Carving through the water’s surface at a steady 11 miles per hour with a never-ending wave pushing you for as far as you want to ride—all while listening to music coming from the boat 10-plus feet away—you’ll understand the hype behind one of the fastest-growing water sports out there. You’re wakesurfing.
You’re still on a board, much like ocean surfing, but you’re certainly not paddling out to the wave. Instead, you’re getting a similar sensation from behind a boat, plowing you continuous waves, all personalized to your desires.
Unlike waterskiing, a wakesurfer is about 10–25 feet from the boat, close enough to listen to the same music and experience the same conversations as the people in the boat, all while posing for ample photos and videos. Filling your boat with likeminded friends only adds to the social aspects that wakesurfing and a day on a lake can provide. This is a large part of why wakesurfing has increased in popularity among water sports in the last 15 years.
In fact, interest in wakesurfing has exploded to the point that boat manufacturers are now crafting vessels designed specifically for the sport. “It is fun, it is accessible, you don’t have to be a highly skilled athlete, it applies to all age groups, and it is social,” Fred Brightbill, CEO of the luxury boat manufacturer MasterCraft and avid wakesurfer, tells Popular Mechanics. “It is not cheap, but it is unbelievably enjoyable.”
For a sport that started out with people simply adding weight to the end of ski boats to create a wave, wakesurfing has come a long way in a short amount of time. “It is continually evolving,” Brightbill says. “The key is you are out on the water and having fun.”
Where to Go for Your First Experience
As with many water sports, knowing someone with a boat is a massive first step. But even if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a wakesurfing friend or a pal with a boat, Brightbill says many experience centers, including from MasterCraft, offer demo days to teach people how to wakesurf and grasp the basics of the sport. Check with a local boat retailer to see where and when demo days are happening near you.
Understanding the Water
Like most activities on the water, the cleaner, deeper, and fresher the water, the better wakesurfing feels. “Nice, clean, deep water is the ideal, and I would say for surfing, if you get less than 12 feet, it will start impacting the wave,” Brightbill says. “It can’t be a mud puddle.”
Gear You’ll Need
• A Boat: Maybe it isn’t yours, but you need someone with a wakesurfing boat to give the sport a try. These boats are specially weighted and designed, and include added technology to shape waves (more on this later).
• A board: The board you start on likely won’t be the board you’re using as you get more experienced, so at the outset, focus on finding a board that suits your size and abilities. You can get into the details of how many fins you want, the thickness of the fins, the board’s buoyancy, and the board’s shape, but you likely won’t want to dive into the weeds until you’ve tried the sport out; keep things simple at first. Once you’ve plied your wakesurfing skills, you’ll have a better grasp of what kind of style you like—whether more akin to open-ocean surfing with plenty of carving, or a skim style meant for tricks. At that point, you can start to upgrade your board to match your progressing skills and burgeoning style.
• A personal floatation device: Having the right life jacket can help you wakesurf. Along with the obvious safety requirements, a quality PFD can make it easier to rotate up on the board.
• A rope: Select a solid rope and not one with elasticity, which can create a slingshot effect at the start. The solid rope is key for starting, but can be dropped as you surf the wake.
• A Swimsuit, sunscreen, and a hat: Of course, you’ll want to wear swim gear you’re comfortable in, and don’t forget the sunscreen and a hat for a full day on the water.
Styles of Wakesurfing
The two main styles of wakesurfing have different goals and, therefore, different boards. The ocean-surfing style generally appreciates speed; big, carved turns; and adding air. The skim-style wakesurfer uses a thinner board so they can easily complete spins. For this style, think of the tricks a skateboarder would use, employing flips, spins, and surfing forward or backward.
Understanding the Boat and Its Wake
A waterski boat is designed to throw no wake. A surf boat, well, is the opposite. Brightbill says a wakesurfing boat offers a bigger V in the hull to displace water, ballast in the form of fixed tanks or bags (or both), and wake-shaping devices under the hull.
MasterCraft created the first wakesurfing system in 2009, and came out with its second generation in 2013. The evolution has continued, integrating software on the boat with shaping devices so that wakesurfers can dial up their desired wave and save the settings, such as in its newly released SurfStar system.
With a boat generally running 10.5 miles per hour to 12.5 miles per hour, the shape of the hull and the weight of the ballast push a strong wake behind the boat. The wake-shaping devices—including actuator arms—customize the wake.
Depending on the skill and style, surfers want different kinds of waves. A beginner needs a wave strong enough to push them through the water, but not so large it overwhelms them. A skim-style surfer wants a wake that pushes them with a lot of area in terms of length and width, affording room to play, but they may not want a steep wave. An ocean-style surfer is likely going to want a bigger, steeper wave for carves and throwing spray.
The same boat can throw any of those waves through adjustment, Brightbill says. “We have the ability to change and texture the form of the wave with the ballast and displacement in the boat, the shape of the hull, and then our wave-shaping devices actually create an effect that amplifies the wave by the way it is diverted,” he says. “It cleans it up and shapes it, causing it to be magnified when it comes together.”
Wakesurfers will choose a side of the boat to surf—are you goofy or not?—based on their lead foot. A tab deploys from the underside of the boat to push down and send the wave from the non-surfed side to hit the wave on the surfed side, amplifying it and helping shape it. Brightbill says the J-shape of the wave created allows for a long transition, giving surfers abundant room to play on the wave, and then the hook catches them and pushes them back toward the wake if they fall out of the wave. “All those characteristics together and you’ve got more playground and more flexibility to do things,” he says.
The boat’s speed impacts the firmness of the wake. Depending on how big you are or the style of board you’re riding, you may adjust your speed accordingly. For example, a young child just learning is quite light and doesn’t need a lot of firmness or speed, so will surf at a slow end of the range. Speed lengthens the wave, but the faster you go, the mushier the wake becomes.
Tips for Beginners
- Brightbill says to take it easy and go slow when you’re just starting out. And getting someone knowledgeable to help you out can provide a massive benefit. “As with anything, there are easy ways to do it and some are hard,” he says. “Some people are naturals, but if I was teaching somebody, I would have two knowledgeable people: one who knows how to drive the boat, and one watching to help the surfer and give them immediate advice.”
- For that first time in the water, lay back like you’ve just tipped over in a chair. With your legs curved and feet perpendicular on top of the board, the board will plane at just three miles per hour and the pressure will tilt the board against your feet. Hold your arms out straight and high enough that you can look under the rope. As the boat starts moving, let yourself compress and rotate on top of the board, like being pulled out of an easy chair. “Don’t pull, just let it ease you up,” Brightbill says. Don’t muscle it or force it, think of it like snow skiing, where you need to go with the feel instead of trying to power your way up.
- Have an experienced driver, someone who understands how to ease a surfer up. In other forms of tow sports, faster acceleration is the norm. “You almost can’t go too slow in surfing when you get started,” Brightbill says. “You are really easing somebody up and then accelerating smoothly.” He says you should find someone who understands how to handle a boat, picking someone up from the water safely and getting the rope to them safely. “Handling the boat is an important element.”
Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. He covers stadiums, sneakers, gear, infrastructure, and more for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews have included sit-downs with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Tinker Hatfield in Portland.