IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO. YOU WANT to try downhill skiing, but chairlifts don’t exist. How can you get to the top of the mountain to give this exciting sport a whirl? You have two choices: a Sno-Cat or a helicopter. Better pull out the pocketbook.
Fortunately for skiers, chairlifts have been around for awhile, and snowsports fans of all ages hit the slopes every season to practice the fundamentals, enjoy time with family and friends, and take their skill set to the next level. For watersports fans, however, barriers to access are a real concern. Perhaps you can’t afford to buy a boat right now, or even if you could, you don’t have a convenient place to launch — or a qualified posse to help drive and crew while you cavort in the wake.
Enter cable (waterski/wakeboard) parks, which use cable systems to pull riders across the water. Without boats to create the requisite wakes, riders use features such as kickers and rails to pull tricks. Modern cableway technology got its start (thanks to engineer Bruno Rixen) in the 1960s in Germany, which now boasts roughly 70 cable parks. The United States got its first cable park, Florida’s Ski Rixen, in 1983, and today has more than 25 nationwide.
“It’s kind of hard to grasp if you haven’t seen one,” said Noel Carter, owner of Wake Island Waterpark near Sacramento, Calif. “How would you have described a chairlift 100 years ago? People would have had no comprehension of how it worked, or how to get on and off. Ski resorts have been able to educate the public over decades, of course, while cable parks are still in their infancy. But all you have to do is watch a cable in action for five minutes, and it makes sense.”
A major advantage of a cable park is the easy access. Riders of all ages — from small children to senior citizens — can get a taste of the sport, and just maybe find themselves permanently hooked.
“Boating tends to be generational,” Carter observed. “If you didn’t grow up with it, it can be really intimidating, even if you have the money. A cable park provides the opportunity to try wakeboarding, and you may decide to invest in a boat down the road.”
A cable park can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, too, but operators are ready and willing to ensure a positive experience.
“We have a full-size cable for beginners,” said Theo Koester, assistant manager of the Orlando Watersports Complex in Florida. “You can go slower, there are toned-down features and there are fewer of them. People think they’ll have no chance to get going, then they find out how easy it is. That system is designed for one person. It feels similar to a boat pull, and you can stop anytime.”
Advanced riders, in contrast, use a cable system designed for six to eight riders at a time, and they can take advantage of many more features for tricks.
“People also are surprised at the positive feedback they receive in a cable park,” Koester added. “Operators are there to coach you step by step, and you’ll get input from other customers as well. It’s a very supportive environment.”
Beyond the minimal barriers to entry, another significant benefit is the opportunity to practice and improve your skills. In a cable park, everyone in your group will be able to enjoy the full experience.
“When you’re behind a boat, you’ll ride for a minute or two, try a trick and fall,” Carter said. “If you do that two or three times in a row, you’ll feel frustrated, as will the people on the boat who have to circle around again. But on a cable, everyone is happy. You can try the same trick 20 times in an hour, and all your friends and family members will be out there practicing too.”
And, a cable park allows you to progress in your training faster than you would behind a boat. As Carter observed, it’s like practicing in a batting cage versus learning to bat in a real ballgame.
“It’s the difference between riding for an hour in an entire day and riding for several hours,” Koester said. “When you’re doing laps and laps and laps, you can work on basic skills, and you can try something new, whether it’s a backside 180, an Ollie or a toe-side switch.”
“Cable parks are a great learning tool,” said Ryan Malone, director of operations for Aktion Parks, sister company to Nautique Boats and operator of the Orlando Watersports Complex and the new Miami Watersports Complex, which opened a year ago. “They’re critical for nailing the fundamentals.”
Both Koester and Malone said it’s not uncommon to see a longtime rider with plenty of boat experience get trumped by a 12-year-old. Quite simply, it’s easier to log riding hours with a cable than with a boat. But there’s good news for the boat lovers out there: At a cable park, you’ll be building your foundation for riding behind a boat later.
“Tricks like 360s off a kicker will transfer to the boat very well,” Koester said. “It’s not exact, but the muscle memory is similar.” “It’s not quite the same feel on the water,” Carter said, “but once you’re in the air, it’s the same. And for avid riders, the cable is a big deal, because you have the ability to train quicker and faster.”