The History of Wakeboarding

Wakeboarding combines the techniques of skiing, surfing, and snowboarding into a sport to be performed on the surface of water. The rider uses the surface tension of the water to accomplish the sport. A wakeboarder can typically reach speeds of around eighteen to twenty-five miles per hour while being towed by a motorized watercraft. These speeds do depend on factors such as how large or small the board is or how much the rider weighs, and what kind of tricks the rider is doing as they are pulled by the watercraft. Some watercraft shouldn't really be used for wakeboarding, so some watercraft models might affect the speeds the rider reaches.

Wakeboarding is the fastest growing water-related sport worldwide, with nearly four million enjoying the sport just last year. In the extensive history of wakeboarding, there seems to be a little confusion about how the sport ever began. Some believe it may have started when surfers realized how awesome it felt to be towed behind a boat by a ski rope, but a lot of the history of wakeboarding is generally pretty muddled.

It appears that wakeboarding began in San Diego in 1985, right after skiboarding (snowboarding) arrived on the scene. A man named Tony Finn, known inaccurately as the founder of wakeboarding according to most all accounts of the history of wakeboarding, designed a board that he named a Skurfer. This new board took qualities from both water skis and surfboards to create the first wakeboard. Finn marketed his own board and generated a lot of enthusiasm and awareness about the new product, but it really took off when he met Herb O’Brien.

O’Brien owned his own company (H.O. Sports) that focused solely on the manufacturing of water skis. In the late eighties, Finn’s new sport caught O’Brien’s eye and led O’Brien to develop a refined version of Finn’s wakeboard. He called this new wakeboard the “Hyperlite,” and it was designed to be of neutral buoyancy. It allowed for easier takeoff in deep waters, which made it simple for even the most novice wakeboarders to participate in the sport. As soon as it hit the market, interest in wakeboarding sky-rocketed.

Another commonly retold tale of the history of wakeboarding takes us to an island called Krk where people began wakeboarding by the use of cables instead of motorized watercraft. Some even say that the sport has its roots in New Zealand or even Australia. These wakeboard were shaped like hands, designed to tow people behind watercraft.

In this tale from Australia, a man named Jeff Darby was given a “skurfboard” in Queensland, Australia to use with his friends. They started making their own versions of wakeboards, eventually finding themselves speaking with Tony Finn in San Diego. Jeff Darby, along with a few other people, received royalties from Finn’s model of their board, which Finn named the “Skurfer.” However, it seems multiple people simultaneously got the idea for this sport because, in 1983, a man named Howard Jacobs designed a board for the same purpose. He created many different wakeboards by attaching foot straps from windsurfing gear and some hydroslide pads to some old surfboards. He tested out his new boards in Florida (as soon as a year later, by most accounts).

And again, just a few years before Tony Finn started taking interest in wakeboarding, another Australian surfer named Bruce McKee started designing and mass producing wakeboards with his associate, Mitchell Ross. McKee and Ross were the first on the scene to mass-produce wakeboards; they changed the name of their first wakeboard several times. It was called the “McSki,” “SSS,” and the “Wake-Snake.” This wakeboard’s foot straps were adjustable, which made it convenient for riders, and had a concave tunnel on the bottom to help keep it afloat. It also had a keel fin for ease of control on the water. Side fins were added to either side a little later in order to grant the rider a firmer hold. Mitchell and Bruce received two grants (one in 1984 and another in 1985) for their adjustable foot strap technology.

McKee and Ross communicated with the USA Medalist Waterskis and wound up securing the first American manufacturing of wakeboards. It was called the “Surf-Ski” in America and it launched in 1984 during the IMTEC episode in Chicago, Illinois. It was there that McKee ran into Tony Finn, who went on to strike a deal with Jeff Darby from Australia and launching his own board in 1985. While Finn released the “Skurfer” line, a man named Jimmy Redmon designed and produced his own wakeboard. He named his brand the “Redline Designs." Later on, Finn and Redmon partnered up and created a new company called, “Liquid Force.” The wakeboards at that time were called “skurfboards,” but by the time Liquid Force came about, they started calling them “skiboards.”

So, even though Tony Finn is often credited with being the founder of wakeboarding, it’s more accurate to agree that Finn was the most visible advocate of wakeboarding during the time of its discovery. Wakeboarding was not intensely popular during that time but, when it did generate more widespread interest, Finn’s exhaustive promotion of his product caused him to become the “face of wakeboarding.” This is likely why the known history of wakeboarding attributes the invention of wakeboarding to him instead of the countless others involved during that time, such as Darby or Redmon.

Skurfboarding and skiboarding probably sound really weird to today’s generation. The term “wakeboarding” didn’t come about until a man named Paul Frasier started calling the water sport by the name. Both he and Murray Fraser, his brother, coined the new name of the sport in Vancouver, Canada with a professional snowboarder friend. Paul met up with Herb O’Brien with the new name and, by 1991, O’Brien began manufacturing and selling the Hyperlite wakeboard to consumers worldwide. It was the first compression-molded board on the market and the new method of manufacturing the wakeboards wound up completely redefining the entire water sport. This is when skiboarding became wakeboarding.

In 1989, an association dedicated to skiboarding was founded and so was a world championship, which launched in Hawaii. A man named Eric Perez competed to maintain his winning title in 1990, going up against another wakeboarder named Darin Shapiro. It was during this event in 1990, right before the major manufacturing of the Hyperlite began, that the wakeboard that turned the water sport on its head. Later on that year, they held the first United States National competition in Colorado Springs in Colorado state. It was held on Prospect Lake and hosted by a man named Tommy Phillips.

All through the early 1990s, wakeboarding competitions began cropping up all over the United States, shining the spotlight on many prominent wakeboarders in the process. The history of wakeboarding is murky and jumbled, but it certainly does not dilute the thrill of the sport.

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