In those first devastating pages of Moby Dick, Herman Melville describes the longing of man for ‘the watery parts of the world’. He invites us to witness the poor suckers living in Manhattan who crowd the sea wall along Battery Park in the evenings to take the salt breezes and gaze out at the endless suck and flow of the sea.
That’s me; I can’t pass a body of water larger than a buffalo wallow without getting the itch to plunge in. If we peel back the onion skins of our consciousness even beyond the lizard brain, all the way back to the memory of the briny born single-celled organism from which we all started, it comes as no surprise that many of us long to be submerged. Water is our natural element where some of us feel soothed and others seek adventure.
As it is with many of the water-driven, I’m not content to simply get wet; I want waves, tides, strong currents and cataracts. I need a thing to do; whether that be a cliff to jump off of or a board to push into a building trough and ride. I understand those ancient Polynesians who spent days and weeks scraping and carving their Alia and if they had to pass it off as worship of the sea gods – then it was a small price to pay for spending the days half-naked, riding big waves.
Considering this yen of mine for watersports, I have no idea why it took so long for wakeboarding to register on my radar. Living at the edge of the jungle, between foothills and river bank, has its advantages, but staying current isn’t one of them. I count myself lucky that I found it when I did, before complete decrepitude takes hold and I’m reduced to the hammock for even more hours a day than I am now.
Wakeboarding has more where-did-it-originate-from stories than the X-men franchise. I suspect hydro freaks have been attaching themselves to the aft of boats with some kind of buoyant flat surface or another for as long as boats have been motorized. The modern incarnation of the sport, though, was spawned as a hybrid of surfing and waterskiing in the mid-80’s simultaneously when Californian Tony Finn and Texan Johnny Redmond, both surfers, in a case of parallel thinking began modifying boards to be pulled behind boats.
Those early boards would be similar to today’s wake surfboards: essentially, very short boards with no bindings. The wakeboard eventually changed shape and evolved complex binding systems through to the mid 90’s when it morphed into the air and trick-driven sport we know today. The big break, though, didn’t come for most until wakeboarding was paired with ‘cable parks’.
Cable parks have been existent in central Europe since the early sixties as a cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative to being pulled along by noisy, exhaust-spewing boats. Essentially, four tall towers with a motorized cable which maintains a steady speed of about 30 kilometers an hour, pulling up to ten people in loops around a man-made lake, these parks were the perfect next step for wakeboarding. Today’s cable parks include sliders, walls, and kickers (ramps) that bring street style and big air type skateboarding tricks onto the water
I went to my first cable park a couple years ago while taking kiteboarding lessons in Pran Buri and failing miserably at it. I thought my history of skateboarding and snowboarding was going to see me up and tweaking airs in no time but controlling the kite was more difficult than I could have imagined. There’s a small cable park nearby where I went for redemption, got on a board for the first time and immediately got up on the water and was gliding back and forth across the lake. Six months later I went to the now-defunct Lake Point in Ratchaburi; this was a first generation dinosaur – a four-tower system that tore the arms off of beginners in the corners. I punished myself for six hours that first day trying in vain to complete the circuit of the park and got hooked, making the hundred kilometer ride there at least once a week. When this place closed down my friends and I underwent a waking withdrawal, making due with occasional hits of boat waking until we found out about Zanook.
If you are a public transport troll or live on the west side of the big Mango, then Zanook is the easiest park to negotiate your way to. Twenty minutes from Bang Wa BTS station by taxi, Zanook is the newest cable park in Thailand and one of the only two counterclockwise systems in Asia. The park in Ban Bon 3 is set over 12.5 acres with a 730 square meter lake utilizing a modern, easier to negotiate, five-tower Rixen cable system.
Every Saturday for about four months now I wake up early, meet my boarding cohorts and make the two hour ride from Kanchanaburi to Ban Bon. We tear off the first 80 or 90 K’s of the trip at high speeds, burning off the Friday hangover until bogging down in the Nakhon Pathom traffic glut. The slow congested dance through Thonburi traffic with anticipation of a day’s waking brings out the road rage but control is important – you can’t ride with a broken leg or screwdriver stuck in your lung.
Board sports are infamously tribal. Surfers are known to cut strangers out of their local lineups. Skaters are portrayed as insolent post-adolescent toughs and snowboarders mock newbies mercilessly on the slopes.
At first sight, cable parks will seem to be inhabited by the same entitled shirtless, tattooed menace, but my experience has been that wakeboarders not only tolerate the uninitiated but also support them. On any given day at Zanook, a crew of tanned and lean muscled guys hang around the starting ramp, but instead of ignoring or bullying beginners there’s nothing but encouragement with everyone offering tips and cheers for those going through their first floundering runs.
It may be mostly young men but there’s always a smattering of women, boys and girls; some just starting, others who can already shred. On a Saturday afternoon, you’re likely to find a majority of foreigners (many aging skaters and snowboarders finding their adrenaline fix at the lake) while others wander in for their first whack at the game. Locals avoid the heat and light of the day but by four or five the Bangkokians start to crowd the platform. When the evening lights come on, the stars come out to play. It’s not uncommon to see locals pulling huge skeezers, fat chances, blind judges or even a suicide rally.
While the language of wakeboarding may sound like half smart gibberish, it doesn’t take an expert to appreciate the beauty of a really accomplished rider defying physics by popping their boards on and off the various angled and inverted objects or the effortlessness with which they use the force of the cable to propel themselves high into the air while contorting their bodies into discombobulating stunts and then landing with ease before launching into another feat of acrobatics. From the cafe seats, it all looks so easy, but it is not.
And that might be the reason the sport is so infectious. Though the first attempts can be intimidating and may be frustrating, each successful step towards fluency is an accomplishment that will keep you coming back. From the first successful start, to the first completion of the circuit, to finally pulling a 180 ollie and beyond is elating and if you have even a modicum of love for moving fast on water you’ll be there the next week.
Spending an afternoon at Zanook for the city folk must be like getting out into the country. From the park you can’t see any buildings or hear the sounds of traffic. There’s always a breeze cooling the air and the lake is almost fully surrounded by trees. Unlike most wake parks, Zanook has taken measures to entertain parents, friends and partners of non-wakers as well.
There is a small area in the lake marked off for the little ones to swim in and floating in the center of the lake is the only Aqua Park in Bangkok (think inflatable jumpy castle for adults soaked with water almost the size of city block). If the full body workout that is wakeboarding isn’t enough for you, Zanook also offers a Muay Thai training gym overlooking the park where instructors put supplicants through their kicking and punching paces. For those that just want to sit on their asses and watch boarders pull off spectacular moves and suffer big splashing slams, the Zummer cafe is a shady safe haven for those who’d rather spend their leisure time eating and drinking.
Thailand is the perfect place to learn and master wakeboarding as the climate is warm – or let’s say over warm – the year round and it’s cheap. At Zanook, four hours of waking with all the equipment is under a grand and with their new assistant manager and number one ranked Spanish master’s rider Raul Pereja instruction is free. In fact, waking prices are pretty competitive across the country with the biggest tourist spots being more expensive. I’ll throw another plus in there: of the four parks I’ve been to, I’ve yet to experience double pricing (take a note national park system).
I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to pull a scarecrow or the coveted rally to revert. Just as I don’t know how much longer these old bones will tolerate nollie starts and the bad slams from the big wave kicker but, god willing, long enough to complete a front side 360 grab. Until the body quits on me I see a long future of Saturdays at Zanook getting that adrenaline rush, learning to play with physics and pushing my limits.
Zanook Wake Park