Surf City, Montana

Wakesurfing is riding a wave of popularity in the Flathead Valley

By Tristan Scott
Tyfini West wakesurfing on Echo Lake with Flathead Wakeboard Academy on July 29, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

ECHO LAKE – On a recent July morning, Drew Hollinger ferried his friends out to a silver-smooth patch of water on Echo Lake and, a few minutes later, offered tips as they took turns surfing an endless wave cresting off the back of his MasterCraft Xstar, a vessel specifically designed for the nascent sport of wakesurfing.

Hollinger, 26, is the founder of the Flathead Wakeboard Academy, but these days he spends more time coaching watersports enthusiasts interested in “wakesurfing,” a surfing-inspired offshoot of wakeboarding.

“It’s definitely taking up the majority of my business,” said Hollinger, his eyes glued to a convex rearview mirror, keeping an eye on Tyfini West, who is carving serpentine lines in the wave’s “sweet spot,” a trough that trails a few feet off the boat’s stern. “It’s the new sport.”

The sport’s provenance is debatable, beginning as early as the 1950s when surfers rode the wave created by a motorboat’s wake without the aid of a rope, more as a gimmick than an attempt at reinventing the sport.

But in the late 1980s an offshoot of waterskiing called “skurfing” emerged on lakes and rivers around the U.S. The same boat and tow-rope were used, but instead of water skis, riders would stand on small surfboards and carve the wake that waterskiers avoided.

In the past few years, wakesurfing has taken the watersports world by storm, and inland Montana, with its plethora of lakes and prominent water culture, is no exception.

“The Malibu Response, which is our premier ski boat, we don’t even keep it on the floor anymore,” Christy Lee, salesperson at Kalispell Marine, said. “We are just seeing more and more families coming in and wanting to surf, in all age brackets. Even the kids and older people who grew up skiing, they are turning to surfing.”

Surf-specific boats use hydraulic ballasts to create a larger wake, and as the sport grows innovative boat technology has been developed to cater to wakesurfing.

At Kalispell Marine, the Malibu Wakesetter features an option called Surf Gate, which allows surfers to instantly change the surf wake from side to side with the touch of a button in an evenly weighted boat.

At Flathead Wakeboard Academy, Hollinger coaches the full spectrum of ages and demographics.

“I’ve taught wakesurfing to kids as young as 5 and adults as old as 75,” Hollinger said. “The whole family can do it. There’s a lot less strain and stress than wakeboarding. It doesn’t hurt when you crash.”

Hollinger started coaching 12 years ago, at the age of 14, though he’d already been waterskiing and wakeboarding for a decade.

“I just grew up on the water and evolved from waterskiing to wakeboarding, but now wakesurfing is where it’s at,” he said.

Wakesurfing is similar to waterskiing, where the surfer starts out by sitting in the water holding the rope that’s attached to the boat. Once the boat starts, it accelerates to a speed of 12-15 miles per hour to create the perfect wake. At this point, the wakesurfer drops the rope and starts surfing the wave.

Blake Bell and his cousin, Lily Saxton, have been seeking out Hollinger’s coaching for the past six years, and now have their own boat equipped to accommodate both wakeboarding and wakesurfing.

Bell, who injured his ankle playing basketball, is unable to wakeboard, but surfing is a more gentle sport and it’s allowing him to stay active while he heals.

“That was the first time I’ve surfed all year, and it felt really good,” he said recently.

Wakesurfing boards are shorter than a traditional surfboard, with different styles varying between 3 and 5 feet. They are outfitted with fins and, although the rider’s feet aren’t strapped in numerous tricks are possible.

Hollinger’s boat comes with 2,400 pounds of ballast, 2,000 pounds of which he installed after-market.

Still, he says as the sport explodes and boat technology ramps up, he’s looking to invest in a newer boat designed for wakesurfing.

“The bulk of my business is coaching wakesurfing, so I need to keep up with the technology,” he said.

Hollinger says his location on Echo Lake is ideal because the water temperature is so warm and the surface glassy in the summers, making it easier for riders to focus on surfing.

Taylor Pilsch, 13, said she’s improved dramatically surfing on Hollinger’s boat, in part because he’s adept at making tiny adjustments to the wake.

“With Drew it’s just so easy. You don’t feel like you have to get up and go right into these crazy tricks, you can just surf.”

Tyfini West, 26, has her own boat, and demonstrated some wakesurfing tricks, which are influenced by other boardsports, like 360s, 720s and Ollies.

“As board and boat technology progresses, people are really pushing the sport at the professional level,” she said.

Check out Flathead Wakeboard Academy on Facebook, or online at www.flatheadwakeboardacademy.com

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