The Wall Street Journal
Far From the Ocean, These Surfers Don’t Wait for Waves
They ride endless wakes created by speedboats; ‘a glassy Idaho lake’

wall street journal, wakesurfing, wakesurfer
NAMPA, Idaho— Justin Harrison is fighting for the right to surf in Idaho.

This type of surfing needs no ocean. It is called wakesurfing, and it lets someone surf, untethered, in a speedboat’s wake as though riding a briny wave. Boats designed for wakesurfing are hot sellers at Idaho Water Sports, the shop Mr. Harrison manages, and elsewhere. On a recent day on Lake Lowell, he drove a boat while employee William Nunnelee followed 10 feet behind, carving the wake on his surfboard.

William Nunnelee
William Nunnelee

“It’s really opened up a huge market that wasn’t there before,” says Mr. Harrison, adding that he knows of one wakesurfer in his 80s.

Wakesurfing can be done with boat and rider going 10 miles an hour, making wipeouts easier on the body than those from water skiing or wakeboarding. That forgiving dynamic has made wakesurfing popular from inland Texas to South Dakota, hundreds of miles from the nearest drop of salt water.

As the season begins, the sport’s fans are dropping back into their beloved perpetual waves. But its leaders are girding for an endless bummer: Critics keep pushing back against the specialized boats that create swells for surfing. Lakeshore homeowners and conservationists worry that the boats, with wake-enhancing devices, could erode shoreline or disturb wildlife.

Bans on wake-enhancing devices have taken hold at lakes in Oregon and Iowa. Pennsylvania officials have fielded complaints about disturbance and damage allegedly caused by wakesurfing boats.

In Idaho a few months back, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned to ban wake-enhancing devices on Lake Lowell, a popular recreation area in Idaho’s Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge.

Idaho Water Sports employee William Nunnelee demonstrates how to wakesurf. Specialized boats have inboard motors and surfers follow a few surfboard lengths behind the boat.
Justin Harrison, general manager of boat-seller Idaho Water Sports, pulls into a dock at Lake Lowell in Nampa, Idaho, after a session of wakesurfing.
Wakesurfing boats feature ballast tanks that hold water to weigh down the boat and augment wakes for surfing.
Idaho Water Sports employee William Nunnelee demonstrates how to get up on a surfboard behind a boat. Once on top of the water, a rider can drop the line and surf in the boat’s wake indefinitely.
Idaho Water Sports is in Nampa, Idaho, not far from Lake Lowell, a reservoir where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials recently considered banning wake-enhancing devices on boats.
Justin Harrison, general manager of Idaho Water Sports, says wakesurfing has expanded the market for towboat-type watersports. Wakesurfing is often done at about 10 miles per hour, much slower than waterskiing or wakeboarding, making wipeouts gentler.
Wakesurfing has spawned specialized equipment like sport-specific surfboards.
Justin Harrison, general manager of boat-seller Idaho Water Sports, pulls into a dock at Lake Lowell in Nampa, Idaho, after a session of wakesurfing.
Dan Morris for The Wall Street Journal
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Federal officials were worried about the impact of boat wakes on wildlife including the Western Grebe, a bird listed by the state as “imperiled” that nests on the lake’s surface. The birds are known for their balletic mating rituals.

Mr. Harrison argued that other boats also make big wakes, and that wakesurfing boats shouldn’t be singled out. Federal officials backed off the ban, and agreed to allow wakesurfing outside of designated no-wake zones.

Versions of wakesurfing have existed as far back as the 1950s. But it wasn’t until recent years that wakesurfing took off, propelled by people seeking a gentler watersport and by equipment that made it safer and easier.

To get going, wakesurfers sit in the water with their feet on a short surfboard and grip a rope tied to the boat. The boat accelerates and pulls the rider up onto an edge of the wake. The rider then drops the rope and surfs like he’s at Malibu Beach. Surfers can ride as long as the boat can go.

Wakesurfing boats have an inboard motor with the propeller tucked away from the surfer. Onboard mechanisms pump hundreds or thousands of pounds of water into ballast tanks that weigh down the boat and augment the wake. One manufacturer even makes a remote control that surfers can thumb to adjust the wake’s height and length.

Wakesurfing helped revive the ski-boat industry after the recession, says Jay Povlin, vice president of sales and marketing for Vonore, Tenn.-based MasterCraft. Nationwide, sales of boats used for wakesurfing and similar watersports rose 14.6% last year, outpacing the 8.5% increase of boat sales overall, according to research firm Statistical Surveys Inc.

Wakesurfing boats sell for about $50,000 to $180,000.

Among wakesurfing’s converts is John Mess, a 33-year-old sales consultant in Battle Lake, Minn. Mr. Mess suffered four concussions during two decades of wakeboarding, in which a rider strapped onto a short board is pulled behind a speedboat. In that sport, he says, a fall onto water whizzing past at more than 20 miles an hour felt like hitting concrete. He tried wakesurfing a few years ago and got hooked.

“You’re standing a few feet from the back of the boat, you can hear the music, your friends throw you a beer,” he says.

Zach Routt learned to surf while living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He moved to South Dakota for college and now teaches wakesurfing at Pactola Reservoir, 30 miles north of Mount Rushmore. The main differences between wakesurfing and regular surfing are the lack of a need to paddle out to a wave and the elevation: for Mr. Routt, it’s 4,600 feet versus, well, sea level.

“It is up in the mountains, so the scenery on it is absolutely stunning,” Mr. Routt says. “The water is crystal clear.”

The views are interrupted only by occasional obscene gestures from fishermen. “They like perfectly calm water,” he says.

More than 1,000 miles south in Austin, Texas, Clint Smith and his fellow instructors at Shred Stixx Wakesurf School are booked for nearly the entire summer. People come from as far away as Canada and Japan and pay the company $125 an hour to wakesurf on Lake Austin, he says.

“There is a very defined surf culture in Austin, Texas,” even though it is landlocked, Mr. Smith says. “There’s a lot of southern California transplants.”

Two years ago, a local task force considered limiting some activities on Lake Austin, including wakesurfing, over concerns about shoreline erosion and public safety. The group let it continue, but Austin officials plan to undertake a study of the lake’s waves in 2017, says Chris Herrington, who manages the city’s water-resource evaluation.

In Idaho, letters from the state’s highest-ranking politicians opposed the boat limits.

“There’s nothing quite like surfing on a glassy Idaho lake with views of the Rocky Mountains all around,” Raúl Labrador, U.S. representative of Idaho’s first district, wrote in an email.

A spokesman for C.L. “Butch” Otter says the Idaho governor only has surfed on ocean waves but says wakesurfing looks like a “fun, healthy activity.”

Even with the Idaho victory, the wakesurfing boat lobby isn’t idling. The Water Sports Industry Association hired Clifford Goudey, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated consultant, to gather data.

He spent a recent week on lakes in Orlando, Fla., measuring the wakes of wakesurfing-type boats as they passed electronic sensors. Within a few months he will present findings to the WSIA about how wakesurfing boats affect shorelines, compared with factors like other boating activities and wind.

“We need to have our ducks in a row next time these boats are challenged,” Mr. Harrison, the Idaho boat-store manager, says.


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