Wake watchers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2005, 12:00am

TAI TAM TUK village is quiet. At the community near Stanley, the sea is still, the surface barely broken by a ripple. After a few days of rain, the sun is shining in a near cloudless sky. It looks like a perfect day for my first lesson in wakesurfing.

Thrillseekers tend to gravitate naturally to such water sports as surfing and wakeboarding. These adrenalin junkies brave high speeds or fearsome waves to pull off stunning moves and catch perfect breakers. But wakesurfing is a gentler hybrid of the two, in which surfers use a specially designed board or a regular surfboard to ride the wake produced by a speedboat.

The sport was introduced to Hong Kong recently by a group of extreme sports, or X-game, fans eager to grab a surfing fix in Hong Kong waters where suitable waves are scarce for much of the year. David Chan, a keen surfer, was among the first to check out the new sport and is pleased to have an alternative. 'When there are no waves, we can still surf,' he says. The skills required for controlling a surfboard and a wake surfboard are more or less the same. But instead of tapping the power of the ocean, wakesurfers use the propulsion of a boat to create the 'pocket' - the section of the wake that allows surfers to gain momentum.

'The sea churns up different sizes and shapes of waves. But the wake generated by a boat doesn't change,' says Chan.

Although it was invented before wakeboarding, the sport didn't find a niche in Hong Kong until wakesurfing instructor Patrick Chang and a group of X-game friends decided to take it up.

'We didn't have a clue how to wakesurf when we first started,' he says. Eventually, the group worked it out for themselves, experimenting on regular surfboards before they graduated to wakesurf boards, which are easier for beginners to balance on. 'After about a year, we eventually mastered the skills,' Chang says.

Unlike wakeboarding, wakesurfing is a low-impact sport because riders aren't towed behind a boat at high speeds. Instead, the vessel usually travels at about 15-20km/h, which allows even young riders to surf the wake.

As in extreme games, there are lots of tricks that wakesurfers can do, including 180-degree and 360-degree spins and different flips. However, it isn't possible to make the three-metre-high airborne launches seen in wakeboarding, eliminating the chance of injury from heavy landings.

Because it's safer and easier to learn, wakesurfing has grown in popularity in the west in recent years. The first World Wakesurf Championships were organised in San Diego, California, in 1996. This year's competitions will be staged at Stockton, California, at the end of this month.

To promote the sport to Hong Kong residents, the Hong Kong X-Federation, an alliance of local extreme-sport groups, plans to organise a wakesurfing day later this year.

It will invite all X-gamers, including skateboarders and BMX riders, to the event to try the sport, says federation president Conroy Chan Chi-chung.

'After all, surfing is the godfather of extreme games,' he says. 'Although wakesurfing isn't real surfing, it's close enough - especially in Hong Kong where the waves are not always suitable for surfing.' And with celebrities such as Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi taking up the sport, Chan says wakesurfing may gain mainstream appeal in a couple of years.

Meanwhile, Chang is assigned the task of teaching me to wakesurf. 'It's easier for girls,' he says. 'The strength it needs is just like running. It's not really explosive.' As someone who has avoided extreme sports of any kind, I thought wakesurfing looked exciting but manageable.

Before taking to the water, I'm given a demonstration by Chang's friend, Chris Wong Choi-man. He grabs a surf board, jumps into the sea and picks up the towrope he'll use to pull himself upright behind the speedboat. As the craft gains speed, Wong rises from the water and releases the rope after a while to ride the wake.

Can it be that simple? My main fear is looking stupid. Still, having donned a life-jacket, I reckon I'm as ready as I'll ever be. 'Wait,' Chang says. 'Which is your dominant leg?'

The answer should have been simple since I was a long-jumper in school, but memories have faded with the years.

But the surfers have an easy way to clear up that doubt. Told to keep my eyes closed, I'm pushed forwards.

'She's a goofy,' one announces. Rather than referring to any resemblance of mine to the cartoon character, goofy in surf talk means I face left on the board. For the record, people who lead with the left foot are called 'regular'.

Finally, I hit the water, with Chang showing me how to get up on the wake. I grab the handle of the towrope, lie on my back with my knees bent and my feet on the board. 'Relax. Don't try to pull the rope hard!' he shouts over the sound of the boat engine. But who can relax at a moment like this?

I run through the required moves in my head as the engine roars into life. The boat gains speed and I feel myself being pulled along. I try standing on the board ... slowly ... and fall flat on my face.

'Try to keep your body straight,' Chang shouts. 'You look like you're slipping on a banana skin.'

After falling forwards, backwards and sideways innumerable times, I finally manage to stand up. The only trouble is I'm still hanging on to the rope - having failed to ride even one metre of the wake.

Back on dry land, a charitable Chang offers encouragement. 'It's a bit difficult in the initial stages for people who've never tried surfing or wakeboarding,' he says. 'Give them a couple of lessons and they should be OK with the basic skills.'

He promises that, like them, I'll soon be skimming the wake. Here's to not making a goof of myself.