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Flipping out

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


photo
[AP photo (1999)]
Tara Hamilton was last year's wakeboard champion.
Remember water skiing? Someone being pulled on one or two skis by a motorboat, bouncing gracefully over the wake, maybe spinning and soaring off a ramp? Or a pyramid of hunks and bathing beauties sweeping across the water, waving at your dad's 8mm movie camera?

How quaint.

Now get out of the way!

Wakeboarding, with its Mobius, Tootsie Roll, Hoochie Glide, Pete Rose, and countless other tricks, has left water skiing in its ... umm ... wake -- and this combination of surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and water skiing has been around barely a decade.

"The difference is the freedom," said Tara Hamilton, last year's wakeboard champion on the U.S. Pro Water Ski and Wakeboard Tour. "With (water) skiing there's only a certain amount of stuff you can do, but with wakeboarding we can do whatever we want on whatever course we feel like doing. We sort of create our own course.

"I water skied when I was like 2 years old but not since then," Hamilton said. "I mean, I waterskied every now and then because my dad was a pretty good water skier, but I sort of just did it now and then to make him happy."

This year's seven-top tour began last weekend in Orlando and continues Saturday and Sunday at Mills Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale.

Betty Bonifay of Lake Alfred, who water skied at Cypress Gardens for 25 years and whose sons Parks, 19, and Shane, 17, are champion wakeboarders, said comparing water skiing to wakeboarding is like comparing the Olympics to the X-Games. "Wakeboarding is very extreme. It's like snowboarding is to snow skiing, like skateboarding is to rollerskating. It's a huge jump in a sport that's been around for a long time. Wakeboarding has absolutely taken off."

The numbers back her up, said Steve Levine, owner of Tackle Shack Watersports at 7801 66th St. N in Pinellas Park. "My guess is that the percentage of water ski business in general that has switched to wakeboarding is probably in excess of 70-75 percent. In our store it's more like 85 percent."

The reason? There's just not that much to water skiing.

On conventional water skis, it's a matter of getting a ride behind the boat, maybe cutting from side to side. With slalom skiing it's doing cuts faster and wider. Trick skis make it easier to do a 180 (half turn), 360 (full turn), toehold (one foot on the ski, the other in a harness at the end of the tow rope), and jumps.

"Slalom, tricks and jumps, that's your classic water ski competition format," Levine said. "But that got so specialized that there were fewer people doing it, and probably fewer watching it as well."

Enter Tony Finn and Herb O'Brien.

"Surfers really started it," Bonifay said. "When the surf was flat and they wanted to do something they'd get a boat and a rope and surf the wake."

Surfboards have no footholds. In 1985 Finn, a San Diego surfer, shortened his board and attached foot straps. That was the birth of skurfing, or ski-boarding.

But the skurfer was still using just a shortened surfboard -- thick, narrow, made of molded plastic. In 1990 O'Brien, whose company made water skis, developed a thinner board made of compressed molded epoxy-Fiberglas. It was the prototype for today's wakeboard.

Boards vary in length, width, curvature, fin size and foot straps or boots. A shorter board with a bigger curve and smaller fin is better for quicker turns, flips and aerials; the longer, flatter board with a bigger fin is more stable, better for beginners. Board-and-boots packages run $300-1,000, plus $50-140 for a life vest.

Then there's wakeskating -- stakeboarding (minus the wheels) on water -- with its fakie ollies, melan grabs, kickflips, sliders ... but that's another story.

Wakeboarding sampler

MOBIUS: A flip with a 360-degree spin

TOOTSIE ROLL: Front flip with a blindside 180 twist

HOOCHIE GLIDE: Body parallel to the water, one hand on the rope handle, the other on the board

PETE ROSE: Backflip with a 360 passing the handle behind the back.

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