Wake on the Wild Side

Forget the broken ribs, the bloody face-plants and the aching muscles. For pro rider Josh Sanders, the appeal of wakeboarding lies in always learning. MF ’s Tim Spicer finds out more.

For the unfamiliar, wakeboarding is like waterskiing behind a boat, but using a board instead of skis. For Aussie pro Josh Sanders, 30, wakeboarding is riding icebergs in Canada, hitting up monster waves in Teahupoo, Tahiti — and leaping off the Horizontal Falls in the Kimberley, WA.

Pushing the very limits of wakeboarding, Sanders was the first Australian rider to make it big on the world circuit, building an impressive reputation and taking the sport to new levels. Finishing in the world’s top 10, winning numerous big-air comps — and landing himself the Australian Pro Tour of Wakeboarding (APTW) Rider of the Year  award (2005) are among his accolades.

But riding is not without its risks. Sanders has broken his ribs and fingers more times than he can remember, busted joints in his shoulders, smashed his ankle — and had more concussions than your average NRL player. He also put his neck out prior to the MF interview. So where is the appeal?

“The lifestyle is awesome,” says Sanders. “But it’s the progression curve in wakeboarding that I like the most. You’re always learning something new.”

Josh’s father was a fisherman and his brother a surfer. After fishing trips, Josh would get towed behind his dad’s tinny while standing on his brother’s surfboard. His future was written — and his passion evolved into a professional wakeboarding career.

He now manages his own centre — The Wakeboard School — two hours south of Sydney in Nowra, NSW, where he runs wakeboard camps for anyone from beginners to advanced riders. But what exactly does it take to be a good wakeboarder?

FIT TO RIDE

 “You need to have strength and balance,” he says. “It’s a hard sport to train for, but no matter how fit you are, you go wakeboarding and the next day, you’ll be sore.”

When the boat starts towing the rider, it accelerates from neutral to around 36km/h (for pros, or 30km/h for beginners), so being pulled onto the surface of the water can feel like your arms are being ripped out of the sockets, and put the rest of your body under strain.

“You really feel it in your back,” says Josh. “Look at any wakeboarder and they’ll be cut in their back. At 16, I had really developed back muscles. You also feel it in your arms, down your triceps and through your legs.”

To accommodate this, he works really hard on his back, shoulders and arms — along with plenty of leg-strengthening and balance exercises. Squats, lunges, rowing, balance boards and deadlifts make up the bulk of his gym work. He also practises flips on a trampoline and goes wakeboarding every day.

“Physically, you shouldn’t wakeboard more than four sessions a day, or your muscles will be completely fatigued the following day,” he says. “I never ride the day before a competition.”

BEGINNERS’ GUIDE

For those looking to try wakeboarding for the first time, you can either choose a cable park — a cheaper alternative — or a centre that uses boats. Being towed behind a boat is a better learning experience, as the instructor can give you tips, it’s less embarrassing when you stack it — and it’s more fun having the boat’s wake (wave) to play on.

Generally, the hardest thing for beginners is getting up. (See Josh’s Tips For Getting Up.) Once up and running, you should keep your arms still. “The boat isn’t a horse,” says Josh. “So moving your arms won’t change its direction — it’ll just put you off balance. Keep the handle still.”

To change direction, look at where you want to go and point the nose of the board in that direction. Moving from left to right, you need to go out wide, then smoothly shift from heel- to toe-edge so the nose of the board is facing the boat.

Hold the handle low on your front hip, cut hard onto your toes and bring your chest up. You will now be facing away from the boat. Or flat on your face.

Finally, if you’re ready to havea crack at jumping, you need to cut hard on an edge (heel is probably best) and pull against the boat. Approach the wake (your ramp) crouching low and gathering as much speed as possible before hitting the wake with the board flat and launching into the air.

“Let it happen — don’t fight it,” says Josh. “You can’t physically jump 30 or 40 feet in the air. You have to use the resistance of the boat and push against it,” he says. “Pressure is the strongest tool you can have. You just need to know how to use it.”

JOSH’S TIPS FOR GETTING UP

1/Facing the boat, lie on your back and hold the handle in front of you.

2/Bring your knees to your chest and keep them bent. As the boat accelerates, allow it to pull you up onto the surface.

3/Let the boat do the work and keep your arms straight, so you don’t strain the muscles in your arms.

4/Remain in a kneeling position with both feet still facing forwards and your weight on your heels.

5/ Stand slowly and pull the handle down to your leading hip. This should naturally bring the front of the board around. You are now wakeboarding.