheer joy I get driving them. Instead of a traditional inboard/outboard they’ve kitted their Surf Series out with Volvo’s Forward Drive, pushing the prop up under the boat and away from the rider. It means this handles like those IOs (actually better, I think) which is key for many as docking traditional inboards can be less than relaxing. But it has serious surf abilities. Starcraft doesn’t pretend that it’s a competitor to the Malibus and Nautiques, but rather embrace that this is a boat for the whole family that you can surf behind when you want.
If you want a traditional bowrider versus a deckboat layout, that’s on the market too. Regal’s RX 21 Surf also has the Volvo Forward Drive and it has their FasTrac hull with cutouts for more efficient running. Because it has the traditional footprint, it has a classically sporty and sleek look. It’s also a compact footprint but it makes clever use of it all, with transom rumble seats you can flip up for water-facing relaxing or ride-prep.
In the last 5-10 years wake surfing has blown up and, in my estimation, surpassed wakeboarding as the cool sport. For one, it hits Thomas’s goal of everyone wanting to be a surfer. Now everyone actually can.
Surfing happens around 10-11 miles per hour so falls have a lower impact than with wakeboarding.
“You could probably hurt yourself more by falling off your dock into the water than you will surfing,” Thomas said with a laugh. “And for the pros, they’ll have potentially longer careers. These days wakeboarders are doing double-flips and 720s all the time. You bail on one of those, you’re going to feel it. You bail hundreds of times it will take a toll.”
Surfing, on the other hand, you’d have to try hard to fall hard enough to get really hurt. I’m not saying it’s impossible or a challenge to attempt, mind you, I’m just saying I gave up wakeboarding a few years ago after a painful bail while trying bigger jumps. It just wasn’t worth it to me.
Reluctantly, I tried surfing for the first time this summer while in Saskatchewan and I was hooked. It’s low impact, but still a good workout and a lot of fun – especially for a newbie!
As such, the boats have gone through another round of evolution and now everyone offers surf capabilities. You need a different, one-sided, wave to surf. One with a big sweet spot. And that’s different than a symmetrical wakeboard wake for jumping between.
Just 25-30 years ago, people like Jake Thomas were using jugs of water and lead plates to weigh down slalom ski boats. Now, it’s as if NASA has taken over with all the high-tech goodies that are out there. It’s hard not to wonder what innovations or new sports the next 30 years will bring!
This article is featured in the Winter 2018 issue of Boats&Places.