By STEPHEN REGENOLD AUG. 17, 2007
THE surf was up on Lake Charlotte, a 255-acre blue gem among the farm fields west of Minneapolis, and Todd Zaugg was yelling at his son to get into the water: “All right, señor, you’re on!”
A little green wave curled from the lake’s chop. The sun was a yellow flare burning overhead.
“Hit it, giddyup!” yelled Taylor, Mr. Zaugg’s 15-year-old, who floated half-submerged, gripping a towrope. His surfboard bobbed crooked to shore.
A boat motor rumbled. A wake rose steep, four feet off the water, curling back at its break. Taylor popped up, the rope whipping tight. He pulled into the wake, one arm stiff and reaching for balance. Then he threw the rope toward a passenger in the back of the boat.
This is wakesurfing, a behind-the-boat sport that employs five-foot (or shorter) surfboards and specially weighted boats that create wakes that mimic an ocean wave. But unlike its cousin sport of wakeboarding — which is an amalgam of surfing and snowboarding that uses short, binding-equipped boards — wakesurfing avoids towropes once a rider is standing, relying instead on the hydrodynamics of an artificially created wave.
Wakeboarding has about three million participants in the United States, said Matt Hickman, the editor of WakeBoarding magazine in Winter Park, Fla. But wakesurfing is the newest trend among the wake-riding disciplines.
“People see wakesurfing and say: ‘Wow! I didn’t know you could do that,’ ” Mr. Hickman, 29, said. He said that wakesurfing, which lets riders coast rope-free behind a moving motorboat for five minutes or more, has gained enough momentum to warrant regular coverage in his magazine, which distributes 75,000 copies.
“There are several board companies now catering to wakesurfers,” Mr. Hickman added. “There’s a wakesurfing world championship every year now as well.” (For information, see www.worldwakesurfingchampionships.com.)
Like an ocean wave, the wake generated by a boat configured for wakesurfing creates a steep face between its peak and the flat water below. It curls over as it breaks farther away from the stern. Surfers ride in a window where the wake breaks behind the boat, cutting, slicing, smacking the lip, dipping back toward a small curling barrel, performing tricks like spins — all rope free.
Mr. Zaugg, a 1998 national kneeboarding champion from Independence, Minn., said the wake generated by his boat — a $50,000 Correct Craft Super Air Nautique — is like a perpetual wave. “You can ride for as long as your legs can take it,” he said. The average wake-wave is three to four feet tall; it trails from the transom on the back of the boat for 25 feet or so, jumping high off the stern, a glassy face propped up, then curling onto itself as it fades to a tail of unsurfable foam.
Lead weights and ballast bags filled with water are used in boats like Mr. Zaugg’s to tilt the hull enough to the right or left, creating an abrupt wake that makes the sport possible.
Because wakesurfing is practiced so close to the stern of a moving boat, outboard and inboard/outboard motors with exposed propellers are verboten. Wakesurfers instead employ inboard-motor boats, which have the propeller positioned beneath the stern and out of the way. “People could be seriously injured using the wrong type of boat,” Mr. Hickman said.
On Lake Charlotte, where Mr. Zaugg captained his boat on a recent Saturday, six surfers traded turns on the wake. It was hot and blurry-humid, the sun pinned dead above like a lamp on the lake.
Taylor surfed off and on for 20 minutes, alternatively nudging up near the stern of the boat, then drifting back 15 feet or more away, slicing into the wave’s ever-exploding curl. He flew off the surfboard a half-dozen times trying tricks, the board’s tip sinking, catching an edge, and sending Taylor flying. Once, Taylor cut too wide off the wake, causing the board to lose speed and sink.
Mr. Zaugg drove, peeking often at a big dashboard-mounted mirror to see his son surfing behind. All four passengers sat on the boat’s left bench, their collective body weight further leaning the craft to bolster the wake.
“You’ve got this wake thing down,” said Bob Englund, a 45-year-old carwash-equipment salesman who lives on the lake. He was admiring the glassy pyramid spiked up under Taylor’s board. “A perfect wave,” he said.
Mr. Englund’s daughter, Allysa, an 8-year-old, was up next. She gritted her teeth, fingers curled on the towrope handle, as Mr. Zaugg idled in the middle of the lake.
“Ready, sweetie pie?” the captain yelled back.
Allysa nodded, and the motor rumbled up its gears. She popped unto the surfboard, feet splayed wide, a lock of blond hair pressed over an eye.
“You’re good now,” Mr. Englund said, standing backward in the moving craft, an arm outstretched. “Throw the rope.”
She dropped the line, and her dad reeled it in.
Then Allysa was free, standing frozen on her board adjacent to the big wall of water, arms out and stiff for balance like limbs on a little oak.
Allysa trailed the moving craft for 30 seconds. She stared straight down at the circulating wake by her toes, the forces of physics, gravity and motion, buoyancy and speed, keeping her afloat and tethered mysteriously to a boat tootling on.
Mr. Englund, who once stacked small boulders in his boat to weight it slightly off-kilter for a wake, cheered for his daughter. “Ride it!” he yelled out.
Speakers mounted on Mr. Zaugg’s boat pumped bass from the main riff of a pseudo-rap by the band Cake. “He’s going the distance; he’s going for speeeeed. …”
The sun stuck, pegged high in the air. A tube of SPF 30 sunscreen was passed around the boat. Four more surfers were in line to ride, watching Allysa on her third session with the surfboard.
She took a final tumble, leaping from her stance as the board sank. Mr. Zaugg made a wide U-turn. Allysa crawled back into the boat, now idling, a huge grin and wide eyes. “That feels like you’re flying,” she said.