The water at Box End Park in Bedford is surprisingly warm. I’m sitting on the edge of a pontoon with my feet strapped to a board, anxiously waiting for an overhead cable to take up the slack and haul me across a lake. I’m about to try my luck at cable wakeboarding, a cross between surfing, waterskiing and snowboarding.
Teaching me the basics is Declan Clifford, a professional rider who performs daredevil aerial stunts. Now ranked number one in the world, he has just won the British national wakeboarding championship. At 21, his body has transformed from skinny schoolboy to hunky athlete after just a few years of training. I’m not aiming to win any medals – just to stand upright on the board for a few metres would be an achievement. Clifford has given me plenty of advice but bringing it all together in that split second the cable goes taut feels nigh on impossible.
Today the weather is balmy, but Clifford has to train all year round, trying to stay warm when the water is barely above freezing and he’s the only one on the lake. A group of teenagers has just arrived for a regular lesson and at least 30 of them are chattering on the bank behind me. They sense that the man with a cable in his hand is about to provide an entertaining spectacle.
Earlier in the day, Clifford told me how he started wakeboarding as a 14-year-old, soon after his stepbrother bought a speedboat to use on Pentney Lakes, near Ely. “We trailed a length of rope out the back and took turns to be dragged around on an old inner tube. I’d never even heard of wakeboarding until I spotted a club in Milton Keynes and went along to have a go,” he said.
The schoolboy turned out to be a natural and badgered his mother for money to buy a proper wakeboard. “Once I had that you couldn’t keep me off the water. I was a weedy kid back then but now I’m 5ft 11in and have bulked up to 95kg. You develop a strong body pretty fast, especially your arms and back muscles.”
The origins of wakeboarding are sketchy but it was surfers who developed the idea of riding their boards by holding a waterski rope attached to a boat. Then, in the early 1980s, special boards similar to a snowboard were developed, which allowed riders to attach bindings and boots for extra stability.
Nowadays you can either be pulled behind a boat and use the wake as a launch for jumps and stunts, or hold on to an overhead cable tow, like the one I’m trying at Box End. The cable is suspended about 10m above the water on a continuous loop, with individual lines hanging down for the wakeboarders to grip. The cable runs at speeds up to 40mph for 800m around the lake, with various jumps and ramps in the water to challenge more experienced riders.
“There are competitions around the world and we’re judged on our stunts and tricks,” says Clifford. “There are lots of moves and they all have crazy names. My signature jump is a ‘Moby Dick 5’, which is a mid-air backflip combined with one and a half turns, through 540 degrees. Another is the ‘1080 Off the Kicker’, or taking off from a ramp and turning three full spins in the air. Obviously, you are expected to land on your board again and the right way up!”
There are wakeboarding parks dotted around the country, with a two-hour tuition session and equipment hire costing about £40. If you catch the bug, a board will cost between £300 and £400 and boot bindings up to another £500. A helmet and buoyancy aid are compulsory and you can expect plenty of bumps and bruises if you are planning to go airborne.
Before I take to the water, I have to find out whether I’m “goofy” or, as it turns out, regular footed. Basically, that means which foot I want to face forward on the board to help maintain my balance. It’s usually the foot you kick a football with and it determines the type of board you ride.
“When the cable starts to pull, make sure you keep your knees bent to help maintain balance, and lean back so that the front of the board doesn’t nosedive and send you cartwheeling over the front,” says Clifford. “Keep your arms straight and let the cable pull you. Don’t try to pull the cable because you will fall in.”
Much to the amusement of my teenage audience, as the cable pulls me forward I automatically straighten my legs and stand up. Before I have time to swear, my mouth is full of water as the cable yanks me clean off the pontoon, boots and all. The board is left floating on the spot where my legs were dangling in the water moments before. The cable is only travelling at 19mph but from a sitting start it’s like trying to hang on to a racehorse’s tail.
The swim back is soothing and I am soon waiting in the cable queue again for another launch. One downside of cable wakeboarding is that if you fall off at the far end of the lake, it’s a long walk back to the launch pontoon dragging a wakeboard behind you. Despite my clownlike first attempt, I’m given plenty of encouragement by other boarders, who seem to share a genuine spirit of camaraderie.
Clifford sits by me for my second launch, forcibly bending my knee with his hand to ensure I don’t give a repeat performance. This time the line snaps taut and I cover about 10 metres before pulling the cable handle up to my chest and falling sideways into the water. At least the board is still attached to my feet and I didn’t land headfirst in the lake.
I give it one more go and this time, with Clifford and a pontoon full of teenagers willing me on, it all comes together. For a few seconds I am upright, I can feel the wind against my face and the sun shining bright on my forehead. The banter on the pontoon fades and the only sound is my wakeboard skimming across the water.
But it doesn’t last long and as soon as the cable starts to drag me around a corner, I’m off and swimming again. The only difference is, this time I’m grinning. Back on the bank, Clifford is full of encouragement. “It’s similar to snowboarding. There is a sharp learning curve and then it all becomes a lot easier. Now you have the basics, you can go on and be as daring as you like.”
I’m not sure I’m ready for anything more daring than a full circuit of Box End lake, but I pass the cable back to Clifford reluctantly. With the handle hooked under one elbow, he glances backwards to wave goodbye and skims off into the distance.
For further details on wakeboarding visit www.bwsw.org.uk