- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
Turns out boats are optional in the wakeboard world.
All you really need is a private lake outfitted with a motorized cable system to tow you through smooth water. Or a day pass to the newest cable ski lake in the area, Quest ATX.
The idea isn’t new. At Texas Ski Ranch on Interstate 35 near New Braunfels, which opened a decade ago, wakeboarders zip around a man-made lake while sunbathers bask on lounge chairs at a land-locked beach. (Interestingly, Texas Ski Ranch recently added an artificial turf-covered mountain, too, so folks who like their water sports frozen can board without snow.)
At Quest, located on a 130-acre patch of countryside about 20 minutes southeast of downtown Austin, co-owners Earl and Laura Ball say they’re trying hard to keep an Austin vibe, with a rustic setting, local vendors and live local music. But it’s all about the water, so I dropped by to take the plunge.
After signing in at a computer kiosk and getting a wristband, I head down to the lake, where six metal towers support a moving cable. A couple of experts are zinging around the lake on wakeboards (which are either like pint-sized versions of surfboards or short, fat water skis, depending on your perspective). They’re flipping and twirling off eight different obstacles — wedge-shaped “kickers” that launch them high in the air and long narrow rails like those at a snowboard or skateboard park.
I watch the cable whirl around like a crazy merry-go-round. A white egret flaps by, and Animal, the resident Yorkie mix, charges down the shoreline, yapping at one of the suspended boarders.
“It’s great exercise,” Laura Ball says. “You’ll see. Tomorrow, not only your arms but your legs and stomach muscles will be sore.”
I tug on a helmet and snap a life jacket into place, then perch on the edge of the dock and freak out a little. The cable whirs at 20 miles per hour and can carry up to six riders at a time.
Earl Ball counts down to takeoff. I’m pulled up, stand momentarily, then face-plant into the water. I lurch about 100 yards down the lake on the second try, blow out on a corner the third time and, on the fourth attempt, finally make it all the way around the lake, whooping and hollering the entire way.
This is different than boarding behind a power boat. The tow rope, for one, comes from a much higher angle than one attached to a tower on a power boat. It’s faster around the corners. And if you cut the corner too short, like I did, you’ll get swung out like a pendulum — and likely lose it because you won’t be able to hang on when it comes back in. If (when) you fall, you can either swim back to the dock or swim to shore and walk back.
Still, it’s fun — and I can feel the burn in my abs.
This man-made swimming hole was built in the early 1990s by Bill Vaubel and Jerry Taylor, who were big into water skiing. Wakeboarding has eclipsed slalom skiing in popularity since then (but I’m still a die-hard slalom skier), and Ball, who has experience operating cable ski lakes in Florida and Australia, teamed up with Vaubel and Taylor to open Quest.
Runoff rainwater is used to fill the lake, but the owners have a permit to dig a well if it goes dry. So far, that hasn’t happened, although levels dropped perilously low last October, before floodwaters refilled the lake.
Most folks wakeboard, but the cable can also be used to pull water skiers or kneeboarders. Customers can bring their own gear or use the park’s stuff.
“On a quiet day you can go till your arms fall off,” Ball says.
That’s what some of the guys here, like 25-year-old Cody Johnson, are doing. He whizzes off some of the obstacles in the lake, demonstrating moves called nose presses and scarecrows.
“This brings down the cost for people who don’t have the resources to get a boat,” Johnson says.
At a picnic table near the dock, three customers are busily slathering on sunscreen. An energy drink in hand, Javier Serrano, 25, tells me he expects to fall down a few times. “It should be fun,” he says. Jay Veenendaal, 27, agrees. “I know I’m going to fall, but I expect to have fun and get a little sun.”
An hour later, it turns out that their friend, Vanessa Clute, 25, is the only one of the group who has made it all the way around the lake without falling. “It’s the turns that get you,” she says.
Eventually, Ball plans to add a concert venue, camping, mountain bike trails and a skateboard and BMX park. A 1.6-mile running trail already encircles the lake, and Ball hopes to add exercise stations, too. A summer camp for children ages 6 to 16 is planned this summer and there are weekly yoga classes — but, of course, no boats.