On a recent trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida I was lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t be surfing. Not for a lack of access to ocean or gulf, but for the insipid surf forecast for both coasts. A natural salt water surf session clearly was not to be in the cards.
So I was stoked when I arrived in Clearwater Beach and saw the sign for the Flowrider, which was housed inside one of those hokey wanna-be surf shops along the beach strand. Not that the option of riding a high speed sheet of water could ever outshine riding an ocean-borne wave, but what the hell, I figured it would make for some boarding fun. And after this miserable Winter of waves, that was just fine with me. Nevermind that notable surf-scribe Matt Warshaw once compared riding a Flowrider to “sex with a blow-up doll”, sometimes a down and dirty fix is needed, fake or not.
With 21 years of wave riding under my belt I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous at the idea of totally kooking out on this thing. The potential for that was very real–I’ve heard pro surfers talk about how hard it was to grasp riding one of these things. And I also recalled the Flowrider scene in Endless Summer II, where many body-slamming wipe outs were taken by well-known surfers.
In any case I was feeling intrepid, and also was relieved to find just one other surfer enjoying a stationary surfing session. And he was just 9 or 10 years old. The worker dude was the only other one inside the wave room, and he seemed to roll his eyes when I informed him of my “real” surfing experience while also pleading for his help in getting up and riding.
I started out by edging the board off of the lip of the front of the wave while holding on to the rookie rope, which was held by the worker dude. He slowly let out some slack until… Floosh, I was unceremoniously whipped upside down and whisked up and over the wave by the jet of water. And again, and again. This was turning out exactly how I hoped it wouldn’t. But I didn’t give up, even taking pointers from the young kid who was riding the thing fairly well. When I found out he was from Canada and had never surfed, my pride kicked in–after all it was I who should be schooling this youngun in the way of the wave.
The aha moment came a few attempts later. Lean way back on the back foot, worker dude said, almost like when stalling a “real” surfboard on an ocean wave. Riding a board about the size of a large skateboard, flotation wasn’t a factor in keeping upright and riding–it was all about keeping that small board from being sucked under the water flow. And I was up and riding, for about 1.3 seconds.
I kept at it and before long I had mastered standing there like a statue, gliding to the top of the wave and back down. Trying to engage the rail for a turn only had me being hucked off the machine in all sorts of contorted positions, as my whip-lashed neck would attest the next day. Yet like the mole in a whack-a-mole game I kept popping back up for more, determined to get some turns going and display at least a modicum of style. Who ever knew sex with a blow up doll could be so painful?
The session lasted 30 minutes, and by about the twenty minute mark I was starting to grow out of the training wheels, getting little turns going and enjoying the ride rather than feeling like I was in survival mode. And by the end of the session I was getting the feeling down, engaging the rail and carving turns across the sheet of water. Fun… Artificial, but fun.
Yeah, so what if this is the silicone toy equivalent in the surf world? Fun is where you find it, and when the Gulf of Mexico is guaranteed to be flat flat flat, a little chlorinated, manufactured fun is called for.