Catching a Wave

wake surf on Geneva Lake

By Matt Cross | Photography by Holly Leitner

For most of my life, my experience with water sports has involved drinking cold beer as a passenger in a pontoon boat or the occasional attempt at tubing, which has always resulted in sore limbs and a sunburn. This lackluster effort changed last summer, however, as I was approached with the opportunity of a lifetime – or at least a summertime – when I was invited to step up my game and learn how to wake surf on the beautiful waters of Geneva Lake.

The day was perfect. Although we were approaching the end of the summer, it was warm, and the sun was shining brightly. The boat traffic was sparse not like a typical day on the lake, but school was back in session and many summer residents had headed back to the city. Holly Leitner, At The Lake’s digital editor, had arranged this adventure and we arrived at one of the many piers near downtown Lake Geneva to await our ride. The men on board were long-time friends who were fun and easy-going. Jokes and verbal jabs flew between them as we enjoyed the tunes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and cruised the surprisingly quiet waters of Geneva Lake.

I won’t lie and say I wasn’t nervous about what was ahead – I was. The guys on board had done this hundreds of times; one of them had even crafted boards professionally, so obviously he knew the tricks, techniques and skills, and probably could have made surfing a career! My strategy, though, was to go first, so I could try and grasp some of their pointers before inevitably embarrassing myself in front of them.

WAKE SURFING 101

The key to success seemed simple enough: get in the water, rest the heels of your feet on the rubber portion of the board, line up the handle and rope between your feet and sit in the water with the board perpendicular to the boat. From that position, try and let the natural momentum of the boat do the work … at least that’s what I kept hearing the guys say from the boat.

I was trying my best to remember the instructions and seem calm and nonchalant – in reality I thought this could end badly. (As in drowning.) In full disclosure, I’m a pretty athletic guy and I’ve played organized sports much of my life, but when I eased into the lake and immediately began choking on water from the boat’s wake, I figured that for sure, I was in trouble. At this point, though, there was no turning back. My eyes were on the boat and I uttered an uneasy, “I’m ready.” Next, all I remember is the sound of the boat’s engines kicking into gear and thinking, “Here goes nothing!”

To my surprise and to those in the boat, my first attempt at getting up onto my feet was a success. That lasted all of about 15 seconds, before I began flipping head over feet multiple times into the wake. I soon learned I’d forgotten one critical tip: When you lose your balance on the board, it’s important to let go of the rope handle. When I finally surfaced, I was greeted with wild applause by everyone in the boat and Pete Greenley, the boat’s owner, yelling, “You’re one of the few newbies we’ve taken out who has actually gotten up on his first try!”

His words immediately inflated my ego and created such a sense of false confidence that I was feeling pretty invincible. This didn’t last long – my new attitude was squelched almost instantly. I’m guessing you probably know what happened. My next five or six tries were disastrous with all of them ending with my face hitting the unforgiving surface of the lake. Ouch! Wake surfing had swallowed me up and spit me right back out, again and again.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED…

I knew, though, I wasn’t going to be deterred. I kept asking questions and challenging myself to get this right no matter how humiliating. Eventually, things clicked, and I mastered the skill of getting upright on the board.

What I learned after taking a few spills and becoming more familiar with the technique is that wake boarding isn’t that difficult — it’s mostly just repetitions of movements or muscle memory. One essential tip is to keep your knees bent, and like my coaching staff kept telling me, let the natural momentum of the boat pull you up. For what seemed like hours, I tried time and time again, eventually gaining enough know-how to carve in and out of the waves, impressing the group on board with every near tumble.

At this point I was having a blast. The company was great, the music playing on the boat’s sound system was my favorite, and the day was one of summer’s finest. Even though Geneva Lake had given me fits on that wake board, the peacefulness of its waters as we took in the scenery was simply fantastic. This was a day worth taking in whole-heartedly and experiencing to the fullest.

So, as we cruised a bit more, my self-assurance increased as did my desire to attempt more challenging stunts, including trying to wake surf without the rope as I had seen the others do. I discovered this wasn’t such an easy task, and honestly, I never seriously mastered this skill during the entire time out on the water that afternoon.

THE SECRET TO SURFING WITHOUT THE ROPE

From what I gathered, if you’re going to wake surf without the rope, you have to find the “sweet spot.” This is the part of the wave that is just right: not too close to the boat, where you feel you’ll need to bail for fear of banging your face into the stern, but not too far back, where you’ll lose the momentum the wave is providing to continue your run. You can shift back and forth on the wave by transferring your weight on the board from your front foot to your back foot. Transferring your weight to your front foot gets you closer to the boat and transferring it to your back foot shifts you farther away. This technique is achievable when you have a rope to help support your balance, but when you are without the rope, it’s not as easy. Multiple times I tried, and multiple times I failed. The most frustrating part was having a lengthy and successful run, only to have it end with my body, and the board beneath it, sink lazily into the water.

As the afternoon progressed, I finally felt I was becoming a somewhat respectable wake surfer. What I didn’t anticipate, and what didn’t cross my mind during all the successes and failures, was how exhausted I was! Once the adrenaline high started to wear off, it hit me hard and I was done.

The opportunity I was given that afternoon was one that is sure to stay with me for a long time. There are few things in life more enjoyable than gliding across a picturesque lake on a perfect day. But what amazes me is that a group of strangers were willing to spend an entire afternoon teaching a rookie like me something that I will always remember and hopefully do again, at the lake.

Editor’s Note: Matt Cross is the former new business development manager for Nei-Turner Media Group Inc., publisher of At The Lake magazine.

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