The popularity of wakeboarding and wakesurfing has continued to grow on southern waterways like Pickwick Lake. Once considered obscure activities that attracted only the most die-hard water enthusiasts, wakeboarding and wakesurfing have become two of the fastest growing water sports in the world.
Growing up near Pickwick Lake, just north of the Mississippi-Alabama state line in the Southwest section of Tennessee, waterskiing was a popular recreational activity. Getting an invite from friends whose families had boats was a treat and nourished my love for the water.
In the late 1950’s and ’60’s, southerners typically learned to waterski using two wooden skis, similar to the ones made famous by the team skiers at Cypress Gardens, Florida. Then came the transition to one, also known as slalom skiing. Ski’s made of fiberglass, carbon and graphite, eventually replaced wooden skis, giving the skier better feel and maneuverability on the water. Today you rarely see anyone using two skis and water skiing in general seems to have lost its luster. But don’t worry, wake sports are dominating the waterways and can be enjoyed by all ages.
History of Wakeboarding & Wakesurfing
How and where the two sports were born is difficult to pinpoint, but many trace the origins of both to when surfers asked powerboats for a tow.
Wakeboarding’s roots are traced to San Diego surfer Tony Finn, when in 1985 he introduced the “Skurfer,” a cross between a surfboard and a water ski. However, it was Herb O’Brien, of the famous O’Brien water skis to elevate the sport to new heights. H.O. Sports introduced the first compression-molded neutral-buoyancy wakeboard called the Hyperlite. According to USA Waterski, “The innovation led to a massive growth of the wakeboarding industry.”
Wakesurfing is thought to have begun around 1978 and uses what looks like a miniature surfboard. The surfer is pulled up by a short rope in front of the boats wake. When the surfer gets up and going, they drop of throw the rope in and are propelled by the wake created by the boat. Serious wakesurfer’s use powerboats manufactured by Malibu, Mastercraft, Ski Antique and Axis that have the ability to weight themselves with water to better create wakes with “energy,” giving the surfer a smoother wake to perform a variety of maneuvers. Parker, Arizona is home to the world wakesurfing championships.
Nick Longsworth, 49, a good friend and tennis buddy from Memphis has enjoyed water sports for years. He grew up waterskiing on the lakes near Memphis, so making the transition to wakeboarding and wakesurfing was a cinch.
“My dad was a sailboat enthusiast, so I’ve been on the water all my life,” noted Longsworth. “Dad bought a twenty-one foot Sea Ray when I was about 7 and I learned to ski on two before teaching myself to slalom. From there it was kneeboarding, barefoot skiing and now wakeboarding and surfing. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I attended Rawlins College in Florida and used one of the original skurfer’s. I actually made my own when I returned home.”
Once an activity many families could enjoy, the cost of water sports has dramatically increased. My first boat was a 21-foot Wellcraft with a small cutty cabin. I paid $6,700 the one-owner craft in 1988 and it was in excellent condition. Today a new Malibu from Memphis Boat Center is around $110,000 – $115,ooo new. When you add registration, insurance and operating expenses, the annual cost add up quickly. Fortunately, many boats today retain their value and long-term financing makes affording one possible.
Enrique Martinez, with Memphis Boat Center, spends most of his summer weekends at Pickwick Lake cruising on the company’s houseboat and their ski boat. It’s there he gets to know boaters from all walks of life – from the serious wake skiers to families cruising on pontoon boats, often referred to as “party barges.” Not only has water equipment evolved, but so have the boats. Martinez sees these advancements as “game changers.”
“Old school water skiers competed in three events; slalom, trick and jump competitions,” Martinez said. “When boats designed for skiing added more capacity and horsepower, guys figured out they could produce better wakes. Now more people are wakesurfing than wakeboarding. Water skiing is almost obsolete today.”
Serious skiers at Pickwick find their way to the narrow Tombigbee Waterway, a man-made channel designed to make barge traffic to the Gulf of Mexico more convenient.
The steep, rock-lined shores absorb the wake from boats, creating a smoother surface ideal for wakesurfing and wakeboarding.
“The Tombigbee is a wakesurfers paradise,” noted Martinez. “Plus, water activities give kids a chance to ‘put their phones down’ and enjoy outdoor time with their families.”
Drew Depriest, who owns All-Star Chevrolet in Olive Branch, MS, agrees and credits boating for giving his family more quality time together.
“When our two boys were young we had a deck boat, which was great for running around and tubing. Now that they’re teenagers, I knew I had to kick it up a notch if I wanted to keep them engaged enough to hang out with their parents. Upgrading to a Malibu LSV made the kids and their buddies excited about the lake. Their friends think we’re the ‘cool parents’ now.”
If you’re interested in learning more about boating and water sports on Pickwick or other area lakes, Martinez will be glad to answer your questions about boats, how to get started and even introduce take you for a test run. This weekend is the perfect time to hit the water.