How Wakeboarding Works

By: Sarah Winkler
Extreme Sports Image Gallery This high-flying action draws people of all ages to wakeboarding.  See more extreme sports pictures.
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You're standing on a small board while a powerboat pulls you gently through a serene lake. This calm, relaxing ride quickly changes into a breathtaking and exhilarating adventure. You clench the rope handle and swiftly turn into the wake of the boat, flipping 20 feet (6 meters) into the air and landing back in the water. This thrilling experience brings back seasoned wakeboarding veterans and attracts new adventurers to this increasingly popular water sport.

Wakeboarders leverage the wake of power boats to perform gravity-defying jumps and maneuvers. The wet and wild cousin of skateboarding, snowboarding, waterskiing and surfing, wakeboarding is one of the fastest-growing water sports in the world. Nearly three million people in the United States participate in wakeboarding [source: Regenold]. Four million people worldwide are wakeboarding enthusiasts [source: USA Wakeboard].


Wakeboarding came onto the scene in the 1980s when surfers started hitching rides on boats with a rope, similar to waterskiing. The wakeboarding craze caught on, and surfers began to design actual wakeboards. These new types of boards maintained balance and steadiness, increased speed and power, and produced larger waves while being pulled by a motorboat. By the 1990s, wakeboarding became a recognized extreme sport and it developed a culture which now includes specialized gear, television coverage, competitions and professional organizations.

Now let's learn all about the wakeboard.


The Wakeboard

This wakeboarder shows us just how to master the wakeboard.
Paul Kane/Stringer/Getty

The first wakeboard, the Skurfer developed by Tony Finn, was first marketed in 1985. Shaped like a surfboard, it had a pointed nose, rounded tail, and surfboard-like fin. The Skurfer took off in popularity, and others in the watersports industry began to take notice of this quickly growing sport. Herb O'Brien, owner of H.O. sports, a water ski manufacturer, designed a wakeboard called the Hyperlite. The design of this board made maneuvering easier and allowed the sport to become more accessible to all sorts of people.

Boards are now about five feet long and two feet wide at the center, with a blunt nose and tail. A fin or several fins allow them to be more easily maneuvered. Most wakeboards are made from fiberglass and graphite, and they feature bindings that are attached to the board to hold the boarder's feet. Most recently, manufacturers have included a twin-tipped design that allows for easiest movement in all directions.


While wakeboards may look alike, they vary greatly in performance. It's important to consider the pop a board can get, the edge it keeps, its landing ability, and maneuverability in the air, which we'll discuss later. When considering a wakeboard purchase, you should request to take a demo ride in order to find one that is right for you. You can buy a wakeboard at most boat, ski, and skateboard shops. In general, wakeboards range in price from just under $200 to around $800.

As you get the hang of things, you may also be interested in a ballast, or additional weight on the boat. This can make your wake -- the wave created behind the boat-- bigger. You'll probably also use a kicker -- a ramp you use to catch air, similar to a skateboard ramp.­

As you learn about the wakeboard, you'll want to know more of the lingo, too. When you hold the board in your hand, it's called a grab. When you bone out, your legs are fully straightened. Sometimes you'll case, which means you land directly on top of the wake. When the water is calm and smooth, it's called glass. If you fall on your wakeboard, you can say you bailed. Speaking of falling -- digger, faceplant, wipeout and stack all refer to a bad wreck. You may even do a butt check -- a sloppy landing, where your butt slaps or drags along the water. If you experience a bumpy or turbulent wake, you can call that a ­washy wake. You may be either a goofy foot -- if you ride with your right foot forward -- or a regular foot -- if you ride with your left foot forward.

Now that we know the basics of the wakeboard, let's take a ride.


Basic Wakeboarding Maneuvers

Once you master basic wakeboarding moves, you can also learn to do tricks like this.
Copyright© iStock/Julie Masson Deshaies

Wakeboarding is a fairly easy sport to learn, especially if you have surfing experience. It's a little different than waterskiing, however, because wakeboards travel at lowered speeds and different angles, which might challenge a person accustomed to waterskiing. Whatever your level of water sport experience, in only a few lessons, you can learn how to mount your board, develop skills in several wakeboarding positions and even attempt a jump.

First things first: Getting up onto your wakeboard might seem daunting to a beginner, but it's actually quite easy. Start by sitting with your knees bent, your arms straight, and the board perpendicular to the boat. Let the boat pull you up as it takes off. Once you're standing, maintain equal weight on both feet. Keep your head up and your shoulders in line with your hips.


Now that you're up on your board, you may want to try a few more moves. Two popular jumps are the roll and the flip. When you roll, you move end-over-end (edge-over-edge) -- either toeside-over-heelside or heelside-over-toeside. Toeside just means the side of the board closest to your toes and heelside means the side of the board closest to your heels. You take the wakeboard over your head end-over-end, landing in the same direction in which you started. When you flip, the tail -- the end of the board farthest from the boat -- moves over the tip (nose) -- the part of the board closest to the boat.

These two movements refer to the board itself, rather than the rider. In gymnastics terms, a roll is similar to a somersault as the board goes end over end. A flip is like a cartwheel as the board moves nose over tail.

Imagine what it feels like to flip like this!
Copyright© iStock/Keith Binns

Once you've mastered the two basic jumps, you'll want to increase the height you pop into the air from the wake. Pop or air refers to the amount of space between you and the water. The higher the jump, the more air you've got. The most important part of getting more air is the way you edge into the wake. Gradually increase your edge as you approach the wake. Then, jump off the top of the wake by extending your knees. You'll get more lift and more air.

A few other maneuvers include:

  • Tantrum: You approach the wake from the back and execute a back flip.
  • Temper tantrum: Double the fun of the tantrum; execute a double back roll.
  • Speedball: This is a double front roll.
  • Whirlybird: This is a back roll with a full 360 degree spin.
  • Raley: Once you hit the wake and extend your body, raise your feet and board above your head.
  • Fakie: When you're riding backward, switch the foot that you usually place in front. For example, if you ride with your left leg in front, switch to your right leg. This is also called a switch.
  • Roll-to-revert: Perform a roll, and land fakie.

When you first begin wakeboarding, it's generally a good idea to start with a boat speed of 20 mph (32 kph). This speed will allow you to develop control and will give you enough speed to get lift on jumps. As you develop confidence in your skills, you can build up speed to 23-24 mph (37-39 kph). Keep in mind your body size, rope length and comfort zone when you decide the speed of your boat.

Now that we've reviewed basic wakeboard maneuvers, let's try a new twist. Learn the physics of wakeboarding, and try a few more tricks.


Physics of Wakeboarding

Roll over, Sir Isaac Newton!
Simon Cross/Stringer/Getty

Before you learn to jump, it's helpful to understand some of the principles of physics that apply to wakeboarding:

  • The center of gravity is the average location of the weight of an object. Manipulating your center of gravity while wakeboarding affects the speed with which you enter a wake and the height you can jump. It can also change the angle of the board.
  • The buoyancy of the wakeboard is its ability to float and is related to its density. The water beneath the wakeboard is more dense than the wakeboard itself.
  • Surface tension causes water molecules to stick together in a cohesive sheet, affecting how a wake or wave stays together and how a wakeboard navigates a wake.
  • Newton's Third Law of Motion  explains that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As you lean back and bend your knees on the wakeboard, the angle of the board will change, increasing your speed as you approach your jump.

The two main forces that most influence the way a wakeboard moves are the resistance (drag) that the board encounters when moving through the water and the tension of your rope. Tension is a reaction force: It's directly related to how much force is applied to a rope. The harder you pull on a rope, the higher the tension and the more force the rope exerts on you. In order to keep your wakeboard afloat, you need the tension from the rope to counteract the pull of gravity and stop you from breaking through the water's surface tension. The rope's tension can also give you additional speed. If you lean back, causing the rope to stretch a little farther, you apply more force to the rope, and it simultaneously applies more force to you. You can use this force to get more power behind your tricks.


When you increase the amount of stretching, you increase the power of the tension's force. This is also called loading the line.

Growing in popularity throughout the world, wakeboarding draws thrillseekers for both fun and serious competition.
Paul Kane/Stringer/Getty

Now that you've got the science of wakeboarding under your belt, let's use it to jump off a wake. Lean back and toward the center of the board in order to lower your center of gravity. This motion increases the ropes tension and gives you some additional speed as you take off. A few feet before you hit the wake, slowly stand up. Bend your knees and slowly edge toward the wake while keeping the tension of the rope tight. Along with the tension of the rope, this motion helps you jump upward off the wake. The rope will pull you forward, also pulling up your center of gravity.

Next discover some great wakeboarding spots and who else out there's wakeboarding.


The Wakeboarding Lifestyle

Wakeboard enthusiasts like this one in Geneva, Switzerland, enjoy the thrill of the ride.
Copyright © iStock/Marcus Seidel

An offshoot of popular youth boarding sports such as skateboarding and surfing, wakeboarding promotes a sense of youthful camaraderie. Surfers developed this spinoff as a way to have fun on days when there were low waves. This constant search for adventure fits the wakeboarding lifestyle, which is about pushing the limits. While wakeboarding and water sports in general might conjure up images of bleached-blonde surfer dudes hanging out on beaches in the sun, wakeboarding is a serious sport that offers a variety of health benefits. Wakeboarding burns 350 calories per hour and also tones up arm, leg, abdominal and back muscles [source: Black].

In addition, wakeboarding appeals to a variety of ages. It's not unusual in wakeboarding circles for a 75-year-old man to take lessons or a grandfather to form a wakeboarding club. Although wakeboarding was created by youth, it attracts diverse groups of enthusiasts.


While some people wakeboard just for fun, others take it to another level. First held in Tahiti 1971, the World Cup sponsored by the International Water Ski Federation has evolved for more than thirty years to reflect the quickly developing popularity of waterskiing and wakeboarding. These days, the Waterski and Wakeboard World Cup brings together the world's top-ranked wakeboarders to compete at a variety of stops around the world. Competing in Russia, Singapore, Egypt, India, Qatar, and Malaysia -- which are just a few popular wakeboarding spots -- participants represent 19 countries. In order to participate, athletes must rank in the top 20 according to the International Water Ski Federation. The goal of the World Cup series is to bring the best water sport athletes to highly-populated, international urban environments to bring more exposure to these sports.

Although wakeboarding appeals to a broad range of people and offers many benefits to the body, it can be dangerous. A survey of 156 orthopedic surgeons and 86 wakeboarders revealed that 77 percent of wakeboarders sustained some sort of injury, the most common of which included ACL tears, ankle sprains or shoulder dislocations. [source: Carson].

Nonetheless, the wakeboarding craze seems here to stay. Wakeboarding has even spawned new sports like wakeskating, another popular and growing sport.

Are you ready to get in on the action? Follow the great links below for lots more information on how wakeboarding works.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "Andrea the Maverick Gaytan." Women's Sports & Fitness. March 2000,Vol. 3, Issue 3.
  • Black, Tina. "Wakeboarding." Women's Sports & Fitness. June 2000. Vol. 3, Issue 6.
  • Carson, William G., MD. "Wakeboarding Injuries." The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol. 32:164-173. 2004.
  • Christ, Mary. "Wake up!" Women's Sports & Fitness. July/August 1998. Vol.1, Issue 10.
  • Higgins, Matt. "On a Mission, and Rolling." New York Times. New York, NY. 26 July 2006, late ed.
  • Konrad, Walecia. "Wakeboarding." New York Times. New York, N.Y. 23 May, 2003.
  • ­Regenold­, Stephen. "Wakesurfing: Following the Boat without a Rope." New York Times. New York, NY. 17 August, 2006, late ed.
  • Rinehart, Robert. "'Babes' and Boards: Opportunities in New Millennium ­Sport?" Journal of Sport & Social Issues. 2005. Vol. 29, No. 3.
  • USA Wakeboard.
  • WakeWorld.
  • Winzelberg, David. "The Growing Lure of Wakeboarding." New York Times. New York, NY. 22 June 1997. late ed.