- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
For those who want to surf but can’t find a wave to catch comes a new option — motorized surfboards.
Sound weird? Well, we’re Austin, landlocked surf capital of the universe.
We’ve already got NLand Surf Park, and head to the lake any hot summer weekend and you’ll find people surfing the wakes behind motorboats. Now, thanks to JetSurf Academy ATX, you can hop on a “surfboard” with a tiny gas-powered engine tucked inside it and zoom around the lake like someone from a water-themed episode of the Jetsons.
Think personal watercraft crossed with a wakeboard, add a hint of dirt-slinging, engine-buzzing motorbike, and you’ve got the idea. JetSurf boards — which look more like wakeboards than surfboards — can attain top speeds of 35 miles per hour.
Wakeboarders and water-skiers have to hold onto a tow rope attached to a boat. Wake surfers can let go of that rope, but they still have to stick close by because they catch the wave it kicks up. Jet surfers, though, are independent. They can go wherever they want, no boat needed.
“If you like water sports, it’s a combo of wakeboarding, wakesurfing, regular surfing and snowboarding — and throw in motocross because you have an engine with power,” says Kyle Ray, who recently opened JetSurf Academy ATX, where you can rent, buy and learn how to ride one.
I recently donned my bikini and life jacket and drove to Lake Travis so I could check out this latest alternative to driving to the Gulf Coast with a surfboard strapped to the roof of my car.
Ray, who operates a residential power washing business in Houston called Geek Home Services, moved to Austin two years ago. He heard about jet surfing, flew to Miami to visit the only JetSurf factory shop in the United States, tested one out, loved it, bought five and opened a business here in December. Now he’s out at Lake Travis every Thursday through Sunday showing people how to ride them.
“It’s just exhilarating,” he says. “You control how fast you go and where you want to go.”
JetSurf boards, which contain a hide-away removable gas tank and high-performance miniature engine, were developed in the Czech Republic in 2010. Four models are available, and they’re not cheap. Prices start at about $10,000, and racing versions will set you back more than $15,000.
A regular, non-motorized surfboard, on the other hand, can be had for $1,000 easy. (Of course, then you have to get the ocean and the waves, which might up your travel costs.)
The boards weigh about 30 pounds and are considered personal watercraft. That means you must be 18 or older to ride one.
When Jamie Naugle, a lead instructor for the academy, showed me how to fire up a motorized surfboard, it made me a little nervous. What if it got away from me? What if I face-planted? Could it run me over? Were there spinning blades ready to turn my shins into mincemeat?
Naugle jumped into the water while I stood on the dock. She inserted a magnetic “key” attached to a leash around her wrist into a hand-held throttle. After a five-second lag, the engine, which is encased inside the board and therefore can’t cut you, buzzed to life. She scooched belly-first onto it, stood up quickly, placing first her back foot, then her front foot, into the foot cups.
Voila — smooth, graceful and lickety-split, like a penguin popping out of the ocean and onto an iceberg. She zoomed around a cove near Anderson Mill Marina, cutting smooth arcs in the glassy water. Then she returned to the dock and stepped off into the water.
“Speed is your friend,” Ray told me. “The faster you go, the more it will plane out.”
I’ve tried surfing in an ocean exactly once, while on vacation in Hawaii. I’ve also surfed the manufactured pond at NLand Surf Park east of Austin twice. I love watersports, though, and water-ski, scuba dive and swim regularly.
I inserted the key, revved the throttle — and suddenly it stopped. I’d accidentally flooded the engine. Ray plopped a different board in front of me. I revved the engine and the board dragged me down the lake a little ways, like a dog with an old towel. I managed to lug myself onto the board, wobbling a lot. Still, I stayed on it for at least 10 seconds, until the board bucked me off like a horse with a burr under its blanket.
Naugle, following alongside on a Jet Ski, glided up to make sure I was OK. I was. After that, I had no trouble getting on the board and buzzing slowly around the cove. After 20 or 30 minutes, I could manage wide left-side turns. Right-side turns took more practice.
After a while Ray climbed on one of the boards and we whizzed around the cove together. He leaped over waves and kicked up a spray as he cut sharp turns. He and Naugle both want to go pro and compete in the MotoSurf World Cup, where racers are timed as they weave through a buoy-marked course.
My verdict? Fun stuff. No men in gray suits (sharks), no stinging jellyfish. But no wide open ocean, no waves and no luscious salt spray, either.
Just don’t think of it as surfing, and it makes a little more sense.